(This article first appeared in the Sierra Club journal Sierra and is republished with permission.)
The late-June weekend heat wave comes on as predicted. By 10 a.m., it’s 90°F in a South Los Angeles parking lot where scores of local residents have gathered, lured by community leaders and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP). Over the hum of the crowd, speakers take the stage for this Green the Block workshop: community organizers, environmentalists, labor union leaders and local politicians, all talking about the changing climate, the sputtering economy and the need to use less energy. It’s important stuff, but not particularly riveting. Meanwhile, it keeps getting hotter. By the time Ron Nichols, the utility’s general manager, takes the stage, the sun has chased people under canopies at either side of the lot and the chairs in front of him are almost empty.
Nichols, a tall man with a dust of white hair and an aquiline profile, seems eager to connect with the audience. At first, the conversation and laughter threaten to drown out his message about energy waste and carbon dioxide emissions. But then he hits a riff that resonates, about how the utility’s energy efficiency program also includes free home retrofits and training for new electrical workers. “More than anything else, what we’re doing is putting jobs where we need them the most,” he says, smiling broadly and picking up the pace. “And with our home energy improvement program, we’re going to save you all money!”
Like the sax player in the back of the band who goes unnoticed until his solo, Nichols gets a robust round of applause, even a few whoops of appreciation. When he walks off the stage, several local matrons in flowery dresses and hats walk over to shake his hand.
The spectacle of the leader of the nation’s largest municipal utility working hard to engage the attention and respect of constituents in downtrodden neighborhoods is something new for the DWP. Founded in 1902, the utility doesn’t exactly have community outreach in its DNA. Its first superintendent, a dictatorial engineer named William Mulholland, secretly dumped huge amounts of city water into sewers to scare the public into supporting his effort to grab water rights to the Owens River. That attitude prevailed for most of the department’s history.
In the past few years, however, the tone has begun to change. These days, the DWP is actively enlisting residents and businesses in its efforts to move the city off coal-fired electricity and to reduce its dependence on imported water. It’s a new day.
How did an ossified utility come to link arms with activists and environmentalists for climate and economic justice? The transformation began nine years ago, when the Los Angeles City Council mandated that the utility, which relied on out-of-state coal for half of its electricity, acquire 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2017 (a goal later moved up to 2010). To fund the transition, the DWP proposed a 5.7 percent rate hike, which then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Coalition for Clean Air, supported. The Los Angeles City Council, however, unanimously decided that it was too steep. The conflict turned so bitter that at one point the DWP threatened to withhold from the city’s general fund $73 million of the roughly $200 million the utility brings in each year—an amount equal to the annual salaries of 1,000 city employees.
When Nichols took over in January 2011, the utility had burned through four general managers in three years. Even though the controversial rate increase had yet to go through, the American Customer Satisfaction Index still ranked the DWP as the 13th most hated company in America that year.
The debacle marked the modern nadir in the utility’s public esteem, but it created an opening for a coalition of environmentalists, labor unions and economic justice activists called RePower LA, which came together in 2010 as a project of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE. “We came to them with a very positive vision and big ideas,” says Jessica Goodheart, RePower LA’s director. “Our message was, if you’re going to raise people’s rates, you need to commit to energy efficiency programs that will keep their bills down. And you need to help the customers who have been struggling the most, including people on fixed incomes.”
The message resonated with environmental leaders, who had come to understand that talking about a transition to clean energy also necessitated talking about jobs. “We knew back then that it was insufficient to just say, ‘Let’s get rid of coal,'” says Evan Gillespie, associate regional campaign director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “We had to have a set of replacement solutions that we could hold up. LAANE’s values are core to the Club: equity, good jobs, clean energy.”
The search for a solution led LAANE to join forces with Brian D’Arcy, head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, who had spent years working to address unemployment in low-income communities as well as the accelerating attrition problem among electrical workers. Forty percent of the DWP’s union employees are at or near retirement age and their jobs can’t be easily filled.
Shawn McCloud, Local 18’s assistant business manager, explains that the electrical trade requires a lengthy apprenticeship. But as schools cut shop classes, teenagers aren’t emerging from high school with any foundation in electricity. “We didn’t have a source of new workers to draw from,” McCloud says. “We needed to go into the community and find them.”
The solution was the Utility Pre-Craft Training program, a collaboration between the union and the utility that took five years to develop. Worker-trainees must live in Los Angeles County and possess a driver’s license and a Social Security card. Other than that, McCloud says, “if you have a willingness in your heart to learn, we can train you.”
Worker-trainees, who range from teens to those in their 50s, earn $16 an hour plus benefits and go to work immediately, conducting audits to find where energy is being wasted in homes and local businesses. They also help weatherize buildings and install energy- and water-saving components, like motion sensors and low-flow toilets. At the same time, they train for potential careers with the utility.
The program is financed by a $9 million federal grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the federal stimulus program). In a separate program, households beneath a certain income threshold can also have their power-sucking refrigerators replaced with new energy efficient models. The work is done by trainees drawn from low-income areas of Los Angeles County, each accompanied by a journey-level technician.
To get the word out about all of these benefits, McCloud says, executives at the utility, environmentalists and labor leaders have had to go into the community “united as one.” That is, she notes delicately, “something different from what we’ve seen.” Relations between the utility, unions and new mayor Eric Garcetti have been rocky. But, says Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Resolve and until recently a DWP commissioner, “away from the headlines, there has been and will continue to be cooperation.” RePower LA, he says, “shows the way forward for a better ongoing relationship among everyone involved.”
“Does anything come for free?” Kokayi Kwa Jitahidi shouts to a cluster of people who are gathered at the Green the Block event. It’s hard to get people worked up about weather stripping in the attic, but Kwa Jitahidi turns energy efficiency into a matter of basic justice.
“Does anything come without a struggle, without a movement?”
“No!” the crowd yells back.
“We want to make sure you understand that,” he says. “There are people who believe that these services shouldn’t be available to people like us. There are people who don’t even believe in global warming. We want to make sure you know how much work it took to get these programs, because we’re going to have a lot more work to do.”
Kwa Jitahidi, 33, grew up in Long Beach, where diesel trucks and oil refineries chuff soot and exhaust. When he was little, so many of his friends had respiratory inhalers that he told his mother he wanted one too, just to fit in. When he was 10, he saw the body of a neighbor his age being taken out of his apartment on a stretcher. “He had an asthma attack, collapsed and died,” he remembers.
“I always felt very solid in my environmental identity, even though I didn’t associate myself with mainstream environmental organizations,” he continues. RePower LA fused his social justice goals with his environmental ones: “It’s a campaign that’s very consistent with the struggles that I’ve seen.”
If casting energy efficiency in such dramatic terms seems overheated, consider that 38 percent of Angelenos live in “real poverty,” defined as twice the federal poverty line of $11,000 a year. The unemployment rate in the neighborhood surrounding this parking lot has been close to 25 percent for years. Forget the economic downturn: People here never enjoyed the bubble that came before. A lower electricity bill may mean the difference between eating and going hungry; it may mean that kids can have lights on in the evening instead of doing homework by flashlight.
Energy efficiency may not be the glittery new green technology that will disrupt the energy market and painlessly solve climate change. The continued investment by the DWP in auditing and retrofitting buildings and in replacing old appliances may raise rates, as may the closing of fossil fuel plants and the construction of renewable infrastructure.
“People say, that’s a big bump-up on rates for the amount of [dirty] energy you’re avoiding,” Ron Nichols says. “But there’s a whole spectrum of job creation that comes out of energy efficiency. You need everything from someone to caulk windows and put in insulation to architects, designers and finance people. You need lower-skills jobs and higher-skills jobs.” And some of them you need to cultivate.
Acceptance in the Utility Pre-Craft Training program is only a matter of waiting. Prospective trainees come to Local 18quarterly to sign up. They retain their place in the queue as long as they show up every January, April, July and October 15. Those who forget lose their place, or get dropped altogether. Those who stay on the books eventually get a phone call.
Three and a half years ago, Abraham Hernandez, 23, was working for Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education, or SCOPE, a community activism nonprofit, doing seasonal election work. The organization was one of RePower LA’s first coalition partners and one day one of its organizers told Hernandez about a job opportunity with the DWP.
“She just told me to show up at 6 a.m. at Local 18 and sign up,” Hernandez says. “So that’s what I did. I got up at 5 a.m. and got there at 5:45. I saw a very big line of people waiting to sign this book. But I went ahead and waited in line and signed.” Hernandez, a 2008 graduate of William Howard Taft High School, lives with his parents. His older brother, Manuel, works as a full-time organizer for SCOPE. Their parents, immigrants from Mexico who speak little English, have been unable to find work, so the brothers support the family. Hernandez didn’t envision himself as an electrical worker—he’s a gifted visual artist and wants to be an architect—but the idea of on-the-job training in an actual, marketable skill was too good to pass up. He kept showing up each quarter at the union hall.
A year and a half went by. Then one April 15, Manuel called his brother and asked him if he’d remembered to sign in. He ran down to Local 18, but the office was already closed. He showed up the next morning to beg and a secretary finally let him sign. “It was a scary moment,” he says. “After that, I didn’t forget to sign again.”
Another year went by before Hernandez got the call. Soon after, he went to work weatherizing homes and small businesses. He learned to search buildings for places where cooled or heated air might leak. Now he’s working in high schools, making the lighting more efficient by installing motion sensors.
The utility also sends him to school for math classes and to study electricity. (Hernandez has already mastered the fine points of parallel circuits and Ohm’s law.) He’ll spend a few more months working the swing shift, 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., in the power side of the utility, then he’ll move on to the water side, where he’ll help patch up the city’s aging pipes.
After that, he’ll have a chance to take the civil service exam and apply for a regular union job with the utility.
The program is fundamentally altering the workforce culture at the DWP. “We had ‘silos’ in the power system,” says Mike Coia, the assistant general manager at the utility in charge of the trainees. “There were guys who did the distribution; other guys did the generation. There were engineers who didn’t even know we got our power from coal.” Now, he says, workers are getting the same education in the power system transition that the public gets.
RePower LA also helped shift priorities at the utility, where energy efficiency has never been big. “Four years ago, DWP’s energy efficiency program was almost entirely rebate-driven,” says the Sierra Club’s Gillespie. “You’d go out and buy a fridge and get a $50 rebate from DWP to get the energy efficient one. If you had a pool, there’d be a rebate to get a more efficient pool pump.” The program’s effectiveness was limited, he notes, by the fact that “not everyone in Los Angeles has a pool.” Or, for that matter, $1,000 to spend on a new refrigerator.
“It just wasn’t the dynamic and equitable program that we wanted to see,” Gillespie says. “There weren’t great services for low-income communities. There weren’t great services for renters. Not everyone in the business community had the opportunity to participate.”
Last year, the utility’s board of commissioners voted to double the DWP’s energy efficiency budget to $128 million. That ensures the health of the Utility Pre-Craft Training program well into the future. In the fall of 2012, the city council approved a rate increase of 11 percent over two years, a hike that won the hearty approval of Fred Pickel, the new independent ratepayer advocate the city council brought on to ensure that consumers’ money was well spent.
“The stimulus funding that we started the program with is gone,” Nichols says, “but it got us started. We learned from it, ran our first class with it and were able to carry on with ratepayer investments right where the federal dollars left off.” “It’s one of those examples of stimulus funding that worked the way it was supposed to,” Nichols says. “Which is heartwarming, because such programs don’t always have that outcome.”
Nichols is the first to admit that “innovative” and “government-owned utility” aren’t usually used together in the same sentence. He also knows that “there’s no such thing as a permanent general manager at DWP.” Mayor Garcetti ran on a promise to be tough on the utility and its union, a promise that he made good on during recent contract talks. But when he served on the city council, Garcetti also helped to bring together the RePower LA coalition. Everyone expects this rare alliance of labor, environmental groups and a once stodgy and remote public utility to survive—if only because it’s crucial to meeting the utility’s new mandate from the state to procure one-third of its power from clean sources by 2020. And Nichols has pledged that the DWP will produce 100 percent of its power without coal by 2025.
All involved believe they can meet those goals through a strong relationship between the DWP and the residents of Los Angeles. “What I see as we go into people’s homes and help them out is that people are now engaged with what we’re trying to do,” the utility’s Coia says. “It’s not just about a big corporation charging them more money for electricity. It’s about realizing that we’re all in this together.”
Video: Questions Surround Slow Exide Lead Clean-up
California allocated $176 million to test and clean 2,500 lead-threatened properties surrounding the closed Exide battery plant near downtown Los Angeles. To date only 335 parcels have been cleaned.
Did Disneyland Try to Sink a Bill Protecting Workers from Lead Poisoning?
Why would Disneyland, which hosts thousands of kids every day, be part of an effort to defeat a bill that simply requires reporting of blood-lead levels high enough to produce heart disease and serious brain disorders?
When Assemblyperson Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) learned about Capital & Main and USC’s Center for Health Journalism investigation into how hundreds of workers at the former Exide Battery Recycling Plant near downtown Los Angeles became victims of lead poisoning, he created a modest bill to try and ensure it wouldn’t happen again.
Among our report’s revelations was the fact that the California Department of Public Health was aware of thousands of troubling blood tests revealing high levels of lead, but failed to tell the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) about the problem.
Kalra’s bill, Assembly Bill 2963, requires that the Department of Health inform Cal/OSHA when workers have seriously elevated blood levels and Cal/OSHA performs inspections.
The bill has had clear sailing until now, easily passing in the Assembly Labor Committee in March and winning unanimous approval from Democrats on the Appropriations Committee last week. But as the worker-protection measure headed to a crucial floor vote this week, a coalition of industry groups, one of which includes the iconic Disneyland Resort, worked the halls of the Capitol to kill the bill. The lobbying effort nearly prevailed: AB 2963 passed by a single vote Wednesday evening and now faces what is certain to be a battle in the California state Senate.
So why would Disneyland, which hosts thousands of kids every day, be part of an effort to defeat a bill that simply requires reporting of blood-lead levels high enough to produce heart disease and serious brain disorders? A May 29 letter endorsed by 15 industry groups, including the Battery Council International, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Hotel and Lodging Association (which includes a Disneyland Resort vice president on its board) argues that California’s current system to protect employees, depending largely on voluntary compliance, is working just fine.
The letter states: “Perversely, AB 2963 would transform this existing well-functioning public health program into an enforcement program that creates an allegation of a serious violation where none exists in Cal/OSHA law and the workplace may not even be the source of exposure.”
The bill will be costly, the opposition letter also says, with an estimated price tag of $267,000 to implement and requiring Cal/OSHA to hire one or two additional inspectors.
“That’s a small price to pay” said Bill Allayaud, California Director of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group, which is trying to keep moderate Democrats from being swayed by the industry lobby.
“The California Chamber of Commerce and their allies are misrepresenting what the bill does and convincing industries like the hotel industry to lend their name to the fight, even though this bill would have zero impact on hotels,” Allayaud said. “The law focuses on workplaces where lead is in heavy use, like firing ranges and battery recycling facilities where workers are actually being impacted by a dangerous neurotoxin. Besides, I can’t imagine [that] parents who visit a resort like Disneyland would want their kids anywhere near lead if found at the levels that would have employees testing at the alarm bell level. Who wouldn’t want an OSHA inspection in that case?”
Suzi Brown, vice president of communications at Disneyland Resorts, said that the “California Lodging Association is just one organization that we are involved with. As you can imagine we are involved with many trade organizations.” Brown said that Disney vice president Elliot Mills, who sits on the association’s board, was not present for the vote to oppose AB 2963. “To somehow link Disney to this in a specific way is not accurate,” she added. “And to somehow position this that we are not concerned about worker safety is flawed as well.”
At the March California State Assembly Labor and Employment Committee hearing, Kalra introduced his bill by reading a letter from former Exide lead smelter Alvin Richardson (who struggles with lead poisoning symptoms we documented in our investigation) and his wife, LaShawn. “We read a recent investigative story, and it was very hurtful to learn that Cal/OSHA excused the high lead levels that Alvin and the other Exide workers were constantly exposed to,” the letter said. “People shouldn’t be treated like they are disposable. That’s not what America or California is supposed to be about.”
Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) was moved to vote yes. “My district’s right next to the Exide plant, and it’s had an impact on my community and my residents,” he said. “And if this is something that could have prevented what happened at Exide, we should have been doing this a while ago.”
AB 2963 needed Jones-Sawyer’s vote again on Wednesday to barely pass it out of the Assembly. Whether the bill makes it to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk is dependent on how well the arguments of the California Chamber of Commerce and other industry voices opposing the bill go over in the Senate.
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Critics Worry Proposition 70 Will Bring Back Budget Gridlock
Among other things, the ballot measure could endanger the bullet train, one of Governor Jerry Brown’s favorite projects, by giving Republicans a say over how cap-and-trade money is spent.
There are not as many propositions on the June ballot as usual, but none has fewer supporters than Proposition 70, a constitutional amendment calling for a one-time, two-thirds vote in 2024 to determine how the billions of dollars generated by California’s cap-and-trade program will be spent. That two-thirds vote requirement conjures up frustrating memories of the gridlock that occurred each year before past budgets were finally passed.
Supporters are a collection of strange bedfellows: Governor Jerry Brown, former Assembly GOP leader Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley), who crafted the amendment, and the state Chamber of Commerce. Opponents include the Democratic and Republican parties, every environmental group in the state and nearly every major newspaper.
Cap-and-trade requires that polluting companies buy permits allowing them to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Money from these permits now goes into the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), and the legislature decides by a simple majority vote on how to spend that money each year during budget negotiations.
If Prop. 70 passes, money from those permits would be deposited into a new state reserve fund starting in 2024, until each chamber in the legislature passes that one-time bill on a super majority vote that would decide how to spend the money. But once that bill passes, new money collected through cap-and-trade would once again go into the GGRF and again could be allocated on a simple majority vote.
Prop. 70 emerged from a compromise last year to extend cap-and-trade, California’s ambitious climate change program, until 2030. Brown has called climate change a “threat to organized human existence.” But some Democrats were skeptical of the extension and their support was shaky at best. Republicans were also looking at the program with wary eyes. Gov. Brown knew he would need Republican votes to extend the program, and decided it was time to deal. He enlisted Mayes to round up the needed GOP votes.
Brown sought the supermajority vote, when only a simple majority was required, as an insurance policy against unforeseen future legal challenges.
Prop. 70, however, could endanger the bullet train, one of Brown’s favorite projects, by giving Republicans a say over how cap-and-trade money is spent. By the end of 2016, about $800 million had been spent on the high-speed rail project. Given the GOP’s opposition to the train, it could strangle the project if their votes are needed in 2024 to provide a two-thirds majority to continue its subsidy.
Opponents of Prop. 70 say that it makes sense for cap-and-trade allocations to be reviewed, but that review should be done every year through the budget process on a simple majority vote. If passed, Prop. 70 could change the mix of cap-and-trade funding sent to state and local programs.
“We’ve seen other legislation where the two-thirds vote holds hostage money for disadvantaged communities,” says Strela Cervas, interim director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance. “This would be budget gridlock and backtracking.” Cervas worries that one major program benefiting from cap-and-trade investments, Transformative Climate Communities, could be starved of funds if Prop. 70 passes.
Bill Magavern, policy director of the Coalition for Clean Air, said that a two-thirds vote would lead to budget gridlock, regardless of the partisan composition of the legislature in 2024.
“For years we had budgets that were delayed. Since 2010, when we passed Prop. 25, which required a simple majority vote, we’ve have had balanced and on-time budgets. Brown’s success in getting his climate agenda passed is largely due to this.”
California’s major political parties oppose Prop. 70. With the exception of the Bakersfield Californian, all major newspapers have opposed it. The San Jose Mercury News called it a “colossal waste of voters’ time.” And the Los Angeles Times described it as a “pointless exercise.” The only institutional supporter of the ballot measure, the California Chamber of Commerce, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
So far there’s no evidence of big money backing Prop. 70. But Magavern said he isn’t complacent. “Our side definitely doesn’t have the money to fight this,” he said.
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BlueLA E-Vehicles Hit the Streets
With rates roughly equal to rideshare services like Lyft and Uber, BlueLA appears unlikely to make a significant dent in Angelenos’ travel habits anytime soon.
Last month a controversial French company and the Los Angeles Department of Transportation rolled out the blue-carpet at a full-launch party for BlueLA, an eco-friendly car-sharing service. BlueLA enjoys enthusiastic municipal backing for its mission of helping to ease L.A.’s desperate transportation woes with a fleet of electric cars and charging stations, initially targeting, LADOT says, some of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods. (A soft-launch of the L.A. program was unveiled last June.)
Although questions remain about the viability of BlueLA’s business model, on April 20 — while a DJ spun tunes under sunny skies on the L.A. Community College campus in East Hollywood, community organizers and environmental groups dispensed brochures, food trucks served lunch and reporters test-drove the nifty blue e-vehicles — local pols hailed the co-venture between LADOT and Blue Solutions, the parent company of BlueLA.
“BlueLA is making a difference,” said Sandy Berg, vice chair of the California Air Resources Board, which is granting $1.7 million of cap-and-trade regulation funds to the $10 million project. A statement from Mayor Eric Garcetti declared that the company would provide “underserved communities with an environmentally-friendly way to get around town—at an affordable price.”
BlueLA’s first seven stations are located at Los Angeles City College, Koreatown, MacArthur Park and downtown Los Angeles. The next round of stations will include Los Angeles Trade Technical College, Echo Park and Westlake. The program’s first phase aims to have 100 vehicles available in 40 locations, with subsequent expansions tripling the program’s reach by the end of 2021. A phone app allows users to locate and reserve available cars.
The pricing structure offers users a “Community” level subscription: one dollar per month and 15 cents per minute, provided the user is “low-income qualified,” with a total annual gross income of less than $31,550 for an individual. Proof requires pay stubs, tax returns or enrollment in Medicaid/Medi-Cal, SNAP or other public-assistance programs. At this level the second and third hours of any rental period are free, adding up to a cost of $9 for the first three hours, after which the 15-cent-per-minute rate applies.
A statement from Marie Bolloré, CEO of Blue Solutions, a division of the Paris-based Bolloré Group, which manufactures the Blue Cars and the e-vehicle’s battery, reiterated the goals of sustainability and “creating inclusive communities,” and saluted CARB and LADOT for “unwavering support” for their co-venture.
Yet it’s not all been a win-win for her company. The 30-year-old heiress to the Bolloré business, which dates back to 1822, and “director of the Electric Side of The Empire,” according to the French press, might not have known that less than a week later her father, Vincent Bolloré, would be arrested by French judicial police. The 66-year-old head of one of France’s richest conglomerates—counting Universal Music Group and a large tranche of French TV and film media companies among its diversified holdings, which yielded 18.3 billion euros in 2017 revenues—is the target of a bribery investigation involving the presidents of Togo and Guinea in West Africa, where the Bolloré Groups’ myriad interests in transport, palm oil plantations and shipping make it one of the continent’s biggest investors.
“That is about things that happened 10 years ago,” Blue Solutions managing director Christophe Arnaud told Capital & Main by phone about the senior Bolloré’s arrest. “It won’t affect our operations in L.A.”
Indeed, l’affaire Bolloré has not yet affected AutoLib’, the company’s 3,000-car rideshare service in Paris, or BlueIndy, the company’s three-year-old American test project in Indianapolis. But, even if the parent company’s distant troubles don’t impact the rollout of BlueLA on the streets of Los Angeles, other factors present daunting challenges to the car-share venture’s success here.
BlueLA is not expected to turn a profit for 12 to 13 years, says Arnaud, describing it as a “long-term investment.” The business plan envisions revenue, beyond customer subscriptions, coming from three main sources: the offering of its charging stations to other e-vehicles; advertising on the sides of Blue Cars; and selling the car batteries’ stored juice back into the grid. Arnaud admitted, however, that for the scheme to pay off, BlueLA’s infrastructure will have to scale up quickly.
With rates roughly equal to rideshare services like Lyft and Uber, and competition from rapidly expanding bike-share services around the city, as well as other share-ventures such as Santa Monica-based Bird electric scooters, BlueLA appears unlikely to make a significant dent in Angelenos’ travel habits anytime soon.
As for the idea of servicing the EV community, BlueLA’s charging stations do not currently accommodate other e-vehicles, nor are the Blue Cars compatible with any of the city’s existing charging stations, despite the fact that Los Angeles is one of the country’s top 10 EV cities, according to a recent study by Indiana University, with more than 1,200 plug-ins within 10 miles around the city.
The car’s solid-state lithium battery has its pluses—such as “no cobalt,” Arnaud emphasized, referring to the rare-earth element that is often mined under conflict conditions for other batteries—but faces overwhelming competition from Tesla and other battery manufacturers. Also, outside of sunny California, the Blue Solutions battery must be kept plugged in and warmed above a certain temperature.
Still, a quick spin around L.A.’s Mid City neighborhood in a BlueCar was easy, with radio and AC functioning on a recent hot day, built-in GPS guiding my way and pretty good acceleration, although I wouldn’t take it on the Santa Monica Freeway. Want to practice your French? Tap the Help button; it connects to customer service in France. But don’t forget the nine-hour time difference. “It is two in the morning!” said the voice with a touch of Parisian impatience, as I rounded the corner of Melrose and Vermont avenues.
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EPA’s Scrapping of Fuel Efficiency Standards Sets Up Fight With California
Based on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s public statements, clean-air advocates fear that federal fuel-economy standards for automobiles are likely to be lowered.
The Trump administration signaled Monday that it would lower vehicle fuel economy standards, a move that would undermine one of former President Barack Obama’s major efforts to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it would re-examine the Obama administration’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard of achieving an average 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light duty vehicles by 2025. That target was reached in a compromise between the Obama administration and the auto industry. Trump’s EPA isn’t calling for a specific new CAFE average, but based on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s public statements, the standards are likely to be lowered.
In 2009, via a special provision in the Clean Air Act, California was granted a waiver to enact tougher controls on greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA could be setting up a new battle between California and the federal government if the agency tries to revoke that waiver.
California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) developed an Advanced Clean Cars program, including mandates to reduce greenhouse gases and smog-forming contaminants from vehicles. Cutting vehicle emissions is a key part of California’s goal of slashing carbon emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia also follow California’s more stringent rules.
Pruitt had been a zealous defender of states’ rights when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, but he may not be that staunch a supporter of those rights in California’s actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although EPA’s Monday decision did not mention California’s waiver, Pruitt’s public statements suggest that the EPA will make it harder for California to justify its own standards. On Monday Pruitt said, “Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country.” He also said he looks forward to “partnering with all states, including California, as we work to finalize that standard.”
“Historically the EPA has said that California has compelling reasons, meaning it [has] worse air quality, for enacting stricter rules,” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School. “The federal government could put a higher burden on California to prove it deserves a waiver, or it could simply say, as the Bush administration did, that California doesn’t deserve a waiver.”
Governor Jerry Brown slammed the EPA’s decision as a “cynical and meretricious abuse of power.” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has said he will sue the EPA over any attempt to weaken vehicle fuel efficiency standards.
Clean energy advocates say relaxing vehicle efficiency rules could put the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage worldwide. Developing more electric and hybrid vehicles is critical for companies to reach the corporate average fuel economy standard set during the Obama administration. Two automakers, Ford and Honda, have signaled that they’re not on board with attempts to weaken standards. Volvo, for its part, has pledged to offer multiple electric vehicles in the 2020 model year. China is already claiming leadership in electric and hybrid vehicles.
“Possibly a transition to alternative fuel vehicles will happen without regulation, and there’s already a movement in that direction,” Hecht said. “But the most effective way to make change happen faster, whether it’s by adding airbags or even seatbelts, is through regulation.”
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Residents and Lawmakers Renew Push to Close Aliso Canyon Gas Facility
Residents and activists acknowledge that action on closing Aliso Canyon may not come until a new governor takes office next year.
Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) invented shortages to justify using the troubled Aliso Canyon storage facility, the site of the October 2015 blowout that forced nearby residents from their homes for months, residents and lawmakers have charged. The blowout, caused by a ruptured well, sent more than 100,000 metric tons of natural gas into the atmosphere and resulted in a four-month-long leak.
Governor Jerry Brown allowed the utility to inject gas into the facility last summer despite objections from nearby residents, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles Unified School District and local lawmakers. Brown, who has the authority to shut down gas storage facilities, recommended Aliso Canyon be closed in 10 years. Residents, however, say Brown is kicking the can down the road, and they have stepped up pressure on local officials to urge the governor to close it.
Stern letter about a “contrived emergency”
State Sen. Henry Stern (D-Canoga Park) slammed regulators for allowing SoCalGas to make withdrawals from the partially idled Aliso Canyon storage field, which he said “exacerbates the ongoing risk to ratepayers and residents without any evidentiary basis or public hearing.”
The Aliso Withdrawal Protocol, approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), stipulated that the storage field could not be used unless SoCalGas can demonstrate that it is withdrawing gas as a last resort and that there was an “imminent risk” that the region’s electricity would be curtailed without additional gas supply.
In a March 5 letter to the CPUC, Stern said SoCalGas didn’t meet those criteria this winter, and that expanded use of Aliso was authorized without public comment. He also accused the company of mismanaging its gas pipeline system to justify keeping Aliso operating, citing three major gas importing pipelines that the company took offline for unplanned maintenance before peak winter demand.
“A contrived emergency, justified by an opaque, self-interested rationale by SoCalGas, is no emergency at all,” Stern wrote.
Stern also raised concerns about ongoing risks at the facility, noting that seismic and fire safety reviews still have not been completed and that the root cause analysis of the 2015 blowout has not been finished.
In a letter responding to Stern, the CPUC said SoCalGas’ injection of gas was “consistent with the withdrawal protocol’s requirement that Aliso Canyon be used as an asset of last resort.”
Chris Gilbride, a spokesman for Sempra Energy, the parent company of SoCalGas, told Capital & Main in an email that Aliso Canyon is needed to meet winter demand.
“The more we rely on our three other storage fields to support peaks in demand, the more likely withdrawals from Aliso Canyon become necessary to prevent service interruptions to customers,” Gilbride wrote.
Alexandra Nagy, Southern California organizer with Food and Water Watch, said responses from CPUC and Sempra didn’t address all of Stern’s concerns.
“They didn’t justify why these pipelines are still offline or explain what the hourly peak demands were and how other mitigation measures were deployed to prevent withdrawals or any other mention of conservation measures used to lower demand,” Nagy said.
Report says Aliso Canyon still poses risks
The nonpartisan California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) released a three-part study in January examining whether underground natural-gas facilities pose a risk to safety, health and the environment, whether natural gas storage is needed through 2020 and whether such facilities were in line with the state’s climate policies. Researchers said tighter regulations implemented in 2018 would make all facilities safer, but in an assessment of all California natural gas storage facilities, researchers found that Aliso Canyon has many serious risks, including danger to the health of facility workers.
CCST researchers also noted that it is unclear what chemicals residents have been exposed to because SoCalGas has not released a list of the compounds released in the blowout. But posts on the Save Porter Ranch Facebook page, started by residents in the community closest to the facility, routinely note headaches, nausea, dizziness, nosebleeds and other health problems residents suffered long after the leaking well was capped in February 2016.
Several residents said they noticed an increase in symptoms during the recent gas withdrawals this winter. Local physician Dr. Jeffrey Nordella released the findings last October of his independent toxins study on more than 100 patients living near Aliso Canyon and found that many had above average levels of the carcinogens styrene and ethylbenzene in their hair.
Most recently residents have taken aim at Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, urging them to demand that Brown close Aliso Canyon permanently and immediately. Barger, despite her previous efforts to block limited injections at some of the wells at Aliso Canyon, appears to be backing off from her goal of closing the facility right away.
Jarrod Degonia, Barger’s senior field deputy for the San Fernando Valley, told Capital & Main that Barger was awaiting the results of three studies before demanding the shutdown: a CPUC-led energy reliability study; a report on the health effects of the blowout and leak; and an analysis of the root cause of the blowout, by Blade Energy Partners, an independent consulting firm hired by the CPUC. Begonia said that Barger is still opposed to withdrawals and injections of gas at Aliso, even though she was denied a restraining order last year to stop them, and that she is “actively trying to obtain more money for a long-term health study.”
Residents and activists acknowledge that action on closing Aliso Canyon may not come until a new governor takes office in January. Two Democratic candidates for governor, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin have said the facility should be shut down now. Newsom stressed his intention to shut down Aliso in a video.
Food and Water Watch’s Nagy said proponents of shutting down Aliso “want to maintain urgency and not let Jerry Brown off the hook.”
Copyright Capital & Main
Diablo in the Details: Who Will Shoulder the Costs of a Nuclear Power Plant Shutdown?
Built atop an earthquake fault on an idyllic California sea cliff, the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant has hardly gone a day in its history without stirring controversy.
The agreement was lauded as historic. Environmental groups, labor and the state’s largest electrical utility had come together in the summer of 2016 and crafted a joint proposal to shutter California’s last nuclear power plant. For the enviros, who had opposed the plant since the San Francisco-based utility Pacific Gas & Electric first proposed it more than a half century ago, there would be the promise of clean energy to replace the plant’s annual 18,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity, supplying three million homes — 20 percent of PG&E’s service area — with energy free of greenhouse gases. For labor, represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, there would be ample funds to retain skilled workers, and retrain the ones losing their jobs.
There was even $85 million in “community impact mitigation” funds for the local community to offset lost property taxes and other costs to the local economy.
With this agreement the utility would finally secure the California Public Utilities Commission’s approval to unplug and dismantle Diablo Canyon’s two units when their federal licenses expire in 2024 and 2025.
The approval to unplug, at least, was granted. An administrative law judge with the utilities commission responded to the joint proposal with a proposed decision, authorizing the utility to take the Diablo Canyon facility off the grid six years from now. But the revised proposal denied PG&E the $1.76 billion it had requested for the suite of benefits in the joint proposal. Instead, it authorized the utility to recover from its customers exactly $241.2 million for costs associated with the plant’s retirement. It shifted the responsibility for community impacts to the legislature, and punted the issue of replacement power to the utility. And it cut what was a proposed $363.4 million to retain and retrain workers by more than a third.
On January 11, the commissioners adopted a final decision that made only modest changes to the proposed decision as written by the administrative law judge.
Peter Miller, western energy project director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says his organization was disappointed with the cuts. “We’d struck a great deal with the labor union on Diablo Canyon,” he says. Retiring a nuclear plant is, in terms of economic consequences, the same as powering down a coal plant. Avila Beach, where the plant sits, is a company town, organized around a “big, old power plant that doesn’t fit the modern grid,” Miller says. “Instead of just turning the key and abandoning the plant, the town and the workers, we wanted to find a more collaborative way to retire the plant and jumpstart the replacement process.”
The joint proposal had also been crafted to avoid what happened at the San Onofre plant in 2013, when cracks in a new steam generator’s tubing caused the plant to shut down suddenly and permanently. All but 400 of the plant’s 2,200 or so workers lost their jobs, and Southern California Edison, the plant’s major owner, replaced much of the nuclear plant’s emissions-free generation with polluting natural gas.
On March 16, State Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo) announced SB 1090, a bill that would require the commission to restore certain elements of the joint proposal, including the full funding for workers. The law also stipulates that clean energy must replace what the nuclear plant produced. Monning’s bill will also allow PG&E to bill customers for the proposal’s original $85 million to soften the blow to the community when the plant shuts down.
“San Luis Obispo County agreed to house the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, which provides power to more than three million people and benefits Californians despite the negative repercussions,” Monning said in a statement. “The County and its residents deserve to be compensated for the impacts they will incur when the plant shuts down.”
But do they? Matthew Freedman, a staff attorney with The Utility Reform Network (TURN), warns that it’s not PG&E shareholders paying the costs of the plant’s retirement. The utility will recover the costs in customers’ bills. He worries that what he calls Monning’s “end run” around the utilities commission’s decision could set an expensive precedent for any community with a power plant nearing the end of its natural life.
“We’re sensitive to the fact that communities have been reliant on Diablo Canyon for employment and revenue,” he says. But there was never any expectation that the plant was going to operate beyond the end of its current license. The costs of an aging nuclear plant, combined with competition from natural gas, rooftop solar and rapid gains in energy efficiency, mean that the electricity once touted as “too cheap to meter” will soon be too costly to produce. “That’s been known for decades,” Freedman says.
If SB 1090 passes, “it will embolden every community where a power plant is closing to have their representative run a bill in the legislature to get a chunk of money on everyone else’s dime,” Freedman says. He notes that the Orange County communities around San Onofre didn’t get a payout when that plant shutdown. “Perhaps,” Freedman says, “this will give them ideas.”
Built near an earthquake fault on an idyllic California sea cliff, the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant has hardly gone a day in its history without stirring controversy. Pacific Gas & Electric announced plans to build it in 1963, but more than 20 years passed before it went into service, thanks in part to organized opposition to the plant during a time when people in the U.S. had ecology on the brain. Mothers for Peace, founded in 1969 to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, shifted its energies in 1973 full time to stopping the construction of Diablo Canyon; a group called the Abalone Alliance formed in 1977 specifically to oppose the plant. Their members pored over legal and technical documents, dragged PG&E through lawsuits, and when that didn’t work, chained themselves to fences to stop machinery. Jackson Browne was arrested for his part in the protests in 1981; Jerry Brown, California’s governor then as now, vowed to do everything in his power to shut the project down.
Plant opponents were not without cause. In 1971, oil company surveyors had discovered an offshore fault sufficiently long to produce a 7.5 magnitude earthquake less than three-and-a-half miles from the site of the two reactors under construction. As Diablo Canyon had only been designed to withstand a magnitude 6.75 quake, PG&E was forced to redesign the plant to a higher seismic standard. As late as 1981, under pressure from activists, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was suspending PG&E’s license to test and operate the plant until it could pass several seismic tests. The delays were expensive. When Diablo Canyon’s first reactor finally went online in 1985, PG&E customers were on the hook for $5.8 billion in construction costs, roughly $5.2 billion more than the original 1968 estimate.
Pacific Gas & Electric has been recovering those costs, along with any other capital expenditures, via its customers’ bills since the start of the plant’s life. Matthew Freedman doesn’t think the utility should be able to tack more on at the end. “PG&E loves to provide money collected from ratepayers and act like they’re engaging in a charitable endeavor like a good corporate citizen,” he says. “But there’s nothing in [Monning and Cunningham’s bill] that assigns any responsibility to the utility.”
With or without support for workers and local residents, however, no new fuel rods will be loaded into Diablo Canyon’s reactors after 2025. The steam generators will power down, and electricity production will cease. The plant will stand for a time, as San Onofre does, a relic of a bygone era, as workers begin the multi-billion-dollar process of relocating spent fuel from pools to heavy steel casks, decontaminating the plant’s radioactive innards and removing its crapped-out equipment. And for the first time since 1957, when the ill-fated Santa Susana Sodium Reactor began operations near Moorpark, California will be free of nuclear power plants.
Copyright Capital & Main
Battery Blood: California Has Worse Lead Standards Than Arkansas and Texas. Why?
Battery recycling is considered one of the most potentially hazardous industries. Yet Vernon’s Exide workers were routinely being poisoned with nearly nonexistent intervention by Cal/OSHA.
How could California, the model state when it comes to tough environmental regulations, have failed to assess lead-contamination dangers at a battery-recycling facility?
In the summer of 2008, California’s Department of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) inspected Exide Technologies’ vehicle-battery recycling plant in Vernon, California, an industrial suburb of Los Angeles. The ensuing laboratory analysis of air from the plant’s smelter room, where batteries are melted down to reclaim their lead, revealed that levels of the neurotoxin exceeded federal standards by a factor of 13. Despite the toxic air, Cal/OSHA found no serious violations at Exide, issuing only a token fine of $150 for what it deemed a low-level violation.
Asked today about that inspection, Cal/OSHA spokesperson Erika Monterroza told Capital & Main that it was “handled appropriately,” adding that the high level of lead that smelter-room workers were exposed to would only have been excused if other safety measures, such as “protective clothing, onsite showers, clean change rooms, proper housekeeping, clean lunchrooms, medical surveillance, effective training and implementation of engineering and administration controls” were deemed effective in reducing “exposures to as low as feasible.” However, there is little to no evidence that Cal/OSHA’s 2008 inspection included the measures Monterroza cited.
How could California, perceived by many as the model state when it comes to tough environmental regulations, have fallen so short when it came to assessing lead-contamination dangers at the Vernon battery-recycling facility?
Part of the answer stems from how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) works in the Golden State. In 29 states, workers at private companies such as Exide are are protected by federal OSHA, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor. In the remaining 21 states, including California, state-run OSHA programs protect workers employed by private industry. Even so, according to Monterroza, “Cal/OSHA’s program is required to be, and is, at least as effective as federal OSHA.”
In California, communication about workers with high levels of lead in their blood was nearly nonexistent between Cal/OSHA and the Department of Public Health.
But our investigation found that when it comes to protecting workers from lead, California operates in a different universe from states with federal OSHA oversight. While workers were routinely being poisoned in Vernon, with nearly nonexistent intervention by Cal/OSHA, battery-recycling plants in federal OSHA states were facing inspections so robust they amounted to an existential threat to the plants. The message to these lead polluters seemed simple: Either clean up your act or be fined out of business. A case in point: The same summer as Cal/OSHA’s 2008 Vernon inspection, another Exide battery-recycling plant, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, was hit with $71,000 in fines for having high levels of lead in its smelting department, and for other serious violations, including poorly fitted respirators. All told, inspectors found 22 “serious violations” at the Arkansas plant. A serious violation, an OSHA press release about the Fort Smith citations noted, is “one in which the hazard could cause death or serious physical harm to employees, and the employer knew or should have known about it.”
And after a 2012 inspection of a Johnson Controls battery plant in Ohio, federal OSHA issued 20 citations for “serious”and “willful” health violations, and issued $188,600 in fines. At yet another Exide facility, in Frisco, Texas, OSHA fined the plant $77,000 in 2011. That same year, Exide reached an agreement with Texas officials to pay $20 million for improvements to its engineering systems at the Frisco plant to cut down on lead emissions.
In Vernon, Cal/OSHA required no engineering changes that would impact levels of lead in the plant.
“OSHA is supposed to have workers’ backs,” said Rania Sabty-Daily, an expert in industrial hygiene and an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge. Sabty-Daily said Cal/OSHA completely failed to take into account a fundamental fact in its 2008 Exide inspection.
“The records you dug up showed that lots of workers were being exposed to lead at levels high enough that their health was being compromised,” she said. “That should have led inspectors to seek out the safety problems causing the health problems. Any occupational hygienist knows that a real-world factory is imperfect — we can’t just rely on respirators, which are often not fitted properly. And there are other avenues for exposure. What happens when the worker takes off their boots? Are the shower facilities adequate?”
Making workplaces safer became a central OSHA focus in 2001, when the agency launched the National Emphasis Program on lead. This ambitious initiative sought to eliminate the conditions that had caused lead-related health issues in workers. The lead-reduction program was reinforced with even more stringent standards in 2008.
The directive legally mandates that when workers are found to have blood-lead levels above those considered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to represent a serious health risk (25 micrograms per deciliter or above), those cases “shall be considered high-gravity, serious and must be handled by inspection.” And it wasn’t just the 29 federal OSHA states that adopted the tough inspection standards. Nine states that have their own OSHA programs, including Indiana, Oregon and North Carolina, chose to adopt the same federal standards. For unexplained reasons, California did not adopt lead standards required by 38 other states.
Elsewhere, others saw a profound improvement. “Without question it’s an absolutely essential program that I saw make a difference when it came to protecting workers from being exposed to lead,” Clyde Payne, who retired in 2014 as the area director of U.S. OSHA’s Jackson, Mississippi office, told Capital & Main
“People were getting lead-poisoned in just a few months on the job. That tells you a lot about what conditions were like inside [Exide].”
While OSHA’s national directive remains largely intact today, President Donald Trump has made good on his promise to scale back all government regulations; OSHA’s current leadership has chipped away at the get-tough approach of the lead directive, changing its language to make some elements of the rules optional rather than mandatory.
Coordination with State Public Health Departments
Battery recycling is considered one of the most potentially hazardous industries for workers. Consequently, plants are almost always required to test workers’ blood for lead at least a couple of times per year. Most states’ departments of health — including California’s — are legally required to maintain those blood-lead results in what are called “blood-lead registries.”
A key component of the 2001 National Emphasis Program on lead is coordination with the custodians of blood-lead registries, the states’ individual public health departments. Scott Allen, a spokesperson for federal OSHA’s regional office in Illinois, underscored the importance of communication with state health departments. “Related to blood-lead levels, these medical referrals often come from health departments, medical providers or hospitals,” Allen stated in an email.
Workers Became Lead-Poisoned at Exide in a Matter of Months
Our investigation found that in California, communication about workers with high levels of lead in their blood was nearly nonexistent between Cal/OSHA and CDPH, the two agencies responsible for keeping workers safe from lead hazards. Between 1994 and 2014, CDPH tracked over 2,300 cases of workers with blood-lead levels at or above 25 micrograms per deciliter at Exide’s Vernon plant; yet CDPH referred the Vernon plant for an inspection to Cal/OSHA just once, in 1996.
Along the way, there were health experts who saw warning signs.
The Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health (CEH), which was concerned about airborne lead spreading from smokestacks at the Vernon plant to surrounding L.A. neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, filed a 2008 lawsuit to force the state to warn residents about lead that was known to be escaping the plant. “We also wanted to know what was going on inside the plant,” Caroline Cox, a CEH staff scientist, told Capital & Main. To figure that out, the nonprofit asked CDPH in 2009 for a year’s worth of blood-lead tests of Exide’s Vernon employees.
CDPH provided Cox with this data for more than 152 workers. Most employees had several tests per year. “What I was most struck by were results from workers who clearly were brand-new employees,” Cox said. “These people started out like an average person — whose blood-lead level is around two micrograms per deciliter. After a few months on the job, [I saw that] in some cases these readings shot up to alarming levels. Essentially, people were getting lead-poisoned in just a few months on the job. That tells you a lot about what conditions were like inside, and you just worried that the workers perhaps had no idea what they were getting into.”
An Obscure Department Failed To Sound the Alarm
The Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (OLPPP) is a department within CDPH that tracks blood-lead levels and offers advice and expertise to companies to reduce lead-based health risks.
“You have an organization receiving data about spikes in blood-lead levels. That should spur some sort of action. If that didn’t happen, why?”
Our investigation found that between 1994 and 1996, OLPPP managers were very concerned about the Vernon plant’s lead problem. For example, in 1995, OLPPP determined that, at what was then called GNB Technologies, “compliance plan and medical surveillance plan are seriously deficient; written respiratory protection program is confusing and inconsistent; GNB has no protocol for systematically reviewing BLL [blood-lead levels].” In 1996, OLPPP referred the case to Cal/OSHA for inspection.
That 1996 referral inspection appears to be the last time the two agencies teamed up to limit worker exposure to lead at the Vernon site. CDPH remained aware of lead-exposed workers, yet appears not to have communicated concern or crucial data with the one agency that could levy fines or shut down the plant if it were deemed to be too hazardous.
Mariano Kramer, a former Cal/OSHA district manager who was in charge of the 1996 inspection, said he was troubled to learn that CDPH did not continue to refer information about lead-poisoned workers to Cal/OSHA. “What concerns me is that you have an organization [CDPH] receiving data about spikes in blood-lead levels. That should spur some sort of action or reporting. If that didn’t happen, I’m wondering, Why? What’s the point of medical surveillance if you don’t use it?”
CDPH declined repeated requests for interviews and declined to answer specific questions by email for this story.
After being provided with documents obtained by Capital & Main and the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism program, Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose) wants to change the system that California has been operating under, to make it correspond to the federal lead directive. Last month, based on our research, Kalra introduced Assembly Bill 2963, which would require the “State Department of Public Health to report to the Division of Occupational Safety and Health any instance where a worker’s blood-lead level is at or above a certain amount.”
Joe Rubin wrote this story while participating in the California Data Fellowship, a program of USC’s Center for Health Journalism.
Copyright Capital & Main
Battery Blood: How California Health Agencies Failed Exide Workers
California’s Department of Public Health and Cal/OSHA didn’t protect workers from lead contamination at a battery recycling plant. A state Assembly member will hold hearings for a worker-protection bill based on our investigation.
Even as health agencies in other states issued six-figure fines and ordered multimillion-dollar safety improvements of battery recycling plants, California’s enforcement was strangely anemic.
For nearly a century a hulking industrial plant near downtown Los Angeles melted down car batteries to reclaim their lead. The facility, most recently owned by Exide Technologies, was shut down in 2015 in a deal the company made with the U.S. Justice Department to avoid criminal prosecution for polluting nearby residential communities. Neighborhood activists have criticized California’s Department of Toxic Substances, which allowed Exide to continue operating for years with a temporary permit, despite evidence it was a major polluter. But a year-long investigation by Capital & Main and the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism has found that two other agencies, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), failed to take action during a simmering public health crisis involving hundreds of lead-poisoned workers at the plant.
Between 1987 and 2014, according to records we obtained from CDPH, California health officials were aware of more than 2,300 blood tests from the plant’s workers revealing blood-lead levels above 25 micrograms per deciliter — high enough to cause miscarriages, tremors, mood disorders and heart disease. While CDPH lacks the power to levy fines or mandate changes, it may refer cases to Cal/OSHA, which has that authority. But except for one fleeting moment in 1996, the agencies have operated in virtual silos, failing to coordinate actions or share incontrovertible evidence that the facility was a potential death trap.
“It’s distressing to know that Exide workers were exposed at that level and chronically,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a physician and leading lead researcher with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. “We’ve known for decades that lead at those levels can lead to hypertension and chronic renal failure [kidney disease]. California regulators were aware of this information and should have better protected these workers.”
In contrast to the anemic enforcement by California officials, regulators in much of the rest of the nation have, thanks to a strict federal lead directive issued in 2001, cracked down on perilous battery recycling plants — issuing six-figure fines and requiring multimillion-dollar safety improvements. Although the federal lead directive is legally binding in states where workers are directly protected by federal OSHA and eight other state-run programs that adopted these standards, California, the nation’s most populous state, never embraced them.
Exide appealed a $280 Cal/OSHA fine. It was ultimately reduced to $150 — less than the cost of a speeding ticket.
Despite California’s seemingly lower standards, Cal/OSHA told Capital & Main that “Cal/OSHA’s program is required to be, and is, at least as effective as federal OSHA.” However, despite hundreds of workers who developed lead poisoning at the plant, the only fine specifically related to lead that we found issued by Cal/OSHA at the site, which recycled about 25,000 lead-acid car batteries a day, was a 2008 citation for $150 — less than the cost of a speeding ticket.
The lead problem at the Vernon plant, which was acquired by Exide in 2000, goes back a long time. In the 1970s Jim Dahlgren, today a retired physician, treated 120 severely lead-poisoned workers from the plant, then owned by National Lead, and helped qualify them for disability insurance. Dahlgren, who worked for the University of California, Los Angeles, at the time, claimed that nearly all of those men died prematurely from complications due to lead exposure and that several patients fell into lead-induced comas. Dahlgren said his patients’ blood levels routinely measured above 100 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL), a potentially lethal level. “Every single organ system of the body is impacted adversely by lead,” Dahlgren said. “These men had symptoms that ran the spectrum — severe abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, palpitations, chest pains, trouble thinking, headaches.”
Dahlgren’s account was echoed in a 1973 Los Angeles Times article headlined “Plant Fumes Poisoning Plant Workers, Union Chiefs Say,” and an obscure 1976 documentary, Lead Smelter, which interviewed Dahlgren, along with gaunt, bedridden workers and their families.
Luis Rodriguez, a poet and writer who achieved fame with his memoir about escaping gang life, “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” spent six months in 1978 working in the Vernon plant as a smelter. The plant’s huge furnaces melted down car batteries and separated out the lead into what is called slag.
“After you use the furnace, all the lead would fall to the bottom and there was a hole in the back called a slag hole,” Rodriguez said. “I had to use a jackhammer to hammer it open, and pull the slag out and put it into carts. A good friend of mine said, ‘You know you got to get out of there. Lead will kill you and your family.’ That woke me up, might have saved my life.”
California Department of Public Health warnings about the Vernon plant, which Exide Technologies purchased in 2000, took on the look of an annual form letter.
The CDPH declined interview requests or to answer specific questions by email, and instead issued a statement that read in part, “CDPH takes seriously any incidents that may affect the public health of the people in California,” adding that “there are always lessons to be learned, especially in the case of long-running complex community public health issues.”
Exide’s lead-poisoning problem, however, was well known to state officials. Because battery recycling involves potentially lethal exposure to lead, the company was required to test workers’ blood several times per year and to report the results to the CDPH. (Exide did not respond to emails and phone messages requesting comment.)
Despite the fact that CDPH was aware of more than 2,300 concerning blood lead tests among workers at the Vernon site, our investigation found that CDPH referred the company to Cal/OSHA only a few times in the 1990s, and that between 1990 and 2013, inspections of the plant related to lead by Cal/OSHA occurred only in 1995, 1996 and 2008. Records we obtained show the 1995 inspection was triggered by a complaint to Cal/OSHA from a private physician who had treated a plant worker with symptoms of lead poisoning and alarming blood-lead levels. Cal/OSHA determined “no serious injuries or illnesses detected” and issued no fines. The company, according to the inspection report, also told Cal/OSHA that “engineering controls were not feasible at the plant.”
By then the plant had changed hands and was owned by GNB Technologies. Despite the new ownership, lead poisoning among workers was still a huge problem. Blood-lead testing tracked by CDPH showed that in 1995, 135 workers at the site that year had seriously elevated levels of lead in their blood, and 33 workers had blood-lead levels above 40 μg/dL.
The same year Cal/OSHA’s inspection report dismissed concerns about fundamental safety at the plant, CDPH was expressing extreme concern. In 1995 CDPH’s Occupational Lead Poisoning Prevention Program chief, Barbara Materna, wrote a letter to GNB’s regional director, David Wesley, noting that the Vernon workers had blood-lead levels high enough to cause “increased blood pressure, damaged sperm, and impaired learning ability in children exposed to lead during pregnancy.” CDPH also expressed grave concerns that airborne levels of lead found in parts of the plant were more than 50 times above federal safety standards.
By 1996 CDPH had had enough. “Our policy is to work cooperatively with those who are improving health and safety conditions in their workplace,” Materna wrote GNB. “However, if serious conditions are not addressed in a timely manner we are obligated to make referrals to Cal/OSHA for enforcement actions.”
Capital & Main spoke to Mariano Kramer, then a Los Angeles-area Cal/OSHA district manager, who CDPH sent the referral letter to. In 1996, after receiving a referral from CDPH, he supervised the only inspection we could find that appears to have had any teeth behind it.
Former Cal/OSHA Manager: “The agency is a battleground between those who see the prime directive as protecting workers and others who are fearful of hurting the bottom line of industry.”
Cal/OSHA told us it was unable to locate records related to the 1996 inspection. Kramer recalls the case vividly, however: “It was a very messy situation at the plant and a lengthy process. We required them to make substantial safety improvements.” The fines and required safety upgrades, which Kramer said were levied, seemed to make a difference at the plant. Lead poisoning cases dropped 25 percent the following year.
However, the monitoring of the Vernon plant, which Exide Technologies purchased in 2000, became less frequent and appears to have amounted to an annual form letter. In 2005 CDPH told Exide, “We recently received one or more reports of elevated blood-lead levels at or above 40 μg/dL for employees of Exide Technologies.” The letter continued, “Elevated BLLs indicate serious problems with your lead safety program that should be corrected. They may also indicate violations of the Cal/OSHA Lead Standard.”
By then, according to records provided to Capital & Main by CDPH, about 40 workers per year continued to show alarming levels of lead in their blood. It wasn’t until 2008 that Cal/OSHA performed a new lead-safety inspection at the site. The inspection stemmed from an anonymous complaint from an Exide worker, and the inspectors don’t appear to have been armed with any of the information collected by CDPH. When inspectors arrived at the sprawling Vernon plant, records show, they took just one swipe of a surface in search of evidence of lead dust. The sample was taken on a shelf next to a telephone — in an office that was designated a lead-free zone, where workers were supposed to be able to take breaks without wearing any protective equipment. While the shelf had lead levels far in excess of federal standards, Cal/OSHA fined Exide just $280 for the safety violation it labeled “low” in severity. Exide appealed the fine and the violation was ultimately reduced to $150.
Cal/OSHA appeared even less concerned with the toxic air to which workers were exposed in the plant’s smelting room. Alvin Richardson, a 20-year plant veteran, said he remembers Cal/OSHA coming to inspect the site in 2008 and affixing an air monitor to his clothing to measure the amount of lead that he and other workers were being exposed to. Richardson says he wasn’t told the results, even though he had become a canary in the coal mine.
Experts we spoke to, including Kramer, say the results from Richardson’s air monitor, which measured airborne lead more than 13 times above levels federal limits, could have required the evacuation of workers and at a minimum should have resulted in stiff penalties.
But when the results came back, Cal/OSHA may have employed some creative math. (See equation below.) Because Richardson was wearing a respirator mask, Cal/OSHA’s report reasoned its inspectors could divide the level of exposure by a factor of 50. (See formula below.) After the airborne lead levels were divided by 50, the inspection gave the smelting operation a clean bill of health, no fines were issued for the airborne lead, and the company was allowed to keep up its operation without making any engineering changes.
Cal/OSHA declined repeated requests for in-person interviews about its lead-related protocols or to comment on former workers who claim to be suffering today. In response to queries about the seemingly inadequate 2008 inspection, Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza responded via email, “The division can only issue citations when it finds sufficient evidence of violations. The inspection was handled appropriately.”
But Clyde Payne, who for 23 years was the area director of U.S. OSHA’s Jackson, Mississippi, office, said that applying the equation employed by Cal/OSHA violated a fundamental OSHA principle. “The principle,” Payne said, “is you are not allowed to use the respirator to excuse toxic air. You have to implement other controls like ventilation and proper hygiene.”
Payne explained that the equation which Cal/OSHA employed is intended to be used to determine if employers are using proper respirators, or if they need to provide a better respirator. “Because we assume that workers are going to get exposed in other ways, you don’t utilize that type of division to excuse violations of the air standards.” Payne added, “There is no question it’s challenging for companies to get those levels of airborne lead down, but if you do not have somebody riding your rear end, you won’t try.”
Mariano Kramer retired in 2011 and today works as an instructor at the Dominguez Hills OSHA Training Center. After reviewing the report of the 2008 inspection of the plant, he said the levels of airborne lead that Alvin Richardson and other workers were exposed to were completely unacceptable. “One of the basic tenets of safety and health is the hierarchy of controls,” Kramer said. “You start with administrative and engineering, and the last thing that you do is personal protective equipment. Because with ventilators, you are doing nothing to correct the hazard. All you’re doing is putting a barrier to the hazard.”
First Amendment Project Lawyer: The Public Health Department “ends up being a shield for companies which expose the public and workers to toxins.”
A review of federal OSHA inspections carried out around the same time as Cal/OSHA’s 2008 inspection of Exide in Vernon does show that dramatically different standards were employed. For example, during their 2012 inspection of a Johnson Controls battery recycling plant in Ohio, OSHA inspectors affixed air monitors to workers just as they did with Richardson in California. The level of lead detected was one-third what Richardson and other Exide workers were exposed to. But because the OSHA inspectors did not employ the division formula utilized in California, they deemed the exposure levels as a “serious” violation of OSHA regulations. All told, OSHA issued to Johnson Controls Battery Group Inc. fines of $188,000, more than 1,200 times the $150 fine issued to Exide during Cal/OSHA’s 2008 inspection for violating lead standards.
Alvin Richardson told us that when he left the company in 2011 he suffered from what he believed to be lead-related symptoms, including exhaustion and tremors. After he departed his daily routine at Exide, Richardson hoped his symptoms would improve, but they worsened. Today the 53-year-old suffers from chronic weakness and kidney problems. “He can’t stand for very long,” Alvin’s wife LaShawn Richardson told us, adding that her husband had just received state disability status after a seven-year struggle.
Kramer believes that two long-running problems at Cal/OSHA likely contributed to an inadequate inspection in 2008. “The agency is kind of a political football, a battleground between those who see the prime directive as protecting workers and others who are fearful of hurting the bottom line of industry. Some staff also have a poor understanding of health-related safety issues like lead. The agency is better at recognizing a crane that might fall. When it comes to nearly invisible toxins like lead dust, that can be a problem.”
Rania Sabty-Daily, an expert in industrial hygiene and an assistant professor at California State University, Northridge, told Capital & Main that one of the stumbling blocks preventing better protection of California workers is long-delayed changes to the state’s lead standards. The standards formulated in the 1970s allow employees to continue working even with blood lead levels up to 50 μg/dL. Health experts consider those standards out of date because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other authorities say permanent damage can occur at levels as low as 10 μg/dL. In 2009 CDPH issued new recommendations and asked Cal/OSHA to call for removing workers with lead levels above 20 μg/dL and not returning them until they fall to below 15 μg/dL. In addition CDPH proposed that a more protective standard be applied to airborne lead.
Because CDPH can only make recommendations, CDPH petitioned Cal/OSHA in 2010 to adopt the new standards. In a statement, Cal/OSHA told us it agreed with the necessity to make some changes. “The existing lead standard is based on pre-1978 data and subsequent research has shown significant adverse effects at lower levels. The advisory committee met six times from 2011-2015 to draft a proposed industrial regulation that will lower the blood-lead removal level (BLL) and Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL). That process is ongoing.”
But the process to change California regulations appears to have bogged down. Cal/OSHA invited companies like Exide and other stakeholders to participate in advisory meetings over the new standards. During one advisory meeting in 2011, industry representatives, particularly from battery recycling companies, hammered the proposal. According to minutes from the sessions, Terry Campbell, an executive from U.S. Battery, said that one-fourth of the company’s Corona workers would have to be pulled from their jobs because of high blood-lead levels. Ultimately, the company said, it could be forced to close up shop and move to Mexico. Representatives from Exide echoed similar sentiments.
“It’s a totally dysfunctional system,” said Sabty-Daily. “We debate the toughest standards in the country — meanwhile, Cal/OSHA enforces what are among the weakest standards in the nation.”
There appears to be an even larger problem to fix. Our investigation found that workers protected by Cal/OSHA under the outdated standards continue to be harmed by unsafe lead conditions with little or no consequences.
In October we made a public records request asking CDPH for lists of workers who had lead levels at or above 20 μg/dL for the last 30 years. According to the data we received, the agency was aware of more than 26,000 blood tests from workers from more than 260 companies across the state. Workers were counted once per year at their highest level according to CDPH. We also learned that between 2010 and 2017, even as California’s regulatory agencies continued to debate toughening lead standards, CDPH was aware of an additional 2,256 blood tests at or above 20 μg/dL. Despite those alarming numbers, finding the locations of the workplaces that have had large numbers of lead poisoned workers is for the moment impossible.
Although CDPH previously provided year-by-year anonymous data for lead-poisoned workers at Exide, the agency turned down our request for information about where those other cases in the state were occurring. Citing a “constitutional right to privacy,” CDPH says it is concerned that providing anonymous details about the extent of the problem at specific companies could somehow lead to identifying the individual workers. When there is “a high risk of re-identification, statistical masking must be applied,” the agency said in a March 14 statement.
Dr. Bruce Lanphear, the lead-poisoning expert, also was troubled by the withholding of specific numbers for where the lead poisoning incidents were occurring. “That’s just hogwash. One of the basic functions of public health is to make clear the extent of the problem and where it’s occurring. You can’t protect the public if you’re not armed with the information.”
James Wheaton, senior counsel for the First Amendment Project and a media-law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, called the agency’s rationale for keeping the information secret “bogus” and said he believed the agency had violated California law with its refusal to disclose the information.
“CDPH unfortunately has a tendency to jealously guard information which is vital to the public,” Wheaton said. “The net result is the agency ends up being a shield for companies which expose the public and workers to toxins.”
While Exide closed in 2015, several battery recycling plants continue to operate in the greater Los Angeles area, and they appear to represent an ongoing problem when it comes to workers exposed to lead. While CDPH would not provide Capital & Main with information about where the most serious cases are occurring, in response to a public records request the agency did provide similar data to the Los Angeles Times in 2016 for worker exposures in Los Angeles County from 2008 to 2014.
The data, provided to Times reporter Tony Barboza, show that Quemetco, another Los Angeles-area recycling plant which, unlike Exide, is still up and running, had 254 workers with elevated blood-lead levels (at or above 10 g/dL) between 2008 and 2014. By comparison, Exide had 175 workers during that same time period with similarly elevated levels. Quemetco also appears to have another Exide-like problem. Soil samples taken from homes within a quarter-mile of the plant, according to data we obtained from the Department of Toxic Substances Control, also show that surface soil is on average four times above acceptable levels, suggesting a multimillion-dollar cleanup could be necessary.
Prior to publication of this article we shared data we had gathered with several lawmakers and Bill Allayaud, the California director of the Environmental Working Group, a science-based watchdog organization. Allayaud’s group has spearheaded several proposed lead laws in California. “We all know how the neighborhoods around Exide were polluted with toxic lead over the long term, and now we are finding out how workers on the frontlines were neglected by the agencies that are supposed to monitor and demand that hazardous conditions be eliminated,” Allayaud said. “This needs to be fixed so this never happens again.”
Allayaud collaborated with San Jose Assemblyman Ash Kalra, who introduced legislation sponsored by the Environmental Working Group that would require CDPH and Cal/OSHA to follow federal standards recognized in other states. Kalra’s measure, Assembly Bill 2963, would legally require the “State Department of Public Health to report to the Division of Occupational Safety and Health any instance where a worker’s blood-lead level is at or above a certain amount.”
In a statement to Capital & Main, Kalra said, “Lead poisoning is a serious matter and we need to consider the gravity of this hazard by ensuring that our state agencies are properly scrutinizing cases involving workers’ exposure to high levels of lead — this means that adequate inspections need to be carried out whenever there is evidence of serious lead-related exposure.”
Kalra plans to hold hearings in April for his worker-protection bill based on our investigations. He told Capital & Main that he would like to have Alvin Richardson and other workers testify to educate the public about what it’s like to experience lead poisoning.
“Alvin’s a proud man,” said Richardson’s wife, LaShawn. “Going through this has been a long, incredibly difficult struggle for our entire family.” She said she was speaking to us in the hope that future workers wouldn’t have to endure what her husband has.
Joe Rubin wrote this story while participating in the California Data Fellowship, a program of USC’s Center for Health Journalism.
Copyright Capital & Main
How Elon Musk’s Traffic Tunnel Could Harm Los Angeles
Co-published by Fast Company
The Tesla CEO’s proposal to bore a high-speed commute tunnel under the Westside of Los Angeles may amplify many of the county’s most deeply entrenched disparities.
Like the idea behind freeways, the Boring Company’s proposal misses a fundamental principle in reducing traffic: limiting the number of cars on the road.
Co-published by Fast Company
On January 22, employees of Elon Musk’s the Boring Company took the floor in front of Culver City’s city council. Over the course of 45 minutes, operations coordinator Jehn Balajadia sought to justify the company’s flagship project: To dig a 20-mile tunnel stretching from the South Bay California city of Hawthorne, to West Los Angeles and the Sepulveda Pass beyond in order to transport vehicles at high speeds.
Characterizing Culver City as “forward-thinking,” Mayor Jeffrey Cooper opined that “it would be foolhardy of us to just say no.” Councilmember Meghan Sahli-Wells, however, wasn’t impressed. “I asked a lot of questions. I didn’t get any answers,” she told Capital & Main. “They sent us the PR people. They didn’t send us the planners. I, so far, have not seen a plan.”
Sahli-Wells’ frustrations are revealing. Conceived by Musk in 2016 as a way to bypass the region’s freeway gridlock, Boring Company’s putative purpose is to construct networks of subterranean tunnels in California, Chicago, and the East Coast, through which personal cars and multi-passenger “pods” would travel on electric skates at speeds hovering around 125 to 150 miles per hour, with no stops between origin and destination. Beneath the veneer of its otherworldly grandeur, however, the company has had little to show for itself, investing far more in publicity gambits—namely, its buzzing campaign to sell branded flamethrowers—than in its own blueprint.
A privatized subterranean transport scheme might appeal to city governments for a number of reasons. “There’s a cool factor and there’s a fantasy factor,” Sahli-Wells said, particularly in the wake of Musk’s recent launch of a Tesla Roadster into space. More tangible motives exist as well—namely, the pressure to relieve congestion in Los Angeles, which has topped at least one list of the world’s most heavily trafficked cities for six consecutive years. In addition, the Boring Company has stated that it would singlehandedly fund its underground expressway, asking no government subsidies; combined with fees from tunneling and other permits, the prospect would ostensibly require little to no public investment.
Transportation Expert: “If I could drive from Brentwood to Hawthorne in 45 minutes, and I can take this tunnel in five minutes — but it takes me 30 minutes in line to get into it, then really, what’s the point?”
These factors, apparently, have charmed officials in Hawthorne, where Musk’s SpaceX’s headquarters is located. Last August, its city council approved Boring’s request to drill a two-mile underground test track extending west from the SpaceX offices. Such a project will augment what the company had already constructed as of last summer: a shaft and tunnel entrance in an old SpaceX parking lot, across the street from its headquarters.
Yet the evidence that the Boring Company will deliver on its central promise of mitigating traffic appears to be sparse. Theoretically, one or more additional layers of roads would reduce the number of cars on surface streets, thereby decongesting them. The company, however, has neglected to address the mechanics of the surface-level points of entry and exit above the tunnel—on-ramps, of sorts, that could far too easily cause jams.
“If there is a way to [travel] very fast—essentially a teleportation from one side of L.A. to the other—there’s going to be a big line for that, just like right now there’s a line during peak hours to go from a surface street to a freeway in Los Angeles,” Juan Matute, associate director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Lewis Center and the Institute of Transportation Studies, told Capital & Main. “If I could drive from Brentwood to Hawthorne in 45 minutes, and I can take this tunnel in five minutes, but it takes me 30 minutes in line to get into it, then really, what’s the point?”
According to Streetsblog LA editor Joe Linton, the tunnel project’s combination of seduction and naiveté evokes a traffic-reducing proposition of yore: freeways. Originally advertised as a means by which to alleviate surface-street crowding, freeways soon generated much of the traffic they were designed to manage and prevent, exemplifying a concept known as induced demand. “In the ’50s, highway builders, car infrastructure folks [said], ‘If we can build more capacity, if we can widen another freeway, build another freeway, congestion is going to get better.’ What we’ve seen is the opposite,” he said. “The more capacity you have, the more congestion you get.”
Like the idea behind freeways, the Boring Company’s proposal misses a fundamental principle in reducing traffic: limiting the number of cars on the road. Critics claim that, in merely seeking to accommodate those cars, it perpetuates, rather than challenges, the system of car dependence responsible for Los Angeles’ congested roads—an apparent manifestation of Musk’s own self-interest. Last year, Musk garnered much opprobrium for his animus toward public transit, which he’s called “a pain in the ass.” But his greatest incentive, most likely, isn’t so much ideological as financial: For the owner of electric-car company Tesla, an atomized, driver-centric future of transit is simply good for business. (The Boring Company did not respond to requests for comment.)
The tunnel network might also be construed as a symptom of what writer Jarrett Walker terms “elite projection,” or “the belief among relatively fortunate and influential people that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.” After all, as has been noted, the Westside tunnel parallels Musk’s own commute: The SpaceX founder owns five houses in Bel Air and works in Hawthorne.
The proposed tunnel is primarily “within the wealthy Westside of Los Angeles,” Sahli-Wells pointed out. “Show me the plan that serves communities that are not wealthy. Communities that need more access to schools, jobs, medical facilities — you name it.”
The Boring Company claims its fares would be comparable to those of current public transportation—$1.75 one way in the city of Los Angeles, $1 in Culver City—but the reasons to be skeptical are legion. Privatized transit, at least in theory, wouldn’t receive the government subsidies of public transit. What’s more, Matute predicts that the company may take a number of approaches to pricing that would restrict accessibility, including a subscription or tiered model in which users pay regular fees to use the tunnels or a pay-per-trip schema. Considering the precedents of Big Tech’s attempts to “disrupt” transportation—namely, Uber and Lyft—a “flex-pricing” model wherein fares rise with demand is equally conceivable.
The Boring Company would likely not only neglect to transport low-income communities, but also threaten to displace them. As of 2016, the city of Hawthorne’s per-capita income was $21,182, with 19.2 percent of residents living in poverty—an existence whose precarity would only heighten amid an influx of young tech professionals.
“There’s a lot of demand to get from Hawthorne to Brentwood because there are a lot of jobs on the Westside,” Matute said. “This would greatly increase demand to live in the Hawthorne area, the South Bay, for people who work in the types of jobs that are in Santa Monica, Westwood — maybe even Century City. Just like putting a new Google Bus route into a different neighborhood in San Francisco can bring up prices along where those stops are, this would have, I think, a similar effect because it changes the accessibility of those neighborhoods on the other end.”
Can cities afford to take this risk, especially when issues of equity and accessibility already plague would-be public-transit riders? A recent UCLA study found that public transit ridership is declining, while car ownership is increasing. One cause is poor service quality: Within Southern California’s Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, bus speeds have slackened, due in large part to mounting congestion. This development marks a vicious cycle: As buses slow, riders become discouraged and, if they’re able to do so, begin to drive, aggravating the traffic that caused the buses’ inefficiency in the first place.
“We spent billions and billions of dollars on a system that you need to own a car for,” said Linton. Such a requisite “presents a huge fiscal burden on low-income families that buy cars,” he added.
To allay the burdens of traffic and car dependency, Sahli-Wells advocates for an extensive network of mass public transit in which cars become the least, rather than the most, convenient mode of transportation. In addition to the recently approved transit extension measure, which includes a considerable broadening of the rail system for Los Angeles County, she, along with Linton and Matute, recommends more dedicated bus lanes, which would effectively exempt buses from traffic; Linton posits such adjustments as all-door boarding, boosting bus frequency, and thinning the number of stops for non-express lines.
The fate of such a public-works project remains to be seen, as does that of the Boring Company. Still, what’s clear is that, if allowed to proceed, the company’s initiative may amplify many of Los Angeles County’s most deeply entrenched disparities. In the meantime, until Musk can shed more light on his project, Sahli-Wells will continue to look elsewhere for transit solutions.“Even if Mayor Cooper says we would be foolish to say no,” she cautioned, “I think we’d be foolish to say yes.”
Copyright Capital & Main
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