I’ve always had to stand up for my native New Jersey because it’s relentlessly maligned as the most polluted state in the U.S.

It may be true, but I’ll bet you that the entire north and central regions of NJ’s industrial zones, where yours truly grew up, ain’t got nothing on the smog and dirty air in the whole of Los Angeles.

L.A., unsurprisingly, made the top (or is it bottom?) 3 U.S. cities list this week for the American Lung Association’s pollution report card.

Aside from the Bakersfield and Fresno areas, as well, which also landed on the list, you might as well lump Ventura County in there, too, not because we’re near Los Angeles, but because of our unflattering “Bakersfield by the Sea” handle. Yes, the sea is just a veiled disguise hiding the pollution underneath.

A big fat “F” for pollution, particularly in smoggy, airborne ozone particles. The VC has the distinction of earning its failing grade for the past 11 years.

Yet, according to news reports, the county’s air pollution control district is quoted with the rationale that an “F” really isn’t an “F” after all. Huh?

“A lot of the problem is that the federal government made standards more stringent. What the ‘F’ doesn’t tell you is that air quality has continued to improve over time.” — APCD director Mike Villegas

Is it semantics, an interchangeable alphabet, or just the fact that letter grades don’t mean squat anymore? If the APCD is saying that an “F” really reflects an average healthy air quality grade of “C” or even a passable “D,” then why does the ALA keep flunking us?

The APCD chalks it up to the fact that transportation, weather and topography play a role. Where coastal areas get an ocean breeze to clear the air, inland areas like the Ojais and Simi Valleys of the county collect and trap smog. When you average it all together, you end up with a failing grade when, overall, the air really isn’t that bad to begin with.

Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reduce our vehicle emissions in our car-addicted county, par for the course in SB 375, the greenhouse gas bill. Maybe then, in a few years, our letter grade really will be a true, more respectable “C.”

You may cough all you like, but I will admit, we do get a bad rap for the air here … even though the Garden State, for all its flaws, sure sounds a lot more appealing than Bakersfield by the Sea.