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Play the dirty air game!

Monday, January 14, 2008

postcard_final.jpgImagine you're a board member of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The Valley has the dirtiest air in California, including four of the 10 smoggiest cities in the country. Childhood asthma is epidemic. Educated workers, fearing for their families' health, are leaving or declining to move to the area.

Among the worst sources of dirty, dangerous air are smog-forming emissions from diesel trucks. Cleaner diesels are coming but 60,000 old trucks will remain on the roads for decades. Do you:

(a) Install advanced catalytic converters on older diesels, cutting emissions by 164 tons per day at a cost of $1.8 billion?

(b) Replace older diesels with cleaner ones as they become available, which will cut emissions by 192 tons a day at a cost of $18 billion?

(c) Ban all diesel trucks on days when smog exceeds safe levels, which will cut emissions by 237 tons a day – at a cost estimated only as "extreme?"

That's just one of the choices you'll make when you play "Fighting for Air," an online game from The Fresno Bee. The Bee, which has been dedicating considerable resources to crusading for clean air, has produced another ambitious, sophisticated and well-executed special report that examines the health and economic costs of air pollution from every imaginable angle. It's a remarkable package of stories, photos, videos, graphics and interactive features that shows just how complex the problem is, and how difficult to solve. (It also is an excellent example of how newspapers can use new media technology to do hard-hitting, public-service journalism online.)

The game challenges you to find cost-effective ways to remove, by 2012, more than 400 tons of smog-forming chemicals from the air each day – the amount needed for the region to meet federal clean-air standards. But you can only hit that target by choosing the strictest and most expensive control strategy for each emission source. (The air board has to worry about 100 kinds of sources; the game only makes you deal with 10.)

If you ban the use of diesels, farm equipment, construction vehicles, trains, portable engines, industrial furnaces, recreational boats and waste incinerators on smog-alert days, you'll get rid of 438 tons of pollution – but at a cost of more than $40 billion. And at each step along the way, you'll have to endure the wrath of farmers, builders, commuters, boat owners and everyone else who says they want clean air but don't want to have change their behavior to get it.

I don't think the Bee's game will replace Dragon Fable around my house, but it is eye-opening. How are we going to find the money to ensure that all of us can breathe safely? Not that I think clean air is too expensive – just the opposite. As numerous studies have shown, dirty air costs hundreds of millions of dollars a year in health care, sick days and school attendance and other hidden costs. Hard choices are part of the price, and we can pay it now or pay it later.