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Repowering Los Angeles One Block at a Time

Judith Lewis Mernit




(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.”


Is Environmental Law to Blame for California’s Housing Crisis?

Developers blame a half-century-old law for slowing development. Studies show there are other factors at work.





The debate intensifies over how much the California Environmental Quality Act is an impediment to the construction of affordable housing.



Since it was enacted in 1970, California environmentalists have hailed the state’s most sweeping environmental law, the California Environmental Quality Act, as a bulwark against destruction of California’s natural resources and endangerment of its most vulnerable residents. The law requires developers to involve the public in their building plans, and to minimize damage to the environment in accordance with public input and scientific study.

But now, with Governor Gavin Newsom’s push to see 3.5 million homes built by 2025, CEQA may be in Sacramento’s crosshairs. Developers and trade unions have long complained that the law was written so broadly that neighborhood groups and certain unions have used it to start litigation that slows or stops necessary projects. Newsom’s goal, which would require a six-fold increase in current housing production over the next seven years, could lead to their complaints overriding environmental concerns.

Cesar Diaz, legal and political director of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, confirmed to Capital & Main that that his union was working with builders and legislators to streamline CEQA. But he denies that their plans amount to gutting the landmark law. “We have been fighting to protect CEQA for years,” Diaz says, “and we will fight to make sure any changes to CEQA are done surgically, rather than getting rid of it.” In January Diaz signed on to a letter, with environmental justice and low-income housing advocates, urging the governor and legislators to not weaken CEQA.

Diaz says his union and the California Building Industry Association were instead working to refine two already-introduced housing bills, SB 50 and SB 4, both aimed at spurring high-density housing near jobs and transit centers. The additions to those bills, and possibly more, Diaz said, would “provide certainty to developers and stronger labor protections and pay increases for construction workers.” Certainty for developers, he clarified, would mean relief from impact fees and construction defect litigation that can entangle builders in litigation. In exchange, construction workers would receive higher wages and benefits.

But the fact that environmental groups and low-income housing advocates, thus far, are not at the table concerns Caroline Farrell, Executive Director of the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment. “Discussions between the building trade and developers have led to a lot of confusion and frustration among environmentalists. The people who would be impacted by any change [to CEQA] have to be heard.”

* * *

There is significant debate over how much CEQA is an impediment to development. Environmental interests worry that views expressed by two researchers in recent New York Times op-ed, arguing that CEQA alone is a significant contributor to the housing crisis, will prevail in any housing legislation. David Pettit, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that there are already CEQA speed-ups and work-arounds for some large construction projects, including a 27-story development in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

“There has been the occasional abuse of CEQA, as with any area of the law, like locals in Venice using the law to fight a homeless shelter,” he says. “That’s appalling, but you don’t get rid of the whole law.”

A recent (and continuing) study of nine California cities conducted by the University of California, Berkeley has so far concluded that CEQA is not the primary driver of delays in new developments. Eric Biber, a UC Berkeley law professor who was involved in the study, says local governments and local zoning restrictions have more to do with lengthening the development timeline.

“We don’t say CEQA itself is not important, but [reforming it] is not the silver bullet to solve the building crisis. CEQA lawsuits are triggered when local governments impose judgments on whether their own standards are met.”

Jennfier Hernandez, a partner at the Holland & Knight law firm, disagrees with that assessment. “CEQA is tremendous, but it has been used as a tool to stop any project at any time.” Suggesting that CEQA reformers and low-income housing activists should be on the same side, Hernandez cited her study, which concluded 100 percent of Bay Area CEQA lawsuits and 98 percent of Los Angeles CEQA suits targeted “infill” development in existing communities. CEQA, she says, is “an excuse by NIMBYs to preserve the status quo.”

Yet other data back up Biber’s findings. A 2018 survey from the Association of Environmental Professionals looked at over 140,000 housing projects that went through CEQA review from 2015 to 2017 across California, and found that exemptions to or streamlining of environmental law were used in 42 percent of the projects. As with Biber’s study, the survey concluded that the top inhibitors to housing production were not related to CEQA.

Alexander Harnden, a housing policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, agrees that CEQA has been occasionally abused by exclusionary neighborhood groups and city councils. But he argues that lengthy legal challenges under CEQA account for a small fraction of projects. “The rest of the projects are altered in appropriate ways and getting approved.”

Harnden says that streamlining housing development should include incentives for developers – such as eliminating parking requirements – in exchange for commitments to build a larger percentage of affordable units. He also advocates expanding rent-control measures and prohibiting landlords from refusing Section 8 vouchers, subsidize housing for low-income tenants. But he emphasizes that supply-side solutions like building houses at more than six times the current rate won’t fix everything. No matter how many millions of units go up in the next seven years, he says, “it won’t solve the increases in homelessness and rent gouging.” Nearly everyone in the debate agrees that there’s no single solution to the housing crisis. And they say taking on all of these aspects requires both compromise and political will.

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Who Pays When Polluting Companies Shut Down?

Financial assurance flaws leave taxpayers potentially liable for massive clean-up costs.

Dan Ross




Former Exide facility in Vernon. (Photo: Joanne Kim)

Operating a hazardous waste facility can be a messy business that often leaves soils, groundwater and drinking water aquifers polluted with some of the most dangerous substances used in industry.

To shield the public from possible health risks and financial liabilities, battery recyclers, landfill owners and others are required to provide financial assurance, a sum of money similar to an insurance policy for cleaning these facilities up when it’s time to close them down. If the contamination is especially difficult to remediate, operators must put up enough money to pay for cleanup costs long after a hazardous waste facility stops operating—decades, potentially.

California, however, has a long history of failing to make hazardous waste operators provide adequate financial assurances, leaving taxpayers to pick up a tab that can bloat into millions of dollars. Over the last 15 years alone, multiple oversight agencies and panels have criticized this aspect of the state’s approach to financial assurance.

A Capital & Main review of California’s 106 permitted hazardous waste facilities listed on the state website has found that the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC)—the state agency responsible for overseeing hazardous waste facilities—still repeatedly fails to require adequate financial assurances from operators of hazardous waste facilities, leaving taxpayers potentially liable for massive clean-up costs.

Multiple oversight agencies and panels have criticized California’s approach to financial assurance.

One example of this problem is the former Exide lead-battery recycling plant, a hazardous waste facility in the City of Vernon notorious for causing extensive lead contamination in neighboring communities. In 2016, then-Governor Jerry Brown had to direct $176.6 million from the state fund to expedite the testing and clean-up of residential properties surrounding the plant. Exide, which had declared bankruptcy, simply could not or would not provide the money for its own clean-up. That same year, a bill was passed and signed that added a consumer purchase fee of $1 per lead-acid battery, with the revenue earmarked for lead contaminated sites such as Exide.

“It is long past time to make the polluter pay and hold them accountable for the irreparable damage they have caused to the health and well-being of our children and families,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis wrote in a statement to Capital & Main. Solis’ district includes communities near the former Exide plant.

* * *

Gideon Kracov, an attorney who specializes in environmental law, was part of a three-member Independent Review Panel (IRP) established by law in 2015 to review and make recommendations about the DTSC’s approach to things like permitting and fiscal management. During its more than two-year lifetime, the panel made repeated critical observations about the DTSC’s financial assurance program.

California’s hazardous waste facilities are often located in low-income communities already unevenly burdened by the impacts from pollution.

Kracov says the state should review, “every few years,” the financial assurances for all permitted hazardous waste facilities, and make sure the available funds reasonably address the “full cost” of cleaning up a contaminated site.

Without adequate funds upfront, clean-ups at hazardous waste facilities can “drag on too long,” says Kracov, prolonging health risks to the public. California’s permitted hazardous waste facilities are frequently located in low-income communities already disproportionately burdened by the impacts from pollution. What’s more, the taxpayer can be left holding the bag if the financial health of the operator deteriorates before the clean-up begins, as happened with Exide, Kracov warns.

According to the DTSC’s public information officer, Russ Edmondson, the agency has made “much progress to strengthen the way the department handles financial assurances.” Indeed, earlier this year, a new law made changes in a number of different areas. Large companies, for example, that use their “tangible net worth” as proof that they can cover clean-up costs must now show a net worth of at least $20 million rather than $10 million. They must also meet a minimum corporate credit rating.

However, Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, claims the new law fails to fix the “fundamental” problems with the system. “These were minor changes,” she added, “though I think the changes do reflect the DTSC’s knowledge that this is a concern.”

“We have a permitting program where nobody is really anticipating the worst-case scenarios.”

According to Edmondson, the state also reviews “post-closure” financial assurances every five years now instead of every 10 years at facilities where the hazardous waste is left in place, such as landfills. That change mirrors an IRP recommendation to increase the frequency of the review system.

But Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, says that while formal reviews appear to be conducted more regularly, “It’s not protecting the taxpayer because more bonding and more financial assurance is not being required by the department” during that process.

It’s not just hazardous waste facilities for which financial assurance is required. Operators of surface mines and solid waste facilities, including certain landfills, are similarly required to show in advance that they have the money to properly clean up their properties. According to the state’s Division of Mine Reclamation, there are currently 1,127 active surface mines in California, while the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery says that a preliminary review showed 133 solid waste “disposal” facilities in the state.

* * *

The regulatory framework for financial assurance is complicated, with different rules governing different facilities. Nevertheless, “it’s pretty intuitive” why financial assurance is typically inadequate at hazardous waste sites, says Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “We have a permitting program where nobody is really anticipating the worst-case scenarios.”

When he was a California deputy attorney general, Hecht litigated cases against operators of contaminated facilities that had not provided adequate financial assurances. One of the biggest problems, Hecht says, is that during the permitting process state officials don’t always make use of the kinds of information needed to make accurate financial assurance decisions, such as a facility’s full enforcement record and history of violations. “In an ideal world you would have a permitting staff really understand all of those dynamics,” he says.

In instances where hazardous waste facilities are responsible for chemical releases that pose unacceptable risks to human health and the environment, California doesn’t require plant operators to front clean-up costs until a workplan is in place. But there are risks to doing it this way. For one, it can take years for the workplan to be finalized, during which time the financial health of the company can crumble, potentially shifting responsibility to regulators and taxpayers. According to Hecht, companies can also “use to their advantage” threats of bankruptcy or job losses so as to avoid “providing as much financial assurance as ideally would be necessary to protect the public.”

These kinds of threats aren’t new — nor are they idle. In 2006, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office released a damning report warning that financial assurances “do not account” for all the clean-up costs at closed facilities, and as such, the state “will likely bear part or all of the burden.” Seven years later, Exide filed for bankruptcy.

Companies can use threats of bankruptcy or job losses to avoid providing adequate levels of financial assurance.

Rho-Chem is a solvent sales and recycling company operating in Inglewood that has leaked highly toxic chemicals into the soil and groundwater, causing extensive contamination. The pollution stems from nearly seven decades of industrial activity at the facility. Rho-Chem is a serial violator responsible for 10 Class 1 violations since 2000 alone. Last September it reached a $473,500 settlement with the EPA for violations from a 2015 inspection. Rho-Chem hasn’t yet been required to front financial assurance to remediate most of the polluted soil and groundwater.

“In the case of Rho-Chem, financial assurance will be required following the selection and approval of a clean-up remedy,” wrote the DTSC’s Edmondson, who added that “even in the event a company files for bankruptcy, costs are covered as potential responsible parties are sought.”

According to Williams, however, in bankruptcy proceedings, “Clean-up costs and clean-up liabilities are at the bottom of the barrel. They’re almost never funded.”

With Exide’s closure, the Quemetco battery recycling facility in the City of Industry remains the only such plant operating west of the Rockies. Last December, the DTSC ordered expanded soil sampling for lead in residential areas around the facility, after testing to a quarter-mile radius found elevated levels of lead contamination. According to the DTSC, the state has not yet required Quemetco to front the money needed to remediate any off-site contamination as a clean-up remedy is not yet identified.

“Quemetco and other toxic waste facilities should be requested to have enough financial assurance so that taxpayers are not left on the hook for cleaning up contamination,” warned L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn in a statement. “This is a matter of public safety, and the State has to hold these companies accountable.”

Philip Chandler is a senior engineering geologist at the DTSC who spoke to Capital & Main not in an official capacity, but as a citizen. A longtime critic of the state’s approach to the issue, Chandler says that his department doesn’t always apply “common sense” when it seeks financial assurances from plant operators. “That’s why we wind up underfunded at site after site after site.”

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L.A. Says No to Repowering Gas Plants

“This is the beginning of the end of natural gas in Los Angeles,” Mayor Eric Garcetti announced Monday.





Scattergood power plant. (Photo: Trekandshoot/Getty Images)

Donning the mantle of a Green New Deal warrior Monday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the city-run Department of Water and Power would not repower a controversial trio of natural gas-fueled power plants. DWP had planned to spend $2.2 billion rebuilding the aging Scattergood, Haynes and Harbor facilities, located, respectively, in El Segundo, Long Beach and Wilmington.

Instead, the coastal plants, which supply the city with 38 percent of its electricity, will be phased out by 2029, in line with L.A.’s goal to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

“This is the beginning of the end of natural gas in Los Angeles,” said Garcetti. “The climate crisis demands that we move more quickly to end dependence on fossil fuel.”

See Larry Buhl’s earlier analysis of what the repowering of the three plants would mean for Los Angeles.

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Green New Deal Targets Link Between Trade Policy and Climate Change

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution spotlights stealth connections between free trade deals, offshoring and carbon emissions.

David Sirota




Congressional Democrats on Thursday unveiled landmark Green New Deal legislation outlining proposals to combat climate change — and the measure does not stop at the American border. The resolution calls for new trade laws to halt America’s continued export of carbon pollution to countries across the globe.

The link between trade policy and climate change may seem far-fetched, but it is illustrated by the relationship between emissions in different countries. For example: In recent years the United States and Europe had been reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions. That seeming progress has been offset in developing countries such as China, which has seen a significant spike in emissions to the point where it now produces more greenhouse gases than the United States and the European Union combined.

On the surface, these trends might appear to show wealthy nations’ proactively decarbonizing their economies, and developing nations failing to do the same. However, China’s emissions are not happening in a vacuum: Research suggests they are being fueled by the United States through the trade policies that the Green New Deal resolution targets.

Over the last few decades, under major free trade agreements, corporations have been shifting manufacturing facilities from the United States to developing-world nations like China, where labor and environmental laws are weaker. That shift has not only eliminated millions of American manufacturing jobs, it has also moved carbon emissions to those countries.

The result: The United States and EU had been domestically producing less greenhouse gas emissions, but the picture looks much more grim when considering “consumption-based” emissions — that is, emissions associated with the production of imported goods purchased by a nation’s consumers.

“What appears [at first sight] to be the result of structural change in the economy is in reality just a relocation of carbon-intensive production to other regions—or carbon leakage,” wrote Dutch researchers in a 2016 report for the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET).

* * *

Data compiled by researchers at Oxford and the University of Edinburgh show that when consumption-based emissions are considered, the United States and the EU have been fueling carbon emissions through their import-dependent economies.

“If we switched to a consumption-based reporting system,” wrote these researchers, “the annual CO2 emissions of many European economies would increase by more than 30 percent and the USA’s emissions would increase by seven percent.”

While not fully fleshed out, the Green New Deal resolution appears to recognize the link between trade and climate change. The measure, which is sponsored by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (MA), calls for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections to stop the transfer of jobs and pollution overseas; and to grow domestic manufacturing in the United States.”

That demand challenges the existing template of American trade pacts: Up until now, those deals have not included provisions designed to reduce carbon emissions.  Indeed, watchdog groups have noted that the term “climate change” was not mentioned in the draft of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership — a deal that environmentalists said would accelerate greenhouse gas emissions.

The Green New Deal — which is only a non-binding resolution and would not create new programs — asks for a change in that trade model. The idea is to include environmental provisions in trade pacts and to use trade policies to encourage manufacturing facilities to return to the United States, where they would be subjected to more stringent emissions rules as they produce goods for Americans.

That demand is supported by the findings of the INET report, which noted that because of the globalized economy, domestic emissions reductions alone will not be enough to ward off catastrophic climate change.

“It is no great achievement to reduce domestic per capita carbon emissions by outsourcing carbon-intensive activities to other countries and by being a net importer of [greenhouse gases],” they wrote.

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Can Jay Inslee Make Climate Change a Top Issue in the Presidential Race?

“Those who would shackle us to the pessimistic view of inaction doom us to sacrifice,” says Washington’s governor. “They doom us to sacrificing our clean air and to sacrificing the ability to walk in a forest that’s not charred down.”

David Sirota




Jay Inslee photo by David Ryder/Getty Images.

How important will climate change be in the 2020 presidential campaign? If Jay Inslee has any say over the matter, it will be front and center — he’s the Democratic Governor of Washington State who is running for president on a promise to make climate change his number one priority.

Capital & Main reporter David Sirota recently talked to Inslee, who as governor has championed legislation to force utilities to use renewable energy. Inslee most recently backed a carbon tax ballot initiative in 2018 — but it lost at the polls.

During the conversation Inslee discussed the ins and outs of his plans to confront climate change, and talked about whether tackling the problem will require major societal sacrifices. What follows is an edited excerpt of the conversation.

David Sirota: Climate change has been emerging as a global emergency for years, but it hasn’t been a central focus of presidential campaigns in the past. Why do you think that is — and why do you think that will likely change in 2020?

Jay Inslee: The problem has become more urgent. It was obvious to me a decade ago when I co-authored a book about it, but it has become more urgent. Therefore, the public is more willing and able and I think ready to take action against climate change.

For the public, what used to be just a chart on a graph is now a personal experience in their lives. It’s smoke in Seattle that made Seattle’s air quality the worst in the world last summer. We had to shut down swimming pools in parts of our state because the air quality was so bad. Kids couldn’t go outside and play. It’s the hurricanes, it’s the precipitation events in Houston, it’s the sea-level rise in Miami, it’s extreme weather precipitation events where Iowa farmers can’t get out and harvest. I was in Iowa a few weeks ago, and they literally couldn’t get out to harvest their crops because it was so muddy. It’s Paradise, California, where I was to see a town of 25,000 people burned out. Looking like Dresden in World War II.

It’s all of those things I think have changed the public’s eagerness for action on this.

I believe what people have missed is the power behind this, because this is consistent with the character of the American people, which is we are optimists. We are can-do people. We’re innovators. We see ourselves as world leaders. And that this scientific issue, if properly positioned, just supports the identity we have as our national character and people have failed to see that.

They have failed to realize that in talking about this, it is as important or more important to identify who we are and who the opposition is. We are the optimists who believe we can defeat climate change. Donald Trump is a pessimist who doesn’t believe we’re smart enough. We are the can-do advocates for a high-tech, clean energy economy and Donald Trump wants us to be stuck in something that was discovered in the 1700s or before that. Those are character issues that are winning issues and I think people have missed that fundamentally.

What is more important — demand-side climate policies that support solar panels and electric cars, or supply-side climate policies that seek to limit fossil fuel extraction?

I think both have their place, and the demand side has many, many tools [and] we’re proposing to use many of them in the state of Washington…We intend to do quite a number of them here in the state of Washington this year. On the supply side, I believe they are necessary as well, but the question is what they are and how they are and how fast that spigot is turned down. That’s an issue.

Clearly, the most obvious one is to not allow the misuse of public resources on our public lands where the Trump administration has attempted to turn our public lands into subsidiaries for the fossil fuel industry, and that’s perhaps the first place where supply side message or supply side policy is necessary for climate purposes.

What do you see are the big sacrifices that society will have to make in order to halt climate change?

I think there’s change, but there’s not sacrifice. That is different. Somehow, people can’t envision that. We changed a lot of things in our lives. We use cellphones instead of bulky landlines. We’re driving electric cars instead of internal combustion engines. We are using ultra-efficient heating and cooling systems. And those have been changes, but none of them have been sacrifices…

Look, this is fundamentally between the pessimists who want inaction and the optimists who want action. That’s the fundamental choice that our nation faces.

Those who would shackle us to the pessimistic, fearful view of inaction doom us to sacrifice. They doom us to sacrificing our clean air, and they doom us to sacrificing the ability to go for a walk in a forest that’s not charred down, and they doom us to have our subdivisions and our homes torched in fires like Paradise. They doom us to precipitation that’s actually drowned people. That’s sacrifice. Those who (are) pessimists who can’t see a vision of changing how we use energy are the ones who are asking us to sacrifice through the inertia and deadly fatalism of inaction. It’s like a guy standing underneath an avalanche that’s coming down and saying, “Hey, don’t ask me to sacrifice to move out of the way.” No, the sacrifice is when you get buried.

And that’s what the inaction crowd and the Donald Trump climate hoax and climate denier crowd ask us to do. This is actually in our self-interest, both short and long-term. And so, no, I think we’re making something that’s clearly in our economic benefit, clearly in our benefit and health, in national security, and certainly the things we love, and in creating jobs. So, no, I don’t look at this as a sacrifice issue.

Yes, there are some investments that we need to make just like we make investments in other things we care about. When we buy a house, people don’t usually think of it as a sacrifice. But yes, you need to have some capital to make the investment. When you buy an electric car, yeah, it takes some capital, but you save on energy because instead of being a slave to the oil and gas industry, you get fuel that’s 80-85 percent less expensive. When you put up a solar panel, you do have an investment, but you save making a monthly payment for 30 years…Investment doesn’t mean sacrifice.

Where do the resources for those investments come from?

There’s a whole host of places where equity comes. Both private and public. One is that when we create the demand for these products, private equity flows into the economy. When we have a 100 percent requirement, which I hope to have of clean electricity in the state of Washington, private equity will come in and help finance some of these investments. That will give us, over the longer term, more reasonably priced electricity because we can use renewable sources rather than non-renewable sources. We can deal with free sunshine instead of monopolistic coal and oil.

Private equity is the largest source of capital that’s involved in this transition. To the extent that the public resources are used…that can come from a variety of sources starting with the Trump tax cut of the giveaway to the wealthiest folks that can help finance some of these measures, and there may be some others.

Now, you can have some carbon-pricing systems to also finance that. I don’t think that should be necessarily taken off the table. It’s not something I’m committed to proposing right now. We’ve decided to move forward on things we get done right now because urgency is important. Time is of the essence. This is the 11th hour. We don’t have time, so we’re moving on things right now that don’t have a direct carbon price in the state of Washington.

There’s a variety of ways of financing these things, but again, the more expensive route is to not finance them and let the economy be ravaged. Let us have to face again a $650 million hit on our agricultural economy in the state of Washington because of a drought. And our insurance rates going through the roof because of massive extreme weather events. And healthcare costs going up because their kids are getting asthma…No, these are wise investments.

What are the big lessons that you’ve taken away from Washington voters defeating the carbon tax ballot measure in 2018?

The number one lesson is you’ve gotta be undaunted and creative and flexible and if one route doesn’t work, you need to take another route.

Suffragettes worked on (voting rights) for decades. The gay marriage proponents worked for decades. The number one lesson is you don’t give up. Climate change isn’t going anywhere, so neither are we. We’re just back at it with a new tool.

The other thing I would say is you gotta realize whatever struggle you’re in with the fossil fuel industry, they are the most powerful special interest in human history. They spent $32 million against that initiative, and sometimes that can’t be overcome. There’s a couple lessons. The other is that any direct pricing system may be a little more difficult than a regulatory system. It’s easier to pass a clean fuel standard and 100 percent electrical grid standard and a net-zero building standard than it is perhaps in a direct pricing system. But all these things in my view need to be under consideration.

How can Democrats avoid having climate policies be portrayed and perceived as unfairly hurtful to people at the lower end of the income scale?

By telling the truth — and the truth is that marginalized communities, people who live in poverty, are the first victims of climate change, and they will be the first beneficiaries of these policies.

I was telling a story of a 14-year-old girl I met who lived next to a freeway and next to an industrial area near the Duwamish River in South Seattle. She told me that she was 11 years old before she found out some kids didn’t have asthma. Everybody else had asthma. She did some research on her own and found how asthma rates went up dramatically the closer you lived to pollution and diesel fuels. These are the people who are most benefited by anti-pollution policies, number one.

Number two, you can build into your policies all kinds of measures to help alleviate those concerns, including direct subsidies to people based on their economic status. You can build those into any carbon pricing system, and you can build them into non-pricing systems. You can build them into regulatory systems as well.

Number three, the thing that really is important…you need to realize that you can have massive carbon pollution reduction without a direct price. It is the investment side that gives you actually the biggest bang for your buck. In the carbon initiative here in the state of Washington, 90 percent plus of the carbon pollution reduction was achieved by the spending, by the subsidies, by the incentive, by the investments, not just by the price signal.

That’s really an important point. But you have many, many ways to move the ball on this to get carbon pollution reduction even without a direct price signal. And we’ve discovered that and that’s why I’m very excited about what we’re doing here this year. My sweep of proposals will get roughly the same carbon pollution as the carbon pricing system would have achieved in the initiative.

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California’s Car Population is Exploding

A new state report says increasing automobile traffic is derailing California’s climate goals.





Researchers claim that even though cars and trucks have increased fuel efficiency, the state cannot drive its way toward a cleaner future.


A blunt report recently compiled by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) finds that Californians are driving more than ever — and unless the state reverses that trend it will not meet its ambitious climate milestones. These include a target of producing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and reaching California’s 2045 carbon-neutrality goal. The report is the first of a series of four-year assessments to take stock of the state’s progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions under Senate Bill 375.

The report estimates that about three-quarters of commuters drive alone to work, a figure that in most regions is staying the same or growing, and that statewide vehicle travel per capita has increased.

The report’s authors say California’s lofty climate agenda is undermined by two factors: a booming economy and the rising cost of housing, particularly in coastal metropolises — with the latter factor causing people to face longer commutes to their jobs. The researchers claim that even as cars and trucks have increased fuel efficiency, the state cannot drive its way toward a cleaner future.

David Clegern, a spokesperson for CARB’s climate change programs, said state and local government investments must make systemic and structural changes to help people do more than just buy cleaner cars.
“All the state, regional and local agencies involved need to up their game,” Clegern said. “It’s not so much that they aren’t working on it, but it’s an effort that needs to be a higher priority, since much of the climate fight will be at the local and neighborhood level.”

He added that a big part of that effort is incorporating mass transit into regional, local and neighborhood planning to provide Californians with options to get them out of their cars.

The report also highlights the difficulty of getting people to abandon automobiles when the only affordable housing options are far from their employment. Targeting housing costs as a key factor in the increased miles driven by Californians, the report states that nearly half of all renters spend more than the recommended 35 percent of their income on housing. Only one-quarter of affordable homes needed for low-income families have been built, the authors say.

The CARB report was released shortly before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the Centennial project, located 60 miles north of L.A., which has been derided by opponents as contributing to suburban sprawl, a car-based lifestyle and fire dangers.

In an email Barry Zoeller, a spokesperson for the Tejon Ranch Company, Centennial’s developer, said that the project’s proposed 3,480 affordable housing units make it “the largest commitment to affordable housing undertaken by any private developer in Los Angeles County for certain, and perhaps in California.”

A similar far-flung and controversial proposed development, Newland Sierra, was green-lit last year by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Aruna Prabhala, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Urban Wildlands program, says the argument that developments like Centennial and Newland Sierra will fix the housing crisis is specious.

“In California we say we’re committed to sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction, yet we still approve outdated models of development,” said Prabhala. “Developers present [models like] Centennial as solutions for affordability, but what solves the problem is infill development and housing close to existing jobs — not leapfrog development.”

Governor Gavin Newsom made affordable housing and increased building central to his 2018 election campaign. In the state legislature, several measures aimed at housing affordability are in the works. Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), for example, is planning legislation to encourage low-income housing construction through tax credits for developers.

In the state Senate, an expanded version of the controversial SB 827, which died in committee last year, was introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) in December and is expected to see its first committee vote in March or April. Like SB 827, SB 50 would mandate incentives for denser development near transit centers. Wiener told Capital & Main that the new bill addresses concerns of vulnerable communities by providing stronger tenant demolition restrictions and would encourage housing starts in job-rich areas that don’t have transit options.

Wiener said he was “pleasantly surprised and thrilled” by the CARB report’s conclusions and prescriptions. “It was clear and spoke the truth that our restrictive anti-housing policies are undermining our climate goals. Unless we address our land use pattern, car use and emissions will keep going up.”

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Will California Curb Workplace Lead Exposure in 2019?

Last year Governor Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have tightened scrutiny of the amount of lead absorbed by workers. Assemblyman Ash Kalra has vowed to pursue passage of his measure with 2019’s Assembly Bill 35.





Last September, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 2963, authored by Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), which would have tightened scrutiny of the amount of lead absorbed by employees in their workplaces. The measure was inspired by several articles that appeared on this site, written by Joe Rubin.

Assemblyman Kalra has vowed to pursue passage of his legislation with AB 35, which could land on the desk of the new governor, Gavin Newsom. An interactive graph, below, charts the contamination of Exide battery plant employees, while two infographics depict the general effects of lead contamination on workers. Capital & Main will report on AB 35’s progress throughout 2019.




Infographic: Kelly Bergkamp


Infographic: Kelly Bergkamp

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The Fires Next Time: Should California Allow Development in Fire Zones?

After two of the most devastating fires in California history, environmentalists and urban planners question why Los Angeles County, or any county in the state, would approve wilderness community developments.





The Thomas Fire, Ventura County, 2017. (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens)

The outgoing Cal Fire director says government officials should consider banning home construction in fire-vulnerable areas.


On December 11 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors greenlit the controversial Centennial project, with only Supervisor Sheila Kuehl voting no. The project, nearly two decades in planning, would bring more than 19,000 homes to a private wilderness area on Tejon Ranch, approximately 65 miles north of downtown L.A.

The proposed Centennial development, covering mostly grassland and some high brush and woodland, straddles “high” and “very high” fire hazard severity zones as defined by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Cal Fire recorded 31 wildfires larger than 100 acres within five miles of the proposed Centennial acreage between 1964 to 2015, and four within Centennial’s boundaries, according to county planning documents.

Critics have said the project will create more sprawl, greenhouse gases and traffic congestion. Others question why Los Angeles County, or any county in the state, would approve a wilderness community just a few weeks after two of the most devastating fires in California history, with one destroying the town of Paradise. A new Los Angeles Times analysis based on Cal Fire data estimates that up to a million structures in California are at high risk because of wildfire.

“The fire behavior we are seeing today is so far out of the norm and getting more extreme every year.”

Donald Falk, a professor with the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment, told Capital & Main that fires in the Western U.S. are now hotter, faster spreading and increasingly unpredictable. “Now fires are burning with high energy in places that don’t appear to have enough fuel to support them,” he said. Falk added that the fire threat to homeowners who build in what is often called the wilderness-urban interface will be much greater in 30 years throughout California and much of the West. A 2017 study Falk co-authored projects that by mid-century the burn area in the U.S. will be five times greater than it is now.

“The fire behavior we are seeing today is so far out of the norm, and getting more extreme every year, that the conventional notions of what it means to be fire safe may quickly become outdated,” he said.

Falk isn’t the only expert sounding the alarm about development. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, outgoing Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said government officials should consider banning home construction in fire-vulnerable areas, such as canyons lined with flammable grass or tinder-dry chaparral, so that homeowners, firefighters and communities “don’t have to keep going through what we’re going through.”

Barry Zoeller, a spokesperson for Centennial’s developer, the Tejon Ranch Company, claimed in an email that the planning is “focused on minimizing fire risk and maximizing fire defense” through stringent fire codes, fire resistant buildings and placement of fire hydrants.” Homeowners must also clear brush around their properties and, because the community is master planned, Tejon Ranch Company officials say, all of its homes will be built to the same specifications and surrounded by fire-resistant landscaping and open space. Power lines, a frequent cause of fires, will be buried.

Tejon Ranch’s Centennial project and similar developments epitomize dueling priorities in California.

Zoeller also noted that, while Centennial sits in an area mapped as a higher fire risk, “There have been no fires on the site in the last 15 years and only four in the last 50 years.”

Tim Piasky, CEO of the Building Industry Association, L.A./Ventura Chapter, said that projects like Centennial would go a long way toward addressing the state’s housing shortage, and he asserted that 18 percent of the homes in Centennial would be set aside as “affordable housing.” And as for fire danger, “Centennial doesn’t provide the fuel for fire as other areas did, and people will have an easier way to get out.”

The Camp Fire in Butte County, the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history, proved that grassland does burn if conditions are right. And urban planning critics contend that in the worst case, up to 60,000 people — double Paradise’s population — would have to evacuate Centennial on short notice.

Centennial’s plan has been peer reviewed by experts at Wildland Resource Management and has been reviewed and approved by the Los Angeles County Fire Department. But that doesn’t assuage J.P. Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Rose said his and other environmental organizations might sue to stop the project. “The California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA] prohibits Centennial to go forward unless public benefits outweigh environmental costs. And in our view the price on people, wildlife and our wallets outweighs any benefit of this project.”

There is precedent for stopping such a project. Earlier this month, a Kern County Superior Court judge determined that all approvals for another Tejon Ranch Company project, Grapevine, in Kern County, be rescinded because they did not comply with CEQA. The court had previously cited Kern County for failing to study the full environmental impact of that project.

Centennial and similar developments epitomize dueling priorities in California, which in this case include the need for housing and the need to mitigate wildfire danger to residents.

Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, said developers’ promises to use modern building and safety practices to reduce fire risks lead to a false sense of security.

“Wherever we build, fire follows,” Miller said, adding that human infrastructure itself — barbecue pits, electricity lines — is risky. “There is no such thing as fireproofing a house. The Thomas Fire in Ventura torched new homes that were built to a stringent code.”

Miller added that municipalities are generally reluctant to stop development projects like Centennial, because “housing starts is a barometer — but a false barometer — of economic health. City and county zoning offices have been greenlighting these projects, even when they see the Cal Fire [fire risk] maps. They have the information.”

In Southern California, some communities have been slowly buying up land to create more open space and prevent development where cities meet wildlife. Monrovia, a city 20 miles northeast of downtown L.A., in 2000 put a measure on the ballot to raise taxes to pay developers for fair-market value of hillside land. The tax brought in $10 million, with a matching grant from Governor Gray Davis and different pots of money to fill in the rest, to reach $24 million to purchase 1,416 hillside acres. Gloria Crudgington, a community activist at the time of the ballot measure and now a Monrovia city councilwoman, said the tax was not based on fire danger, but rather on quality of life issues. “We didn’t want to ruin views and hurt wildlife. But now we see that keeping the land open could prevent fire disasters too.”

Voters of Flagstaff, Arizona, have shown that citizens can, beyond buying back the land, take ownership of reducing wildfire risks. Reeling from two 2010 fires and post-fire flooding, in 2013 Flagstaff taxed itself by passing Proposition 405, a $10 million bond to prevent fires by thinning woodland in the Coconino National Forest surrounding the city.

Miller and Falk both say California’s housing crisis could be addressed by building up, rather than out, with infill developments. University of California, Santa Barbara wildfire specialist Max Moritz has suggested California could avoid some of these developments by creating a state building commission that would refuse to rubber stamp new community developments in the wilderness. Right now, no such commission is on the drawing board.

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Is a New Toxic Danger Threatening California?

PFAS compounds are found in clothing, carpeting, furniture, food packaging, non-stick cooking products and fire-fighting foams. They’ve been linked in humans to cancers and hormonal disruption, as well as developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.

Dan Ross




PFAS compounds have been detected in water sources throughout California, including, background sources say, the groundwater at LAX.


There are many well-documented threats to California’s drinking water resources, but the latest has sprung to prominence only relatively recently, and has regulators and lawmakers scrambling for a response.

The potential “magnitude of the problem” is why the state must act more urgently “to try to understand this quicker and better,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), potentially toxic chemicals found with increasing frequency in drinking water systems across California and the nation.

“I have half a million constituents in my district, and the majority use a water system with less than 10,000 connections,” added Garcia. The bulk of the drinking water monitoring for PFAS chemicals thus far has targeted large systems serving 10,000 or more people. What’s more, many are concerned about the possible impact on poor communities already disproportionately affected by unsafe drinking water. Garcia’s suburban Los Angeles district is comprised of mostly blue-collar Latino communities.

The maximum detection of PFAS variants at the Navy’s China Lake site was 727,273 times what is considered a safe exposure level.

PFAS compounds are a class of chemical found in a long list of everyday items, including clothing, carpeting, furniture, food packaging, non-stick cooking products and fire-fighting foams. They’re persistent, meaning they biodegrade extremely slowly, hence their nickname, “forever chemicals.” And they’ve been linked in humans to cancers and hormonal disruption, as well as developmental, reproductive and immune system problems.

PFAS compounds have been detected in water sources throughout California, including, Capital & Main has learned through background sources, the groundwater at Los Angeles International Airport. A recent Union of Concerned Scientists report also identified 21 different California military sites where PFAS compounds have been detected in the drinking water or groundwater, sometimes at levels more than 100-times the safe limit advised by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). At the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake, Kern County, the maximum detection of PFAS variants in groundwater was eight million parts per trillion (ppt) – 727,273 times what is considered a safe exposure level.

“The hard part is getting it out of the groundwater,” warned Patty Kouyoumdjian, executive officer of the Lahontan water board, the district in which China Lake is situated.

One reason why experts are so concerned about PFAS compounds is the sheer number of them – some estimates put the figure at more than 4,700 variants. PFOA and PFOS are two of the more ubiquitous ones. At the federal government’s urging, industry phased out these two specific compounds in the 2000s, but they’re still widespread in the environment, along with many others PFAS compounds.

While these chemicals have been used in manufacturing since the 1940s, the federal government has been criticized for long down-playing the problems they pose. Part of the problem lies in a decades-long effort by some chemical manufacturers to suppress negative scientific data. And even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a health advisory in 2016 for PFOS and PFOA, at a September 6 Congressional hearing the agency faced repeated criticism for continued lax leadership on the issue.

A few states have taken tougher action than what the federal government recommends. These include Minnesota, which has actively tracked and tackled PFAS contamination for over 15 years. By comparison, California “needs to do much more to protect its residents from exposure to these toxic PFAS chemicals,” said Jane Williams, California Communities Against Toxics’ executive director.

According to Jeff O’Keefe, chief of the Southern California section of the State Water Resources Control Board’s (SWRCB) Division of Drinking Water, PFAS contamination in California “is not looking as widespread” when compared to these other states. Nevertheless, state agencies are still figuring out the breadth of the problem here.

In response to the 2016 EPA health advisory for combined PFOS and PFOA of 70 parts per trillion (ppt), 12 California public water systems have tested above that threshold, and have taken steps to treat their water or take the source off-line, said O’Keefe. Earlier this year, however, the ATSDR released a draft toxicological report that found PFOA and PFOS risk levels were seven to 10 times lower than this EPA standard.

Between 2013 and 2015, as part of a federal monitoring program, all large community water systems in California and a select number of smaller ones were tested for six different PFAS chemicals. PFOS and PFOA compounds were detected in 68 different wells above 40 ppt and 20 ppt, respectively. Some systems performed voluntary monitoring, which yielded 297 separate PFAS source detections.

This July, the SWRCB took an important step towards an enforceable drinking water threshold for PFOA and PFOS when it established a non-mandatory interim Notification Level of 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for PFOS.

If California water agencies choose to test to these levels, they’re required to report the results to their governing boards and to the State Water Board. The state also encourages them to report the information to customers. But agencies are not required to treat the water in the event of a Notification Level exceedance.

Many experts urge haste in the state’s response to the emerging problem.

Even though “we’re still at a rudimentary stage” when it comes to understanding the full human health implications from exposure to these chemicals, the whole PFAS issue is a “cause for grave concern,” said Amy Kyle, a former associate adjunct professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.

One of the characteristics of PFAS compounds that make experts like Kyle especially concerned is that, unlike other persistent toxic chemicals that have posed major health risks in the past—like the once ubiquitous pesticide DDT, now banned—PFAS compounds are water soluble. “They get in the water and travel as fast as it does,” said Kyle.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly all Americans carry trace amounts of PFOA and PFOS in their bodies. As part of a state biomonitoring program, blood samples were taken from 430 L.A. County volunteers earlier this year, and tested for 12 different PFAS compounds. The results are expected to be publicly available early next year.

Assemblywoman Garcia said that an important next step is comprehensive monitoring of all water systems, large and small, including those in her district.

Before all water systems can begin testing to the new notification level, however, more laboratories need to be accredited to new federal testing standards. The state is currently in the accreditation process, said Jeff O’Keefe. “Once we get the labs certified and we expand our knowledge of the occurrences statewide at these lower detection limits, we’ll get a better handle on it,” he added.

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L.A. Gas-Fired Power Plants on Hold as DWP Considers Greener Alternatives

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has paused the rebuilding of three aging power plants to study whether they should continue using natural gas — or could take the leap into renewable energy as soon as possible.





Scattergood power plant. (Photo: Trekandshoot/Getty Images)

By signing into law Senate Bill 100, which sets a goal of 100 percent carbon-free electric power generation by 2045, Governor Jerry Brown not only solidified California’s ongoing transition from fossil fuels, he numbered the days of the state’s gas-fired power plants.

But some new gas plant projects are still on the table. In the South Bay of Los Angeles County three aging plants — Scattergood, Haynes and Harbor — had been slated for replacement with gas-fired generating units that don’t use ocean water. In 2009 the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) required all gas-fired plants that use ocean water to cool them (called “once-through cooling plants”) to be phased out, due to the danger to aquatic organisms.

But last year the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) paused the rebuilding of those three plants to study whether they should continue using natural gas, at least for a few years, or could take the leap into renewable energy as soon as possible. An independent report on the consequences of not rebuilding gas-fired plants, the LADWP told Capital & Main, is due in February.

Energy watchers say it’s not a sure thing that the agency will abandon plans to rebuild these plants to use gas power, despite the state’s 2045 carbon-free mandate and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Sustainable City Plan. One reason, experts say, is the need to protect electric reliability in this densely populated region; another, and possibly more significant one, is bureaucratic inertia.

Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program, said that some gas plants will be needed for years to accommodate for the occasional mismatch of supply and demand when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing.

“Location is important,” Wara said. “You can’t replace a gas plant on Santa Monica Bay with solar farms in the desert yet.”

The other reason LADWP might embrace the status quo – gas power – is the industry’s risk-averse mindset, Wara added. “Change is risky to utilities,” he said.

Evan Gillespie, Western Regional Director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said he hopes LADWP will “clearly state the problems” to the public of taking all gas power off line in the short term, but also enlist green energy companies to show the utility that battery storage for renewables, though costly now, could be cheaper in the long term.

“We want to see RFPs [requests for proposals] to test the market to see how far clean energy can go to replace these plants, rather than the DWP doing the market analysis,” Gillespie said. “I think the clean energy developer community has a penchant for more creativity and they’re inclined to turn over more stones.”

Gillespie, like Wara, said LADWP doesn’t need to retire all three plants now, and that Scattergood, which finished rebuilding one of its units last year, could “let that run for a decade or two” but that the utility should draw the line at starting construction on any more gas-fired units.

LADWP’s initial estimate for rebuilding the three gas-fired plants was $2.2 billion, with a scheduled completion of the final phase in 2029.

The Grayson Power Plant in the inland L.A. suburb of Glendale, is the fourth, and last, gas-fired power plant in the state that might be rebuilt to use fossil fuel. But renovation plans for it, too, were put on hold earlier this year, spurred by intense public pressure, so that the Glendale Water and Power utility could look at renewable alternatives.

In Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is moving headlong into renewables.  In June,  the company requested approval of four energy storage projects that would replace three gas-fired power plants it manages. The utility also plans to replace a gas plant in Oakland with batteries and multiple solar panels.

LADWP, the largest public utility in the country, could follow PG&E’s lead, Gillespie said. “Replacing two gigawatts of gas with energy storage isn’t easy [for LADWP] but it isn’t impossible.”

Responding to a question about a possible move toward renewable energy, LADWP spokesman Joseph Ramallo said in an email that the department’s planned study would provide a “detailed assessment of a comprehensive set of alternatives” to gas-powered plants and would determine how much the department could reduce natural gas while maintaining system reliability.

In the wake of the 2000-2001 energy crisis, California commissioned many natural gas plants. Wara said that for the next two decades the 200 natural gas plants connected to the grid will be decommissioned, one by one, shuttered by market forces or regulators in a game of “musical chairs.”

A recent independent analysis conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that California could immediately retire at least 28 of the 89 natural gas plants in the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) territory without affecting the stability of the electric grid.

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