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Water, Water — Everywhere and Nowhere

Just before the Oroville Dam became daily front page news, during what turned out to be a brief lull in this winter’s storms, one of my neighbors asked me if I thought the drought was over. “Nope, just an interlude,” I said.

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Rev. Jim Conn

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Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway.

Just before the Oroville Dam became daily front page news, during what turned out to be a brief lull in this winter’s storms, one of my neighbors asked if I thought the drought was over. “Nope, just an interlude,” I said. Then, within the week, more rain came – rain and snow, depending on where you reside in this great state. But as far as I can tell, we still live in a continuing drought. These storms are just a brief interruption.

After so much rain, and massive, record-setting snow, why do I say that? According to climate experts, California has so depleted its water supply that it would require several years of regular, above-normal precipitation to take the state out of its long-term drought condition. Southern California in particular is desert and near desert, surviving primarily on imported water. That’s why national, state and local governments built these water works in the first place. They wanted to get water to places where there was little or not enough, as well as to protect the state from periodic floods.

This condition of unpredictable precipitation leads many to advocate for increased infrastructure – more dams and aquifers – that would save water in wet seasons for dispersal in dry ones. That’s why the ballot measure on water resources approved by voters in 2014 included money for dams. This year, with its overflowing dams and full reservoirs, makes a good case. Fill them now, use it later. Except for some places, like Santa Barbara’s Lake Cachuma, which just jumped from eight percent to 46 percent of its capacity after recent heavy rains.

Critics of dams point to the toll they take on the host river’s ecosystem. And besides the environmental impact, we do not know when the next heavy rainfall year like this one is likely to show up. It could be next year, it could be five years – or longer. Because of human-caused climate change, this season could be the new normal or a fluke.

Furthermore, when the system of rivers and streams runs full, it benefits other parts of the environment. It refreshes the California Delta – where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers meet – restoring fish habitat, washing away salt and bringing fresh nutrients to the soil. This benefits both the agriculture and fishing industries as well as the ecology of the river.

Even deeper problems plague us that building more dams won’t solve.

Overpumping from deep wells has dropped the water table in the Central Valley, here in the Los Angeles basin and other areas across the state. These underground storage systems accumulated over millennia, but in the last century farmers and cities have drained so much water that massive storms don’t begin to refill them. Even in the middle of this rainy season people in some areas of Tulare County must use bottled water. Farm land has subsided, buckling roads and cracking canals. Many rural residents drilling deeper wells come up empty. We have been drawing down on a legacy that now can’t support people or produce.

As long as there is a snow pack in the Sierras, water will continue to flow to California farmers and cities. The City of Los Angeles ensured it would have its needed share of that water when it built the Los Angeles Aqueduct that stretches from above Mammoth into the city. The California Aqueduct that flows from Northern California down the Central Valley supplies many of the cities surrounding Los Angeles through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. But those places also depend on water from another source, the Colorado River.

The Colorado’s Lake Mead typically supplies about 45 percent of what’s used by areas served by the Metropolitan Water District. As long as Northern California water flows, Los Angeles remains in good condition. Adjacent cities will benefit from it too, but it won’t be enough, because Lake Mead water levels remain seriously below normal, reaching record lows in the last few years. Although the lake rose eight feet so far this year, runoff expected from the Rocky Mountains has not and will not adequately replenish its stock, even as urban areas expand and thirsty farmers want more. You can’t squeeze water out of a dry sponge.

So as I told my neighbor, we’re in an interlude, a time between, when underlying drought conditions do not appear so obvious. That’s why cities, like Santa Monica, and water districts across the Southland, continue to press for water self-reliance. And it’s not time to go back to the old behaviors. Don’t run water while you brush your teeth. Don’t take those long showers. Let someone who recycles water wash your car. Install drought-resistant plantings. Use water as if it were precious. It is. Our life depends on it.


Photo: California Department of Water Resources

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Environment

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.

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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.

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Alexandra Nagy (left) and Porter Ranch residents outside LA. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger's office. (Photo: Save Porter Ranch)

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.

Not giving up on Brown

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.”


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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.

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Judith Lewis Mernit

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Photo: Michael L. Baird

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, California’s grid will be free of nuclear power.


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Battery Blood

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.

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Cleanup of Exide's Vernon plant. (Photo: California Department of Toxic Substances Control)

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.

Also Read:
How California Health Agencies Failed Exide Workers

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.”

Read Documents Related to This Story

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.

Photo: Laurie Avocado

“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.

Infographic:  Kelly Bergkamp

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.


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Battery Blood

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.

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Joe Rubin

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Photo: Joanne Kim

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.

Infographic:  Kelly Bergkamp

“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.”

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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.

Photo: Joanne Kim

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.

Photo: Joanne Kim

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.


Tomorrow —
California Has Worse Lead Standards Than Arkansas and Texas. Why?


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Environment

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.

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Julianne Tveten

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Boring Company's digging machine. (Photo: The Boring Co.)

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.”

Map shows Boring Company’s proposed Phase 1 in red. (Image: The Boring Co.)

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.”


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Environment

Zero for Effort: Environmental Scorecard Flunks California Congressmembers

Figures compiled from campaign contribution records show that fossil fuel industries donate almost exclusively to Republican candidates. “They’ve gone out of their way to help oil and gas and coal,” says one environmentalist.

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California’s reputation as a world leader in environmental policy and innovation has taken a serious hit in the current Congress. The League of Conservation Voters’ 2017 Environmental Scorecard, released Tuesday, shows a Golden State delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives deeply divided over core protections to clean air and water, wildlife and wild lands. On several occasions, Californians have led Trump administration initiatives to hack away at the pillars of national environmental law – usually in favor of fossil fuel industries.

The scorecard is an annual league publication that assigns each U.S. senator and representative a score from 0 to 100 based on their pro-environmental voting record, with demerits for missed votes. Both California senators and 19 of its representatives earned perfect scores of 100 – the most of any state – yet they were somewhat overshadowed by the deeply countervailing effects of the state’s Republican delegation, all of whose members received scores of nine or less, and three of whom received flat zeros.

“California is really a story of contrasts,” said Sara Chieffo, the league’s vice president of government affairs. “We had votes clustered at either end of the 0-100 score range. We have a number of Republican members of the House delegation who like to say they stand up for clean air and clean water, and are trying to do the right thing for the environment – Issa, Walters, Rohrabacher come to mind – but they all do abysmally poor on the scorecard. Those members, respectively, get a 9, a 3, and a 9.”

Tom McClintock, whose district covers a huge swath of the eastern Central Valley and the Sierras, got a zero. So did Doug LaMalfa of Oroville, and Duncan Hunter of eastern San Diego County. In a wildly active year that saw 35 votes in the House and 19 in the Senate, they were in lockstep with a Trump administration that the Scorecard calls the “most anti-environmental administration in our nation’s history,” trying to roll back as many environmental regulations as possible, including many air-quality rules that were seen as hampering energy development.

For Californians suffering poor air quality in these same districts, the consequences could not be more serious.

“I couldn’t sleep last night because I was too busy coughing!” said Kira Hinslea, a 6 year old living with asthma in the Central Valley town of Wasco. “I had asthma all night. And now I have dark circles under my eyes.”

Wasco is in Kern County which, according to the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2017” report, has some of the very highest levels of ozone and small particulate matter pollution in the country. About one in every six children in the San Joaquin Valley between 5 and 17 years old have asthma, which is higher than the state average, and in Kern County the rate is over 18 percent.

“She loves being outside, but she very rarely gets to go outside because of the air quality,” said Kira’s mother, Shirley Hinslea, who monitors the air quality outside 24/7 with an app on her phone. “If the air quality is red outside, she’s not allowed to go outside at all. And if it’s yellow, she’s allowed to go outside for 20 minutes, with a mask, and that’s about the extent.”

Kevin Hamilton, CEO of the Central California Asthma Collaborative in Fresno, which provides education and direct services to asthma sufferers and advocates on their behalf – including Shirley and Kira Hinslea – says he and his staff have studied all the possible causes of asthma, including the effects of poverty, and have narrowed it down to one–air pollution.

Yet their representatives in Congress vote against clean air. Fresno’s congressman, Democrat Jim Costa, earned a withering score of 31 on this year’s scorecard, the lowest of any Democrat in California’s House delegation. Costa was an outlier in the Democratic ranks. He not only voted to delay implementation of more stringent air quality standards and to hamstring the ability of the EPA to set effective standards under the Clean Air Act (see our story here), he also cast 11 other strongly anti-environmental votes last year. These included votes to roll back President Obama’s Stream Protection Act, which made coal companies responsible for watersheds near their mining operations, and to roll back a rule that prevented oil and gas companies from venting methane into the atmosphere on public and tribal lands.

Costa, however, was an eco-warrior compared to Central Valley Republicans Devin Nunes of Visalia and Bakersfield’s Kevin McCarthy. Both are ardent supporters of President Trump, and each scored 3. Hanford’s David Valadao and Jeff Denham of Modesto both scored 6, and Steve Knight of Santa Clarita got a 9.

Costa, Nunes, McCarthy, Valadao, Denham and coastal San Diego and Orange County Rep. Darrell Issa did not reply to requests for comment.

“I feel like we’re moving backward 20 years,” said Hamilton. “This is a whole new level of – I’ll just say it – stupidity. We have the data. It’s there. It’s not manufactured, it’s medical records, it’s laboratory work, it’s scientific study. The only driver that I can see is the economic driver: [they say] we have to deal with [poor air quality] because it’s the only way we can have a solid economy. Which is just not true.”

The League of Conservation Voters’ Chieffo singled out three California congressmen for leading on anti-environmental bills, the most sweeping being the “Midnight Rules Relief Act,” sponsored by 15-year Congressional veteran Issa. Issa’s bill, which passed the House weeks before President Trump was even sworn in, assumed that all executive actions taken in the last 60 legislative days of an outgoing presidential administration were rushed and ill-considered. It modified the shadowy Congressional Review Act to allow congress to overturn all those executive actions with a single vote.

Would have allowed, that is, if the Senate had taken it up, which it did not. This was the case with a fair number of bills squeezed through the House in 2017, including the other two bills spearheaded by Californians. Tom McClintock led on the “Water Supply Permitting Coordination Act,” which passed in the House and would have overhauled the permitting of water projects in the West, severely undermining the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, in the process.

And David Valadao, Kira Hinslea’s congressman, spearheaded the “Gaining Responsibility on Water Act” (GROW), which also passed in the House and would have secured more water for California farmers at the expense of wildlife protections and public input on water projects.

Water bills notwithstanding, most of the environmental measures herded through the House in 2017 were designed to ease regulation on energy development. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that California delegation members who voted for them also received sizable campaign contributions from the energy industry. In 2016, for instance, Kevin McCarthy received $335,150 in campaign donations from oil and gas, and has pulled in a whopping $1.2 million from energy interests during his short congressional career. Valadao received $53,350 from the oil and gas industry in 2016. Denham pulled in $188,999 that year, and Steve Knight $50,400. Nunes received $72,500 and has received $362,200 over the course of his congressional career.

Figures compiled from campaign contributions records show that fossil fuel industries donate almost exclusively to Republican candidates. One exception is Jim Costa. He received $94,525 in 2016 and almost $468,974 from oil and gas interests during his congressional tenure.

“They’ve gone out of their way to help oil and gas and coal,” said Chieffo. “And I should say that another theme of the year, despite the gridlock in Congress and the assault on the environment from the Trump Administration, is that we’re seeing progress being made on clean energy and climate in states across the country, even in Republican-led states. So the narrative really is one of contrasts with just how out of touch this administration is.”

It never occurred to Shirley Hinslea that the government might help her daughter. “I never thought about it, honestly. I’m too busy,” she said. She is deeply grateful that members of the Central California Asthma Collaborative have come to her house and helped her get the equipment she uses to monitor the humidity and other conditions that trigger Kira’s asthma.

“It wasn’t the government,” she said. “It wasn’t the Senate. It was the Asthma Collaborative themselves that did it.” But she holds out hope for government action: “Having something for the air quality would be pretty nice!”


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Smog Check: Central Valley Congressmen Refuse to Clear the Air

Both ozone and particulate pollution are attributed to oil and gas production, agribusiness, mega-dairies, power generation, heavy equipment and truck traffic – many of the Central Valley’s major businesses.

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Bend in the River: The view from Bakersfield's Panorama Bluffs. (Photos by Dean Kuipers)

According to the American Lung Association, Bakersfield has some of the worst air in the country with regard to the two principal ingredients that make smog.


 

When you stand on Bakersfield’s Panorama Bluffs, the Central Valley’s chronic air quality problems hit you right in the face. A thick, blue-gray aerial sauce lays over the Kern River below and the massive, 9,000-well oilfield to the north, a smog that sweeps up the bluff. The haze smells of oil and cow manure and stings the eyes.

On the day I visited, the Environmental Protection Agency warned residents that the air was “Unsafe for Sensitive Groups” like children and the elderly, who were advised to limit outdoor activity. Unfortunately, these EPA “action days” are the new normal here. According to the American Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2017” report, Bakersfield has some of the worst air in the country with regard to the two principal ingredients that make smog. The city ranks Number One for short-term spikes in fine particle pollution, or PM2.5, and Number Two for ozone (after Los Angeles).

Ozone forms in the atmosphere as the combination of nitrogen oxides, or NOx, and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that mix in the presence of sunlight. PM2.5 is a tiny particle produced by diesel engines and wood-burning, and by the conversion of NOx and sulfur dioxides, among other chemicals, into particles. Both are dangerous to health and contribute to asthma, lung disease and other ailments.

“It’s like this most days,” said Debbie Saltello, 50, who was walking from Bakersfield College, which sits at the top of the bluffs directly south of the oilfields. “That’s why we’re always sick. People really want to do something about this, and we need to be fighting for cleaner air. But each of us only has time to do so much.”

Saltello felt like she needed to do something, because her representative in Congress was voting the other way. In 2017, congressmen whose districts lie in the Central Valley voted for a little-known new bill, the Ozone Standards Implementation Act, or HR 806, which critics say guts the EPA’s ability to set healthy ozone and particulate-matter standards, and delays the implementation of clean-air solutions.

The bill, which passed the House and is now in the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee as S263, delays the implementation of 2015 National Ambient Air Quality Standards until October 2024, and permanently changes the EPA’s air quality review from a five-year to a 10-year cycle. More important, the proposed measure allows the EPA to consider “technological feasibility” when the agency sets these standards. Currently, the EPA must set standards “requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety,” even if those goals are hard to attain, thus challenging districts and industry to innovate.

Republicans in this conservative swath of the state supported the bill, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Devin Nunes of Visalia, Jeff Denham of Modesto and David Valadao of Hanford. It was a mostly partisan vote, with only 11 Republicans voting against the bill and only four Democrats voting for it. One Democrat, however, was Jim Costa, whose Fresno district – along with Bakersfield, Visalia, Modesto and Hanford – is routinely among the Top Six worst cities in the U.S. for year-round PM2.5 spikes and ozone.

Costa, Nunes, Denham, Valadao and McCarthy declined to be interviewed for this story, but the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pete Olson of Sugar Land, Texas – a Houston  suburb that is also a center for oil and gas production and has its own claims on having the nation’s most polluted air – said his bill was necessary because the EPA was creating red-tape bottlenecks, and he wanted to see fewer communities struggle with the fines and penalties for being in “non-attainment” of the standards. The 2015 NAAQS, which are the latest released, were met by a barrage of litigation and President Trump’s EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, created a task force to explore ways to ease compliance.

“In recent years, we have seen the Environmental Protection Agency’s inability to issue rulemakings and guidance in a timely way on air quality standards,” said Olson in an email interview. “Communities are left with uncertainty and a lack of implementation guidance, while job creators and local businesses are left dealing with the regulatory difficulties of trying to expand in a ‘non-attainment’ area.” Further, Olson claimed, districts were punished for air pollution that might not be their fault. “We have seen significant issues with how the EPA handles emissions outside the control of localities. The State of Texas has spent years struggling to avoid being penalized for pollution caused by natural events like forest fires. It is also worth noting that a significant portion of pollution in the Western U.S. is either naturally occurring or comes from as far away as China.”

Olson denied that his bill will hurt health standards.

Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy at the American Lung Association, said the bill was driven by the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers and other groups that lobby on behalf of big polluters.

“Oh, you mean the Smoggy Skies Act?” Billings asked in reply to a question about the legislation. “This bill is really designed to repeal the fundamental health premise of the Clean Air Act, or, I would say, rip the lungs out of that law. Currently, the standards are based on the health science: ‘Requisite to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety.’ In this legislation, they impose a technological feasibility test. Not having doctors and scientists tell us what levels harm health, but to allow engineers and economists to discuss whether or not it is feasible to meet these standards. This is kind of like diagnosing a patient by what it will cost to cure the patient, rather than by what ails the patient.”

In their published dissent, House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats called the bill a “compilation of attacks that in reality strikes at the heart of the CAA [Clean Air Act],” adding: “This bill would undermine decades of progress on cleaning up air pollution and protecting public health from all criteria pollutants – not just ozone.”

Bakersfield’s Rep. McCarthy, who sponsored versions of this bill for years, provided a statement to Capital & Main, which reads in part: “…the Obama Administration’s regulation [meaning the 2015 NAAQS] will saddle our communities with punitive fines for failing to meet a near-impossible task of complying with a standard so unrealistic it is approaching naturally occurring background ozone levels…. This bill makes the right reforms, without sacrificing air quality that will help our communities be healthy and thrive.”

The Lung Association’s “State of the Air 2017” report notes that air quality has been getting progressively better throughout the country since the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, even as it remains unhealthful: Los Angeles still has the nation’s worst ozone problem, but the numbers have been steadily improving. But that has required increasingly more stringent quality standards.

Dolores Barajas-Weller, director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition, a clean-air advocacy group, says the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has resisted clean-air strategies proposed by her group. The district’s executive director, Seyed Sadredin, is well-known for wanting to soften the very law he’s supposed to uphold: He submitted a white paper on that subject to the Trump transition team, and testified in support of HR 806 in committee hearings, while the California Air Resources Board and many other agencies in charge of air quality opposed the bill.

“[The District] say they’ve left it all on the table, but they haven’t,” Barajas-Weller said.

Wood-burning and the widespread charbroiling of restaurant foods, for example, could be more strictly regulated, she said, and agricultural burning could be replaced by offering incentives to growers in the valley to chip, mulch and compost their waste. Similarly, the waste water that is a byproduct of oil and gas extraction is a major source of VOCs and needs addressing. Farm equipment can be transitioned from diesel to clean energy. And biomass energy facilities need to be more strictly controlled.

“The Rio Bravo biomass facility here in Fresno is the top PM2.5 source for the entire county, and it’s located in one of the poorest unincorporated communities,” said Barajas-Weller. “The governor signed a five-year bill to bring in all of the forests affected by the tree mortality issues, trucking them down on diesel trucks and burning them in a disadvantaged community.”

“With respect to particulate matter and ozone, it’s very disheartening that the congressional Republicans, now that they’re in power, are working tirelessly to gut to protections in the Clean Air Act,” said José Gurrola, mayor of the Kern County town of Arvin, located just south of Bakersfield. “Here in Kern County, we saw over the holidays a period of about 10 days where particulate-matter pollution was so bad that we hadn’t seen that kind of pollution since the 1990s.”

Gurrola, who was elected in 2016 on an environmental platform, sees vast opportunity for the valley in the process of air cleanup. He wants smart growth, mass transit, tractors and oilfield equipment running off clean energy, and subsidies for electric vehicles targeted directly to the Central Valley.

“Rather than weaken the standards of the Clean Air Act,” Gurrola said, “I think that [Congress] should provide more resources to the Valley Air District, to provide more incentives for both industry and the community to work together to improve the air.”


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Four Ways California Can Beat Trump’s Solar Tariff

How much damage a 30 percent tariff will inflict depends on who’s talking. The Solar Energy Industries Association says the impact will be devastating. Others speak less pessimistically.

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Judith Lewis Mernit

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The new tariff will complicate the development of large, industrial “utility-scale” solar plants, a meaningful source of jobs
in a labor-poor industry.


On January 22 President Trump announced that the U.S. would impose a 30 percent tariff on solar technology imported from China and most other countries. The tariff won’t boost domestic solar manufacturing, but it will inflict damage on America’s 374,000-job solar industry, which for the last eight years has thrived on inexpensive imports.

How much damage depends on who’s talking. The Solar Energy Industries Association, or SEIA, says the impact will be devastating. Others say it will only drive the cost of solar installations back to where they were in 2015 ($1.77 to $3.09 per watt, opposed to $1.03 to $2.80 per watt in 2017), when solar installation was doing fine. The Obama administration imposed tariffs on Chinese solar imports specifically in 2012, and on China and Taiwan in 2014. Solar deployment in the U.S. nevertheless doubled between 2014 and 2016.

California state law, which also requires utilities to procure half of their energy from renewable sources by 2030, will also soften the effect of the price hike. Rooftop solar will feel little impact because each system is small enough to absorb a nominal price hike. What the tariff will do, however, is complicate the development of large, industrial “utility-scale” solar plants, a meaningful source of jobs in a labor-poor industry.

“California’s renewable energy mandate has created significant numbers of good, family-sustaining jobs with health care and retirement security,” says Carol Zabin of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education. “It has also provided apprenticeship training and jobs to people of color from some of the poorest regions of our state.”

There are ways to cushion the tariff’s blow, however, ways that are within the powers of local and state governments, or at least can be helped along by local support. Some ideas follow.

Subsidize innovation: Way back in, say, 2009, a rooftop solar array was out of reach for most middle-class homeowners. Large, “utility-scale” plants, built in remote areas to power cities, made little sense for utilities that could buy coal-generated electricity or build new natural gas plants for less. The only way solar was going to make sense was if somebody figured out how to make it more efficient, or cheaper.

The U.S. Energy Department in the Obama administration therefore put its weight behind research. Stimulus funds were made available for grants and guaranteed loans, and the Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative went looking for ways to wring more watts from a photon. There were many auspicious ventures. A California company called Solyndra, for example, had designed cylindrical solar modules that converted more light into electricity using a material called copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGs to convert sunlight to electricity, which proved more efficient than the traditional crystalline silicon.

Solyndra notoriously went bankrupt, defaulting on its loan. At least one of the reasons (there are many), is that the Chinese started rapidly churning out solar panels, with abundant government subsidies. By applying its innovative muscle to manufacturing processes, not advances in technology, China went from producing almost no solar panels in 2001 to, by 2010, producing half the world’s supply. Manufacturers in the U.S. and other countries accused China of flooding the market, but solar prices dropped by as much as 90 percent. That price drop fueled an international energy revolution with ordinary silicon photovoltaic solar cells.

That rapid transition from conventional to renewable energy, still underway, was a boon for the climate. But it wasn’t so good for innovation. Solar still takes up too much space, creating conflicts between environmentalists and conservationists over open space and wildlife. Alternative materials, such as Solyndra’s CIGs and gallium arsenide are still more efficient solar-to-electricity converters than silicon. A team at Stanford University has developed a way to manufacture gallium arsenide more cheaply than ever.

There are indications that federal decision-makers understand the importance of inventing new solar things. The day after the tariff announcement, Energy Secretary Rick Perry announced a $3 million prize for solar innovation, with the intent of reenergizing domestic manufacturing of solar technology.

Build a better battery: Methods of storing solar-generated energy are proliferating, from Tesla’s Powerwall to the molten salt tower at Nevada’s Crescent Dunes concentrating solar thermal plant (it uses mirrors, not photovoltaic cells, to harness the sun’s energy). Right now, California often has so much solar during daylight hours that the system operator sometimes pays other states to take it. Storage means solar could feed a steady stream of electrons into the grid, making it ever more valuable to the people whose job it is to maintain a reliable electricity supply.

Let solar installers off the hook: When a solar developer sells energy to a utility, the two parties agree to a certain price based on the developer’s cost to develop, design, construct and operate the project. Because companies bid these projects to utilities, that price is the lowest feasible cost at one point in time, says Patrick Hodgins of the Renewable Resources Group, a clean-energy developer. “The utility says, ‘We want X quantity of solar, so let us know what you can deliver it for.’ It’s a race to the bottom on procurement.”

Some developers have loaded up on panels in advance of the tariff. But the ones that have not assumed they were getting them at a lower cost than they can buy them for now. The utilities signed those contracts in a pre-tariff environment, “so if someone’s coming to them saying ‘all of my costs have changed,’ the utilities are not likely to give them any concessions, since they planned on paying the price that was bid,” Hodgins says.

Concessions are even less likely since most of California’s utilities are well on their way to surpassing at least near-term state mandates for procuring renewable energy. “If they don’t get relief, many of those projects are going to die,” Hodgins says.

One of the ways to get that relief would be for utilities to waive the penalties they charge to let developers out of contractual obligations. That would enable them to bid their projects to “community choice” aggregators, or CCAs — municipal entities authorized to purchase power on behalf of their communities. CCAs often have specific requirements for carbon emissions that their consumers demand. “They have a need,” Hodgins says. “They’re in the process of figuring out what their loads are going to look like. They’re offering programs to their consumers beyond what’s required by statute.” Some CCAs say they can provide electricity from 100 percent renewable sources — which means they need all the solar they can get.

Partner with China for stateside manufacturing: Because Trump’s tariff steps down by five percent each year for four years and then expires, it won’t automatically spur investment in stateside solar manufacturing. Only specific policies can do that, and the U.S. so far doesn’t have them. But if Trump is serious about ramping up domestic manufacturing of solar panels — and the tariff might work to that effect — he should invest the money in a solar gigafactory, similar to the one Tesla has for batteries.

This idea comes from Jigar Shah, the president and co-founder of an energy company called Generate Capital, but also a well-known thinker on renewable energy matters. Shah writes in Quartz that the tariff will bring in an estimated $1.6 billion every year to America’s coffers. “It would be the incentive the industry needs to refocus on domestic manufacturing instead of taking advantage of cheap overseas panels.”

In a nod to U.S. solar module manufacturers who import the cells for their panels from other countries, the administration has allowed 2.5 gigawatts of solar cells to cross our borders tariff free, which means that assembly in the U.S. is still possible. But factories ought to make the cells, too, and find “world-class plant operators,” Shah writes. And really the only place to find them is China.

Shah isn’t optimistic about Trump’s ability to negotiate a solar factory partnership with China. But if Trump can’t or won’t make a deal, then states, including California, can. Already the Chinese solar manufacturer JinkoSolar is looking for space and tax breaks to build a $54 million headquarters and manufacturing plant in Jacksonville, Florida. California Gov. Jerry Brown has already been clearing a path to climate collaboration with Beijing. California — or at the very least, our low-tax neighbor, Nevada — could be headed for a plant of its own.


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Why Climate Activists Protested Jerry Brown’s Swan Song

Climate-change activists hoping to hear the governor propose a new climate initiative during his State of the State speech Thursday were disappointed.

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Photo by Carlos Perea

One might expect the final State of the State address from a governor who spent nearly half a century on California’s political scene to be a bit of a victory lap. Speaking before the state’s assembled legislators on Thursday, Jerry Brown took the time to list many of his achievements , including a balanced budget, low unemployment and criminal justice reforms.

But on what might be Brown’s signature accomplishment, climate change policy, activists hoping to hear a new initiative were disappointed. Brown didn’t mention oil and gas in his speech, and that’s a problem, activists say, because despite his reputation as a climate leader, his record on climate is mixed at best.

Shortly after Brown’s address, health professionals and members of the Oil Money Out campaign, a coalition of environmental, advocacy and political groups, gave a press conference on the steps of the state capitol prior to delivering more than 80,000 signatures petitioning Governor Brown and California’s elected officials to refuse to accept oil money.

South L.A. resident Gabriela Garcia gave an emotional recounting of the health problems her family had suffered as a result of living near the AllenCo oil wells.

“We would feel tremors,” Garcia said. “We would smell interesting smells in our neighborhood . . . Later we found out they were using masking agents. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon or at 5 in the morning we [felt] these tremors in the earth or . . . we smelled these smells that are not normal. My own daughter was waking up with blood all over her face.”

Garcia and other neighbors started People Not Pozos (People Not Wells) and were able to shut down one nearby well, but she said she fears AllenCo will keep trying to reopen it.

Several speakers said Garcia’s experience with urban oil drilling shows how Brown has been far too accommodating to the oil and gas industry.

David Braun, director of Rootskeeper and Oil Money Out, was an organizer of the event. He told Capital & Main that Brown needs to “walk the walk” on the environment and climate change.

“I’m always encouraged to hear Brown talk about climate change, but he has ignored the science about fracking and oil production,” Braun said.

“The influence of Big Oil has long been felt in California politics,” said R.L. Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus. She and other activists fought against the extension of Assembly Bill 398 last year, saying cap-and-trade was too friendly to the oil and gas industry.

Environmental advocates say California can’t meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets, let alone live up to its reputation as a climate leader, without severely reducing the amount of oil and gas production. California is third on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s list of top crude oil-producing states, behind Texas and North Dakota. Though the state has reduced crude oil production since the 1980s, California still delivers two million barrels per day from 12 refineries. According to a 2015 report commissioned by industry lobbying group Western States Petroleum Association, oil and gas contributes to nearly 500,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state, and accounts for 3.4 percent of the state GDP.

That amount of oil and gas activity has an effect on the state beyond economics. In 2015, a California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) report determined that fracking and urban drilling are dangerous for California and made recommendations such as mandatory human health buffer zones around oil operations. But so far, none of the scientific recommendations have been implemented.

And a 2017 report by the Center for Biological Diversity showed that urban oil drilling releases toxic air pollutants that cause cancer, asthma and other health problems, and that communities of color are disproportionately affected.

“Urban oil drilling uses the same chemicals used in fracking,” Braun said. “But because routine oil operations, which constitute most of the urban oil drilling in California, is not considered well stimulation, nobody is overseeing it.”

Despite California’s reputation of leading the fight for environmentally friendly policies, the oil industry spent more than $36 million in the 2015-16 legislative session, up from $34 million the previous year, according to an American Lung Association study. Miller says that money had influence on climate policies, including AB 398, the extension of cap-and-trade, which Miller said had its “genesis in oil industry talking points.”

A 2016 report by Consumer Watchdog, “Brown’s Dirty Hands,” found that energy companies, including giants Occidental, Chevron and NRG, had donated $9.8 million to Jerry Brown’s campaigns, cause, and initiatives, and to the California Democratic Party between 2009 and 2014. “This was hush money to protect the oil industry,” Liza Tucker, alleges. The report and demands by climate advocates led the California Democratic party to pledge that it would no longer accept donations from oil companies.

In her other capacity as co-founder of Climate Hawks Vote, Miller recently got the four major Democratic candidates – including Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, State Treasurer John Chiang, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin – to sign a pledge to take no oil money.

“I think this [pledge] shows the candidates at least acknowledge there’s an oil lobbying problem,” Miller said, adding that activists need to hold candidates accountable to ensure oil money doesn’t quietly seep into campaigns through independent expenditures.


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