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Who Will Clean Up Silicon Valley’s E-wasteland?

Co-published by Fast Company
What’s arguably most responsible for the growing problem of electronic waste is the manufacturing model of planned obsolescence, in which software and hardware become incompatible or antiquated, or smartphones and laptops aren’t designed for durability.

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Julianne Tveten




Co-published by Fast Company

Last April, Apple released its 58-page Environmental Responsibility Report, an ecological “progress report” for the 2016 fiscal year. The document boasted of a number of sustainability and safety initiatives under the high-profile leadership of Lisa Jackson, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator.

However, a subsequent report published by Vice’s technology vertical, Motherboard, found that Apple had instructed third-party recyclers to shred its old products, rendering them ineligible for reuse or repurposing, even when stored data could be safeguarded without destruction of the hardware. Such “must-shred” policies expose one of the many practices undergirding a burgeoning environmental issue: electronic waste.

The years 2014 and 2015 produced approximately 41 million tons of e-waste each (less than one-sixth of 2014’s e-waste was estimated to have been recycled); projections for 2017 approach 50 million tons. Unlike ordinary household trash, e-waste contains heavy metals and hazardous chemicals; smartphones’ component parts often consist of lead, mercury and brominated flame retardants, whose toxicity and lack of biodegradability have long threatened the health of humans, animals and the environment. In addition, smartphones and laptops contain “conflict minerals” (coltan, wolframite, cassiterite and gold), whose funding of the Congolese civil war and environmental costs have long been documented. Furthermore, as these minerals’ finite supply attenuates, miners must look to deep-sea alternatives.

“Coltan is needed for the antennas on [smartphones] to get those WiFi signals…and there really aren’t that many sources of it around the world,” says deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler. “We don’t have a very good pipeline to reuse these minerals after they’ve lived out their life in a piece of electronics resources…. As we’re exhausting ore bodies on the surface, much like with oil exploration, we’re going deeper and deeper into the ocean to try to find these resources.”

A number of circumstances contribute to the production of e-waste. There’s no federal law requiring e-waste to be recycled, and procedures nationwide are often fragmented and cumbersome; only 25 states have implemented legislation. In addition, e-waste recycling is largely privatized, placing its control in the hands of profit-driven businesses. In 2013, the New York Times reported that insufficient governmental oversight of the recycling programs of companies like Sony, Toshiba and Apple had “led to rampant fraud” — recyclers were buying paperwork to inflate the quantity of waste collected. Third-party facilities’ recycling streams may also prove noxious; contracts with manufacturers and adherence to environmental protocol vary, affecting how much waste can actually be responsibly recycled. Moreover, businesses that depend on the market value of recyclable materials may opt to abandon their stockpiles or dump them in landfills when materials become obsolete.

“One growing problem is cathode ray tubes [which are commonly found in television and computer monitors from previous decades],” says Freyja Knapp, a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Science Policy & Management at the University of California, Berkeley. “The leaded glass is a real problem. The barium in them is a problem. [The] markets have declined for” many of the facilities that process CRTs, “and you see a lot of abandoned facilities with big piles of leaded glass just laying there.”

What’s arguably most responsible for this, however, is the manufacturing model of planned obsolescence, in which software and hardware become incompatible or antiquated, or hardware isn’t designed for durability. Smartphones may begin to malfunction after two years, for example, or fail to support recent operating systems or app versions if they’re two or three versions removed from the latest models. (iOS 10, the operating system Apple introduced in late 2016, proffers a number of tactile features that require an iPhone 6S or later model.) This also manifests in larger appliances. In 2015, ENDS Europe found that electronic goods’ lifespans were dwindling, noting that “the proportion of all units sold to replace a defective appliance grew from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2012”; the percentage of large household appliances that had to be replaced within the first five years also grew from seven percent in 2004 to 13 percent in 2013.

The fragility and comparatively brief two-to-five-year shelf lives of Silicon Valley companies’ smartphones and laptops are especially deleterious factors, Thaler notes. What’s more, devices from Apple, Google and Microsoft have reached levels of cultural ubiquity rivaled by few other forms of electronics, thus feeding their incredibly high demand.

“A lot of companies make devices that go obsolete in a couple of years and then they essentially become useless to the user and you have to buy the updated version,” Thaler explains. “If smartphones lasted for 10 years, there wouldn’t be the huge need for e-waste recycling and for finding ways to deal with the massive amount of essentially garbage produced by needing to buy a new cell phone every two years.”

Culpability, then, begins with manufacturing and design. “I don’t see how [companies’ profit motives and e-waste] could not be related because of planned obsolescence…that’s forcing the market to continue consuming,” Knapp says. “The design decisions getting made [in Silicon Valley are] a significant responsibility, and probably the biggest responsibility.”

Some of the largest e-waste producers have shown little interest in making any changes. A proposed New York state law, S618B (the “Fair Repair Act”) aims to remove barriers to electronics repair by requiring companies to sell replacement parts and tools (and in some cases, provide guides) to users and proscribing software locks, which can deter third-party vendors from replacing electronics parts. Recent lobbying efforts by Apple, Verizon, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) and other major tech actors have sought to block the bill. (Similar legislation has arisen in a number of other states, including Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska and Tennessee, where tech giants are suspected, Motherboard notes, of lobbying against the proposed laws. Apple, Verizon and CTA have not replied to requests for comment for this article.)

Given the problem’s magnitude, a number of technocratic solutions have been floated. Thaler postulates that, to combat product obsolescence, companies can begin to reduce “code bloat”; in other words, their software engineers should preemptively write minimal software whose “slimness” renders it compatible with various gradations of hardware. “Because there’s no incentive to slim down the software to make it run well on older equipment, that old equipment becomes obsolete through software,” he says. “If you change the processor on a board on a smartphone, you can’t design software around it if the fundamental architecture of the phone changes. You need new software and a new phone. But for a lot of cases, that fundamental architecture doesn’t change nearly as fast as the software just bloats.”

Others posit that companies can practice Design for Environment (DFE), a paradigm of ecologically-minded hardware design. The concept, however, is nebulous; like “corporate responsibility,” Knapp says, it means virtually nothing concrete, and dependence on companies to make any decisions that ultimately prioritize the environment or public health over their respective bottom lines may seem misguided. Technocrats also propose that governments bestow companies with tax incentives to recycle their old products or produce longer-lasting software, though Apple’s fraught history of tax-evasion tactics demonstrates the potential pitfalls of such a plan.

To reach a truly effective solution, the systemic roots of the electronics industry’s actions must be addressed, according to Bruce Olszewski, a lecturer and director of the Center for the Development of Recycling at San Jose State University. “[Silicon Valley companies] want consumption because that is what drives profit,” says Olszewski. “The incentive in capitalism is always maximizing profit. The problem with that is there’s no response mechanism in capitalism for things like social good and reducing pollution.”

The problem is not insurmountable, Olszewski asserts, as long as the economic principles governing electronics production begin to shift away from profit and toward sustainability. “We want whoever caused the problem to pay for the problem. That’s going to come from some bold leadership…It really is about creating a new economy. It’s government’s responsibility to recognize the needs for society and sustainability.”

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How L.A. Helped Its Homeless During the Wildfires

During Los Angeles County’s recent wildfires, local organizations that aid the homeless have been working overtime to help those in need.

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A Santa Rosa evacuation center during Northern California's October fires. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

The devastating impact of wildfires exploding across swaths of California is captured nightly in dramatic television footage. Largely unseen, though, is how those same fires affect Los Angeles’ growing homeless population, many of whom have abandoned menacing urban streets for the relative safety of woodland encampments.

Fires that consumed parts of Northern California in October destroyed thousands of homes and put many already homeless residents in the path of danger. The story is no different in Southern California, and local organizations that aid the homeless have been working overtime to help those in need.

Colleen Murphy, coordinator of outreach at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authorities, told Capital & Main that her agency started working to locate homeless encampments the second they learned the fires had started. She knew there were only so many beds in so many shelters they could use, so they had to redouble their efforts to make sure they found space for everyone.

“One of the things that was a little challenging at the time was that L.A. opens up winter shelters on December 1, and some of the winter shelters were pretty close to the fire area,” Murphy said. “So we were also trying to navigate whether we needed to close the shelters, because that is normally where we would send people.” Their winter shelters were closest to the Rye Fire near Santa Clarita, and in Pacoima near the Creek Fire in the hills above Sylmar. Luckily, none of the shelters the organization needed had to close due to the fires, and they were able to help find beds for the homeless they could locate.

Patrick Justice, an outreach coordinator for LA Family Housing, said he sent support teams to known homeless encampments in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys as quickly as he could. He estimated that hundreds of homeless individuals were in evacuation areas. “Some of the encampment locations were directly in the fire evacuation zones,” he said. Reaching those people wasn’t always easy, because sometimes routes to these locations were blocked by the fires. “There were areas we weren’t able to get to right off the bat,” Justice said. “We had to find alternative ways in.”

The homeless population in Los Angeles County has risen by nearly a quarter since last year, a rise traceable to skyrocking rents and stagnant wages according to a Zillow report. There are nearly 60,000 homeless residents in the county, and officials have been struggling to help this vulnerable group of people.

Getting that population into shelter and out of woodland areas protects them and nearby residents. The Skirball fire that destroyed six very expensive homes in Bel-Air and damaged a dozen more was started by a cooking fire in a homeless encampment in a canyon just off the 405 Freeway in the Sepulveda Pass.

As destructive as the blaze was to property in one of the most affluent communities in the country, the fire’s cause “makes a tragic event even more tragic,” Los Angeles Councilman Paul Koretz told the Los Angeles Times. “The saddest thing is that we have so many homeless people,” said Koretz, whose district includes Bel-Air. “And they are everywhere in the city. And that sometimes causes serious problems.”

Los Angeles officials hope to develop ways to evacuate homeless populations in woodland areas once fire conditions—high winds and accumulated dry brush—arise. But Mayor Eric Garcetti said a lot of people could still be missed, given all the hills in the city. “Just like ramping up efforts to try to anticipate terrorist incidents, you can never get to zero risk,” he told the Times. “And I think it would be a mistake to think we could.”

Murphy and Justice pointed to Measure H, approved by voters last March, as being a major help in their efforts to locate homeless encampments during the fires. Measure H imposed a one-quarter percent county sales tax for 10 years “in order to fund homeless services and prevention,” Ballotpedia explained. Murphy and Justice believe the response to the fires would not have been nearly as effective without the funding and services Measure H delivered.

“I think this is showing the importance of Measure H, which pays for outreach coordination and those outreach teams,” Murphy said. In areas like the Sylmar Hills where the Creek Fire broke out, “we were able to mobilize and had the infrastructure to utilize, as well as the actual teams who knew these places,” Murphy said. “That couldn’t have been done without expanded Measure H funding.”

“Seeing the way the county is moving with all of the Measure H funds, we’re starting to see really strong infrastructure countywide and trickling down into these service planning areas,” Justice said. “I was getting a lot of support from the county level. Having that infrastructure is really amazing.”

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All About EVs: Why There Isn’t a Ford in Your Future

Are we putting too much pressure on autonomous electric vehicles to solve all of our problems, from pollution to congestion to traffic safety?

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Judith Lewis Mernit




Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“If you think being homeless is bad, try being homeless without a car.”

A couple of years ago in a West L.A. park, I’d hang out with a guy named Richard, who told me he was a former film producer. Long out of work due to an undiagnosed mental illness, Richard had an idea for developing a television show called The Gutter Gourmet, in which he would teach people living out of their cars how to make nutritious meals with makeshift kitchen setups perched on their hoods or tailgates.

I thought the idea had legs, and we started shooting some footage. But one day Richard stopped showing up. When I saw him again a month or two later, both he and his old shepherd-mix dog looked depleted. He told me that his car had been impounded for parking tickets, and he’d just managed to get it back. He and his dog had spent weeks living in the open, where he said he’d been robbed and continually harassed.

“If you think being homeless is bad,” he told me, “try being homeless without a car.”

With every new analysis that comes out on the topic of autonomous vehicles, I think about the Richards of the world. In a study released last May, ReThinkX, a Palo Alto think tank, predicted that by 2030 almost no one among us will still own a car. Instead, we’ll wheel around town in driverless electric vehicles, which we’ll summon with our thumbs on our smartphones, much in the way we order a Lyft or Uber now. Tesla’s Elon Musk has suggested that driving could one day be outlawed due to the dangers of human error, and Jensen Huang, CEO of Nvidia, Inc., which makes artificial intelligence systems, believes that robot cars will be ready to roll out in just four years.

It remains to be seen how a driverless future will benefit the poor. “Transport-as-a-service”
will likely have a deleterious effect on
public transportation.

Lest you conclude that only Silicon Valley futurists with a stake in this revolution buy into its inevitability, consider Bob Lutz, the 85-year-old former vice chairman of General Motors, who says that in 10 or 15 years, you’ll be selling your internal combustion engine Chevrolet for scrap.

There are all sorts of dreamy upsides to this disruption of car culture, beginning with, but not limited to, the climate. The ReThinkX researchers project that “Transport as a Service,” or TaaS, will mean fewer vehicles on the roads driving more miles, completely eliminating urban congestion. Cost, not environmental concerns, will drive the adoption of electric vehicles for autonomous fleets, as EVs are easier to maintain, cheaper to fuel and last for 500,000 miles. The average household will save more than $5,600 a year by not having to own, insure and maintain a car. The oil industry will collapse.

Researchers in Australia have even been studying whether autonomous vehicles could be programmed to avoid wildlife that strays onto roadways, reducing the need for fencing and other barriers, and thus preserving migration routes for animals such as Southern California’s beloved but threatened cougars.

But it remains to be seen how this driverless future will benefit the poor. Transport-as-a-service will likely have a deleterious effect on public transportation, as people with more resources abandon it, opting instead to text, nap and browse Facebook on their solo, driverless commutes. Nor will it necessarily be accessible to people who move through the world without the technology and resources most people in the U.S. take for granted. Right now, the only way to order a rideshare from Lyft or Uber is with a smartphone, and while smartphone ownership in the U.S. has gone from 35 percent in 2011 to 77 percent in 2016, that still leaves nearly a quarter of Americans without the devices.

Rideshare services also require a bank account or credit card, or at least a funded PayPal account. Only seven percent of households manage without bank accounts in the U.S., as compared with eight percent in 2013 — a positive side effect of the economic recovery after the Great Recession. But among black and Latino households, as well as those headed by people with disabilities, close to half remain either “unbanked” or “underbanked,” meaning they have some sort of bank account, but still use check-cashing services.

“We can’t operate from the mindset that everyone is a savvy smartphone user with a bank account, good credit and an ample disposable income,” says Jeremy Martin, head of the clean cars program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Transportation network providers should be required to ensure that payment mechanisms don’t discriminate against anyone.”

“As the footprint of transportation network companies grow,” Martin adds, “our regulatory structures need to adapt along with them.”

Then there are the people like Richard — people for whom a car isn’t just a way of getting around town, but also a refuge. In Los Angeles alone, there are currently about 7,000 people living in their vehicles. If it’s hard for them to find a place to park now, imagine what it will be like when individual car ownership is outlawed, and parking spaces have been repurposed for office parks.

Experts are not uniformly confident that free-market forces will give rise to the utopian future the ReThinkX report outlines. The fleet of self-driving cars—as many as 24,000—that Uber has agreed to buy from Volvo, for instance, will run on gasoline, though the carmaker claims they’ll save fuel by “eliminating unnecessary acceleration.” It’s entirely possible that people who can afford to own one will, and road congestion will get worse. Only the well-heeled will then have the means to flee the city in the event of a disaster that destroys the grid and all its networks.

Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, has long warned that state and local regulation must jump ahead of the technological transformation to avert such a nightmare scenario. “Cities and states need to look at the policy levers they have,” he says, to “discourage single- and zero-occupant automated vehicles.” Some of those levers could be incentives, in the form of preferential parking and tax credits. Some could be prohibitions on independent riders. “From a policy perspective we’ve got to start figuring that out.”

Autonomous rides could be made accessible and affordable to the unplugged and unbanked pretty easily, using the same model urban transit agencies use to pay for bus and rail fares. Cash-only riders can load up cards in advance at kiosks or convenience stores. BlueLA, a pilot electric-vehicle car-sharing program due to launch in 2018, operates on the same principle, offering drivers the opportunity to reserve cars and pay fees at transit hubs and other key points around Los Angeles. The process doesn’t require a smart phone.

State and local governments might also subsidize driverless rideshares for low-income and elderly riders. That might sound extravagant, but in some places, funding a network of shared autonomous vehicles could cost less than funding more miles of bus and rail transit. As Sperling highlights in his book due out in March, Three Revolutions: Steering Shared, Automated and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future, single-occupant Uber and Lyft services currently run about $1.50 per mile. Put two or three passengers in each vehicle and take away the driver, and the cost per mile of travel drops to about 10 cents.

And that’s not just because no one has to pay a driver. It simply costs less per mile, Sperling says, to own a vehicle that drives more miles in a year. “If you divide the [annual] depreciation of a car over 15,000 miles,” Sperling explains, “then the cost per mile is much more than if it’s spread over 100,000 miles.” The same principle applies to insurance, registration and any other fixed costs.

In nearly every urban center, parking takes up enough land to solve a city’s housing crisis.

In theory, the new robot-car society might even offer a solution to Richard’s living space problem. Because autonomous vehicles obviate the need for parking lots, some of the land in cities could be rezoned for low- or even no-cost housing. Or it could just go toward housing in general, which has hit a crisis point in nearly every large city in the U.S.

“Parking takes up premium land,” says Matthew Lewis, a climate consultant and urban planning advocate in Berkeley, California. It’s also richly subsidized land. The way it pencils out, Lewis says, is that city “taxpayers actually pay car owners to use that land.” And in nearly every urban center, parking takes up enough land to solve nearly every city’s housing crisis. Parking in the City of Los Angeles, according to the parking inventory mapping project What the Street!?, takes up about 183 million square feet. That’s enough space to put up 18,300 small-lot multi-family structures, with six to 10 units each.

But ending America’s urban housing crisis may be freighting the autonomous nirvana with a bit too much transformative hope. Especially since, as Lewis argues, we already have the way to reduce congestion and pollution, and to free up parking in urban centers: “Ban cars,” he says. “At least in the urban cores where they make the least sense.” For that, he notes, “You don’t need new technology. You need political will.” If we can’t muster the civic determination to drop parking requirements from new development, establish dedicated bike lanes, and pedestrianize city streets now, it’s hard to imagine we’ll do autonomous vehicles in the fair and clean way in 10 or 20 years.

“The AV folks think they’ve got a car that’s a solution to cars,” Lewis says. “But in the meantime we’ve got a climate crisis and a housing crisis that are feeding each other. We don’t need to wait until parking disappears in 2045 to address it.”

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Study Shows Limits of Cap-And-Trade in California

California succeeded in lowering greenhouse gas emissions last year. But a new study finds the state’s ambitious cap-and-trade program may have had nothing to do with it.

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Protesters assemble after being removed from the UN climate summit in Bonn, Germany. (Photo: Rebecca Fuoco)


On November 11, shortly after he began his speech at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, California Governor Jerry Brown encountered jeers and chants from Native American and climate justice activists who denounced fracking and the state’s market-based solutions to greenhouse gas emissions by yelling, “Keep it in the ground.”

A visibly rattled Brown snapped at the protesters, saying “Let’s put you in the ground so we can get on with the show here,” before he softened and thanked them for “bringing the diversity of dissent.”

Brown has been hailed as a climate hero for signing the ambitious California Senate Bill 32, which mandates the statewide reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as his public opposition to the regressive climate policies of the Trump administration. But he’s also drawn scorn for his lack of opposition to fracking, his refusal to close the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, and for his ardent support of cap-and-trade, which some environmentalists say shouldn’t be the lynchpin of progressive climate policy.

In an email, Jean Su, associate conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups organizing the Bonn protest, countered Brown’s assertion that cutting oil demand is more urgent than cutting oil supply. “California can’t be a model of climate leadership while oil companies continue to produce millions of barrels per year of some of the dirtiest crude on the planet,” Su said.

Coinciding with the Bonn protest comes a new study examining cap-and-trade, Brown’s signature greenhouse gas trading program. In a report released the day before the Bonn speech, the nonprofit think tank Near Zero found cap-and-trade, a key strategy for achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions under Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act, has fallen short of its promise.

Cap-and-trade is a market-based program that allows companies to buy and sell credits to emit a certain amount of pollution, based on a state-imposed cap on emissions across an industry. The theory is, companies would want to save money by cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. Brown has said the program will reduce climate-changing gases by requiring covered facilities to factor the cost of carbon into their business operations. The Near Zero study found that California greenhouse emissions have been cut – by five percent in 2016 alone – but through changes in the mix of sources generating electricity, including hydropower and solar, rather than cap-and-trade.

The study’s lead author Danny Cullenward said research found that the current limits on pollution set by cap-and-trade are far above actual emissions. The result is an oversupply of allowances that keep the price of carbon cheap and, critics contend, give companies little incentive to slash emissions. That build up of unused allowances enables companies “to maintain their emissions farther into the future than post-2020 program caps might nominally suggest,” he wrote in the report’s summary.

Cullenward told Capital & Main cap-and-trade needs to be tweaked in order to meet California’s goal of reducing emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030. “Emissions have fallen pretty quickly and that’s good news. But a lot of people are saying, ‘See, the cap and trade program is working,’ and our analysis shows that it’s too soon to say that.”

Cullenward added that the promise of cap-and-trade is real, but that there is “more work to do” to make it effective. “The state is pursuing an ambitious 2030 climate target, and regulators expect cap-and-trade to play the single biggest role in reducing emissions.”

Earlier this year, California extended cap-and-trade through 2030.

In an email, Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board (CARB), disputed Near Zero’s findings that the state’s cap-and-trade program is not driving observed reductions.

Young cited the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power as an example that cap-and-trade can directly lower carbon emissions. “From 2013 to 2016, overall CO2 emissions from LADWP’s portfolio of generating resources decreased 26 percent (3.6 million metric tons) due to the increase in renewable energy and use of the carbon cost adder. This represents a 42 percent reduction from 1990 levels, which exceeds Los Angeles’ 2030 goal,” Young explained.

Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog, said that cap-and-trade is a bust because the “approach is too lax.”

Tucker also criticized the law extending the program because it directs CARB to regulate refineries only through cap-and-trade and prevents local air quality boards from more aggressively regulating industry. “But [the law] bans CARB and other agencies from imposing new greenhouse gas emission reduction obligations.”
The Near Zero report is not the first study showing the limited impact of cap-and-trade. Last year, researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley found that California’s cap and trade program had not cut greenhouse gasses. Preliminary evidence suggested that cap-and-trade had, in fact, led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in several industries.


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Study Finds Elevated Levels of Dangerous Chemicals in Porter Ranch Residents

A family practice physician, testing patients living near the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak, says he has discovered the presence of toxins in their systems.

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Aliso Canyon photo by Scott L.

Porter Ranch Doctor: “State agencies
are withholding information.”

An independent health study released earlier this month showed elevated levels of carcinogens in residents living near Aliso Canyon, the site of the massive 2015 natural gas blowout in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley.

Dr. Jeffrey Nordella, a family practice physician in Porter Ranch, near Aliso Canyon, tested 120 patients just after the gas leak was capped in February 2016 and followed up months later. He found significantly elevated levels of styrene, also known as ethynylbenzene, in urine samples, and higher levels of uranium and lithium in hair samples. In 26 Porter Ranch homes, lithium was detected in water supplied by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), but there were no detectable levels of lithium in water from other sources.

Capital & Main discussed Dr. Nordella’s study with him on October 23, the second anniversary of the massive natural gas leak in the Aliso Canyon storage field.

Larry Buhl: How dangerous are some of these chemicals like styrene?

Jeffrey Nordella: Styrene is a volatile organic compound [VOC] and well documented in its use in oil and gas production. It is a carcinogen that is metabolized to a chemical in the liver and it’s collected in urine. The level was very high in residents I tested. When you put all of these chemicals in the body, there will be different effects than when you introduce one chemical. The term we use in medicine is polypharmaceutical. We are in unchartered waters in terms of understanding what all of these together will do.

How many of the Porter Ranch residents tested had abnormal symptoms or health problems?

JN: All of them except one patient were ill with a combination of symptoms.

Was there any correlation between the toxins you found in their systems and the symptoms?

JN: I didn’t look for that. And remember that more than one chemical can cause the same health symptom. Methane and lithium can cause headaches, for example. This requires further study, but unfortunately a good percentage of the window of opportunity is gone for some of the necessary studies. I started months after the well was sealed. Next week I’m going to initiate an epidemiology study to find out who is sick with what. I will look at how many cases [there are] of leukemia, anemia, transitional cell carcinoma and others. I will see how the findings compare to other populations.

Why isn’t the city or county health department doing this?

JN: That’s what I want to know. The county health department hired a company to study 103 homes. They did the wipe testing of hard surfaces and they also did air canister testing, but decided not to test for benzene in the wipe study. Why? In their air canister study, six of 103 homes tested positive for benzene above the EPA’s acceptable level, but they didn’t notify the residents about the levels. Why? As well as benzene, why wasn’t the acrolein disclosed when 96 percent of homes tested positive? Acrolein is a VOC linked to cancer. State agencies are withholding information.

Do you think the county department of public health has been forthright with the community?

JN: Absolutely not. And politicians [should] get their heads out of the sand. [State Senator] Henry Stern [D-Canoga Park] has been on top of this, but where are the others? The biggest issue is the lack of transparency.

Your study showed that nearly a third of Porter Ranch residents were experiencing nosebleeds months after the leak was capped. Does this suggest the physical symptoms began before the 2015 blowout and leak?

JN: We had testimony from people who said they smelled mercaptan, a chemical used as an odorant added to natural gas, for a long time before the blowout. Also, we tested hair samples — like rings of a tree. I tested at 12 inches, which is approximately two years of growth, and at a quarter inch. The toxicological appearance of [chemicals] was greater at two years’ growth, suggesting residents were exposed a long time ago.

What about lithium in the water? This wasn’t due to the gas leak, was it?

JN: It is unknown at this time. I gave my presentation showing lithium in 26 out of 26 samples to LADWP, and I feel their explanation is not sufficient. Their argument is because [the Environmental Protection Agency] has no health goals regarding lithium, there’s no reason to test [for] it. It’s a circular argument. I provided LADWP with a study out of Copenhagen, Denmark in August, which recommends that people should not take lithium supplements. In my opinion the EPA should look at what’s a safe level of lithium, if any.

Note: The County Department of Public Health (DPH) said in an email that it had tested a number of homes for many chemicals and published reports of the overall findings, available at:

“DPH continues to advocate for a comprehensive, long-term health study of this community, consistent with the scope of work and cost agreed to by a multi-disciplinary panel of experts,” the email said. “The projected cost of the study is approximately $35-$40 million.”

Dr. Nordella’s findings can be read here.

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Is Dry Cleaning About to Get Wetter, Safer and Greener?

Professional “wet cleaning,” a process developed in Germany in 1991, relies on special computer-controlled machines and detergents to safely clean delicate garments with water. Can California’s dry cleaners be persuaded to switch from using toxic chemicals to this most eco-friendly of cleaning methods?

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From left: AQUA WET CLEAN’s chief technology officer, Paulo Neves, with co-founders Peter Sinsheimer and Hans Kim.

All Photographs by Joanne Kim

Faced with the planned phase-out of a dangerous solvent, California’s dry cleaners have the chance to break with a toxic past.


When Sung Park’s landlord found contamination from a dry cleaning solvent in the soil around her Rancho Cucamonga cleaning business, Park had a choice to make. She could spend tens of thousands of dollars on a new machine that used another polluting — but less toxic — solvent, or invest in a new water-based cleaning technique recommended by her nephew, a biochemist.

She chose professional wet cleaning, a process developed in Germany in 1991, which relies on special computer-controlled machines and detergents to safely clean delicate garments with water. Park’s decision in 1999 made her an unlikely environmental advocate and pioneer in an industry under pressure from regulators and landlords to find an alternative to a toxic cleaning solvent that is used by 28,000 cleaners across the country.

I met Park and her nephew, Hans Kim, in mid-September at the site of their new wet-cleaning venture, AQUA  WET CLEAN, as the nephew-aunt team—along with co-founder Peter Sinsheimer — awaited building permits from the city of Los Angeles. We sat around a table in a cavernous former downtown garment factory that was to be their wet-cleaning plant, sipping water from paper cups and talking about the enterprise that was about to take shape.

Los Angeles Dry Cleaner:
“Honestly, I think the clothes come out fresher and more stains come out in the wet-cleaning process than they do in dry cleaning.”

When it opens later in November, AQUA will be both a retail cleaner serving downtown and a demonstration site that aims to win over skeptical cleaners from around the state, many of whom are preparing to invest tens of thousands of dollars in new equipment. Cleaners who want to convert to wet cleaning will be able to become licensees of AQUA. In exchange for a monthly fee, they will be able to lease equipment, enter into a service agreement, and also receive training and marketing support.

California is the only state in the nation that is planning a phase-out of the dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene—also known as “perc” — which is considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be a likely carcinogen. It is associated with a number of cancers, including pancreatic cancer, which killed Kim’s father, who was also a dry cleaner.

Long-term exposure can result in central nervous system, liver and kidney damage. If not properly handled, perc can seep through walls and harm those living or working nearby. Perc spills are considered severe environmental accidents that can contaminate underground aquifers, which explains why landlords are not always keen to have perc dry cleaners as tenants.

Green Cleaner (4)

Some 400 Southern California cleaners, under permits from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, must transition away from perc by 2020, according to SCAQMD spokesman Sam Atwood. Several hundred more cleaners in the rest of the state have until 2023 to find another cleaning solvent.

They will face an array of solvents to choose from. Kim and Park hope their colleagues will select what researchers and regulators say is the most eco-friendly approach to professional garment care.

In exchange for a monthly fee, AQUA licensees will be able to lease equipment, enter into a service agreement, and also receive training and marketing support. Many dry cleaners are “hard workers,” says Kim, but not good marketers or repair technicians. Like Kim and Park, many cleaners are South Korean immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s seeking greater opportunities. “With this venture, we will be able to license all the solutions to small mom-and-pop shops,” says Kim, who, along with Sinsheimer, is AQUA’s co-founder.

Hans Kim presses a jacket using specialized “tensioning” equipment that prevents shrinkage and helps maintain shape.

But in order to succeed, AQUA—and its licensees—may need to differentiate themselves from other cleaners making similar claims about offering environmentally friendly services, even though the latter may be using solvents that are toxic, combustible or a possible health risk.

I asked Kim, a former food scientist who now owns three cleaners aside from AQUA, and has just finished up a contract to wet clean uniforms at the Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, what prompted him to join the family business. He recalled one of his parents’ employees “sniffing perc as his morning coffee” and of being overcome by fumes. Soon after, in 1998, Kim responded to an ad in a trade publication offering $12,500 in incentives for cleaners to convert to wet cleaning.

I told Park and Kim that I played a bit role in the story of wet cleaning. For two years, in the mid-1990s, I coordinated an EPA-funded evaluation of the process at a demonstration site in Santa Monica called Cleaner by Nature.

From my home base, a windowless office at the University of California, Los Angeles, I purchased “Dry Clean Only”-labeled garments of all manner of weave, fiber and construction, and sent them to be repeatedly wet cleaned at the demonstration site and at dry cleaners before the effects were evaluated by textile experts. On other days, like a modern-day Frederick Taylor, I sat in a chair with a timer as pressers labored over wet- and dry-cleaned garments to compare labor costs. I was so immersed in the world of wet and dry cleaning that I even wrote a poem about it, “A Dry Cleaner’s Love Song.”

My two-year obsession with the profession pales in comparison to that of my then co-evaluator Sinsheimer, who was a Ph.D. candidate at the time. Now the director of the Sustainable Technology & Policy Program at the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at UCLA, as well as AQUA’s co-founder, he has invested as much time as anyone in evaluating and advocating for wet cleaning.

I called Sinsheimer earlier this year to find out what had happened to the technology since the 1990s. My engagement with the topic had been limited to dropping off and picking up my clothes at a wet cleaner called Sunny Brite in Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock neighborhood.

Sinsheimer walked me through the triumphs and letdowns of wet cleaning’s 20-year history in California. There was the critical role the technology played in persuading regional air quality regulators to agree to a decades-long phase-out of perc in 2002, in the face of strong opposition from the dry-cleaning and petrochemical industry, a move that was mimicked by the state’s Air Resources Board several years later. There was Sinsheimer’s unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Federal Trade Commission to require a “Wet Clean” care label in 2014.

Finally, there was Hans Kim’s painstaking work to convert about 100 California cleaners into dedicated wet-cleaning shops, an effort aided by state legislation that levies a fee on perc dry cleaners to fund such transitions by providing incentives to cleaners.

Jean Cha was one of those cleaners who converted to wet cleaning, about seven years ago. He faced pressure from his landlord, who wanted him to stop using petroleum hydrocarbon, a perc replacement that is combustible at high temperatures. Cha’s Branham Lane Cleaners in San Jose cleans as many as a thousand pieces a day—a relatively high volume for a cleaner—and he was nervous about moving to a brand-new process that could disrupt his business. Cha credits Kim’s patient courtship for his decision to go with wet cleaning.

GreenClean_JoanneKim-14Paulo Neves presses trousers after they have been dried on a specialized machine.

“He stopped by our store like 50 times before we made the decision,” says Cha of Kim, who at the time was working as a distributor for Miele, a German-based maker of wet-cleaning equipment. But Kim was not a typical distributor hawking his wares, says Cha. “He really wanted to make my business successful.”

But as Kim was steadily converting cleaners to wet cleaning, something else was happening. An alternative set of solvents was taking hold in the industry. The go-to substitute for perchloroethylene in California became petroleum hydrocarbon, the solvent that had troubled Cha’s landlord. It is used by about 80 percent of the 3,000 cleaners in state, according to Pierre Cinar, past president of the California Cleaners Association. That solvent produces volatile organic compounds and is consequently regulated by the state’s Air Resources Board.

In 2013, Santa Monica’s city attorney found that six dry-cleaning businesses had misleadingly marketed themselves as “green” businesses.

Another solvent that emerged was Dow Corning’s Green Earth, which is marketed as a nontoxic, environmental alternative to dry cleaning. Concerns about Green Earth surfaced in 2003 after a study linked the silicone-based solvent to cancer in rats at high rates of exposure. The industry maintains that the solvent—which is used in many personal care products—is safe for consumers and workers. Meanwhile, there are fewer than 200 dedicated wet cleaners in the state.

Why hasn’t wet cleaning taken a firmer hold? Studies at UCLA and the University of Massachusetts, Lowell have shown that it is an economically viable alternative to dry cleaning, and cleaners attest to its benefits.

“Honestly, I think the clothes come out fresher and more stains come out in the wet-cleaning process than they do in dry cleaning,” says London Cleaners’ Barry Fein, who wet cleans about 40 percent of garments at his West Los Angeles shop and dry cleans the remaining 60 percent. “But it takes more time to press wet-cleaned garments and that’s where it falls apart.”


Fein’s perspective is common among dry cleaners who argue not that all dry-clean-only garments can be cleaned economically in the wet-cleaning process. That’s because a garment immersed in water becomes more wrinkled, requiring special “tensioning” equipment and attention after it is cleaned.

But Park, who is AQUA’s chief operating officer, maintains that with training, a wet cleaner can clean virtually all garments in the same amount of time as a dry cleaner. The machine cycles are also about half as long for wet cleaning as they are for dry cleaning, allowing more clothes to be washed in a day. (My own cleaner, Sunny Kim, wet cleans all but silk garments that have stubborn oil stains — she sends these out to be dry cleaned.)

Another barrier to adoption may be that cleaners do not realize the degree to which the wet-cleaning process has improved since it was introduced in the 1990s, says Joy Onasch, Business & Industry Program Manager at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

“The technology wasn’t great then, and the word sort of spread that it doesn’t work,” says Onasch, who authored a 2017 study that favorably evaluated cleaners that made the switch to wet cleaning. Park recalls her own tears of frustration—and some lost customers–when she first transitioned to wet cleaning in the late 1990s.

Yet one more obstacle is the Dry Clean Only care label, which leaves the wet cleaner liable for damages if a customer takes a wet cleaner to court for ruining a dry-clean-only garment. Sinsheimer sees working with garment manufacturers to win a wet-clean care label requirement as a critical piece of AQUA’s work.

For Sinsheimer, AQUA represents an opportunity to secure a foothold in a market that he says has been difficult to penetrate, in part because of the power of petrochemical companies and equipment distributors that have a vested interest in polluting technologies. One challenge Sinsheimer sees is distinguishing dedicated wet cleaners from dry cleaners who claim to be offering an environmental service to consumers.

In 2013, Santa Monica’s city attorney’s office found that six dry-cleaning businesses—five petroleum hydrocarbon cleaners and one Green Earth cleaner— had misleadingly marketed themselves as green businesses in violation of state law. The city attorney’s office said the cleaners violated FTC guidelines by claiming that their processes were “non-toxic” and “environmentally friendly,” the Santa Monica Mirror reported.

After our conversation at AQUA’s headquarters, Sinsheimer, Kim and I left Park at the Margo Street plant and walked past graffitied buildings, trash-strewn sidewalks and a new coffee shop, evidence of a neighborhood in transition, to where another cleaner was also under construction.

We stood across the street looking at a banner that promised a dry cleaner that would be “organic” and “100% Toxin-Free.” I could find no contact information on the sign.

“This goes directly to the issue of greenwashing,” Sinsheimer had told me a couple of weeks earlier in an email to which he’d attached a picture of the offending sign.

He’d added that Los Angeles should enforce the state’s truth-in-advertising laws and offer green certifications for wet cleaners, a carrot-and-stick approach that he said would finally give the technology the fighting chance it deserves.

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South L.A. Residents Demand End to Urban Oil Drilling

Los Angeles is the most densely populated city in the country with oil drilling within its borders. It sits on top of one of the largest oil fields in the country, and oil fields are peppered throughout the region, usually hidden from sight.

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Neighbors: Oil platform in the middle of a residential neighborhood. (Photo: Larry Buhl)

At a site known simply as Jefferson, 36 oil wells are pumping closely – too closely, residents say — to occupied multi-unit apartment buildings at a drilling site on Jefferson Boulevard, just west of the University of Southern California. There is no noise buffer, vapor capture or enclosure around the site, and at one point there is no more than three feet between a resident’s bedroom window and the drill site wall. An Environmental Impact Report has never been done. Because the land was bought by Union Oil in 1965, the Jefferson drilling site predates the Environmental Protection Agency.

Corissa Pacillas said she has lived in a Craftsman-style building across from the Jefferson site for four years, and the oil production has made her sick at times.

“The noise pollution is severe when they’re putting pipes into the ground,” Pacillas said. “The chemicals that they use smell like rotten eggs. The area around here just stinks. The fumes give me headaches, and the neighbors have experienced that too.”

The Jefferson site’s operator, Denver-based Sentinel Peak Resources, doesn’t notify residents when toxic chemicals are being used in the neighborhood, said Niki Wong, a neighborhood resident and member of Redeemer Community Partnership, a community development nonprofit in South Los Angeles and a group opposed to urban oil drilling. “Sometimes we’ve seen four or five tanker trucks containing 5,000 gallons of hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid,” Wong said. “After one of these acid jobs, all the plants downwind of the facility died.”

“There are studies that say explosions from sites like this could result in a 750 foot crater,” Wong added. “We are standing in a blast zone.”

Pacillas claimed she has to diligently monitor the company’s website to learn when production is underway. “The website that tells you when it’s going to happen is this long obscure [web address] that you wouldn’t be able to find if you didn’t know where to look,” she said.

Los Angeles is the most densely populated city in the country with oil drilling within its borders. It sits on top of one of the largest oil fields in the country, and oil fields are peppered throughout the region, usually hidden from sight. Some of the region’s biggest names, including Getty, Doheny and Bell, made their fortunes from oil after it was discovered that the area contained a huge stock of crude.

A 2014 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that one in three Angelenos live within a mile of an active drilling rig. The report also found that in Los Angeles County, more than half a million people live within 1,320 feet of an oil or gas well and that the vast majority of those residents are people of color.

A report from the Los Angeles-based Community Health Councils estimated in 2015 that 5,000 active oil and gas wells, spread across 10 oil fields and 70 different sites, were embedded in neighborhoods, parks and commercial districts throughout the city.

Though oil production slowed in the 1970s, new techniques like fracking (the injection of highly pressurized, chemical-laced water deep underground to break up rock formations containing fossil fuels) have returned some oil fields to production.

“Increased oil and gas production using these new technologies can bring more contaminants—many of which have been linked to respiratory and neurological problems, birth defects and cancer—to backyards, communities and cities,” the Natural Resources Defense Council report said.

In the wake of the Aliso Canyon natural gas blowout in 2015, which forced thousands to evacuate their homes in the San Fernando Valley, oil and gas development has been under greater scrutiny throughout Southern California.

For Angelenos living near drill sites, the battle is about health and safety, racial justice and, for some, faith and religion. For regulators, the issue is more about who is in charge of oil field operations within the city and what departments can hold drill site operators accountable.

In 2013 EPA investigators called a facility operated by Los Angeles’ AllenCo Energy “shoddy” after investigators who toured the site reported sore throats, coughing and severe, lingering headaches. Their experience prompted U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer to call for the site to be shut down. The Los Angeles City Attorney’s office demanded in 2016 that the company stop operations until it could meet stricter conditions, and AllenCo was also ordered to pay a $1.25 million.

Earlier this month, the city hit the Jefferson site and Sentinel Peak Resources with some of the toughest restrictions yet on an urban drilling. The Planning Department decision gave the company with 90 days to install new systems to continually monitor noise and vibration and to record video. The company must also measure air quality on the property’s perimeter, install new systems to capture emissions and build its walls higher to better enclose the site.

The decision was a response to a 2016 petition by the environmental law firm Earthjustice, which found that other sites in the city were quieter and had better protections for residents’ health.

Advocates for shutting down, or at least curtailing, drilling in Los Angeles are also enlisting faith leaders in their fight. And those leaders have found themselves arrayed against their colleagues of the cloth in  Los Angeles’ Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

The AllenCo drill site, near the University of Southern California, and the Murphy site in the historic West Adams district, sit on land owned by the L.A. Archdiocese. At a rally outside the archdiocese offices in early October, dozens of residents and faith leaders from South Los Angeles called on Archbishop José Gomez to terminate his church’s lease with the owner/operator of both sites, AllenCo Energy.

Rev. Oliver E. Buie of Holman United Methodist Church said he attended the rally because “God has called us to be good stewards over the earth. Many of the residents are not aware of these oil wells in their communities. People are . . . being harmed by these big oil companies that don’t care about the people, only the profits.”

Faith leaders attending the rally also pointed out that 40 Catholic organizations had recently pledged to divest from fossil fuels, and that Pope Francis stressed the importance of a carbon-neutral economy in a 2015 encyclical.

The archdiocese responded to protesters in a letter claiming it was not directly involved in the permitting process and does not operate the site. The letter also said the archdiocese was “working with the Mayor’s Office, the City of Los Angeles Oil Manager and AllenCo to explore possible alternative uses for the site in our continued commitment to the health and well-being of the entire community.”

Eric Romann, an organizer with STAND-LA (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling), said the Archdiocese continues to avoid taking responsibility by not breaking its lease with AllenCo.

The archbishop “could shut down the AllenCo site with the stroke of a pen,” Romann said. “We want the church to be a good neighbor and not profit financially from something that’s poisoning residents.”

Ultimately, Romann said, STAND-LA and other community groups want urban oil drilling to end. Until that happens, they are demanding a 2,500-foot buffer between active drilling sites and homes, schools, churches and hospitals. The distance was determined after consulting experts in environmental burdens, the group said. That kind of setback could be difficult to achieve unless 90 percent of the city’s 322 active wells are shut down, according to the California Department of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources.

Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for the California Independent Petroleum Association, which represents small oil producers, said shutting down wells on private property would be legally risky and, if successful, would lead to increased imports of oil and gas to meet the region’s needs.

“Los Angeles grew up around oil drilling, but recently producers have changed production techniques to have a much smaller footprint,” Lockhart said.

Industry opposition aside, there are indications that city and county officials are beginning to take the issue of urban drilling more seriously, even if it’s not clear exactly what can or should be done.

In 2014, on a 10-0 vote, the City Council passed a new ordinance ordering city staff to draft regulatons to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and other well-stimulation activities, but those regulations have yet to be developed. Even so, Wong and other advocates say they are less concerned with the methods used – enhanced techniques versus traditional oil extraction – as much as they are about the proximity of the sites.

In 2016 Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Uduak-Joe Ntuk as the city’s petroleum administrator, a position the mayor’s office said had been vacant for more than 30 years. It’s considered largely an advisory position, but earlier this year, the city council demanded that Ntuk study how the city could phase out oil and gas drilling near homes, schools, hospitals, parks and other public places.

In June the city council adopted a motion to study the health impacts of oil drilling in neighborhoods. A report is expected late this year. The county is reviewing existing studies and papers to identify what is known about oil and gas exposures and impacts on health.

Wong said recent efforts to look into problems associated with drilling are encouraging but that pressure must be brought on the mayor, city council and the city planning commission to scale back and phase out drilling in the city.

“We believe that oil drilling is fundamentally incompatible with urban life.”

Sentinel Peak Resources and the L.A. Archdiocese did not respond to a request for comment by publication time. AllenCo Energy said they had no comment on L.A. drilling sites.

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California Persists After EPA Scuttles Clean Power Plan

U.S. power plants rank among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. Dialing back their emissions would at least have marked a decisive step toward a national clean-energy economy.

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Judith Lewis Mernit




The federal Clean Power Plan wasn’t going to make a difference in California, but it would still have moved the clean-energy needle in other states.

As fires incinerate the Napa and Sonoma valleys, as Gulf of Mexico states and Puerto Rico reel from record-setting hurricanes, as California emerges from its hottest summer on record, the federal government is doubling down on denial. On Tuesday, in a coal town in Kentucky, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt triumphantly announced his plan to repeal the Obama administration’s toe-in-the-water attempt at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants, the Clean Power Plan. It was never much, really. It was “a pipsqueak plan,” according to Vermont Law School Professor Pat Parenteau, an expert in climate policy. “We needed to do much more than that.” The plan was never going to save the world from climate destruction, nor would it have bankrupted the coal industry. Cheap natural gas is doing that.

California, in fact, was already ahead of the Clean Power Plan goals without it even going into effect (the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the plan in February 2016, pending judicial review). “California’s low-carbon power grid puts us in a position to over-comply with the Clean Power Plan,” David Clegern, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, said in an email.

But Pruitt’s move still has consequences, even in California. One of them is that climate is not a local issue, but a global one, and U.S. power plants rank among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. Dialing back their emissions would at least have marked a decisive step toward a national clean-energy economy. Another, more immediate and significant consequence, is that California’s carbon market, the cap-and-trade program that the legislature just reauthorized this year, needs to expand beyond state borders if it’s going to have any meaningful impact on global warming.

California now has so much solar power it sometimes has to pay other states to take it.

“The Clean Power Plan was the impetus for states to band together in the most cost-effective way to shift the electricity market and electricity generation to renewable sources,” Parenteau says. Its loss “is going to limit the possibility of expanding California’s market up the West Coast.”

A decade ago, California’s then-governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, entered into an agreement with the governors of four other Western states to collaborate on ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, not just from power plants, but from all controllable sources. The Western Climate Initiative, as it was called, might have, in time, resulted in a five-state carbon-trading market. One of its stated goals was to design a regional cap-and-trade program, similar to the East Coast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Utah joined later, along with four Canadian provinces.

But one by one those other states, along with two of the provinces, dropped out. Governors in New Mexico and Arizona, Bill Richardson and Janet Napolitano, respectively, were replaced by conservatives Susan Martinez in New Mexico and Jan Brewer in Arizona, neither of whom supported cap-and-trade. Utah’s governor in 2008, Jon Huntsman, declared a regional market “unsustainable,” according to Platts Weekly, a trade publication. Cap-and-trade bills in Oregon, Washington and Montana failed to pass state legislatures.

The two remaining Canadian provinces, Ontario and Quebec, have since set up individual arrangements to participate in California’s carbon market, and the state has found other means by which to influence its neighbors. California for decades imported coal-fired electricity, even though coal was deemed too dirty to burn at home. Now if states want to build new electricity plants to serve California, they have to run on carbon-free fuel.

But mostly, the watts travel the other way. California now has so much solar power it sometimes has to pay other states to take it.

“We were prepared to work with other states in the West to support carbon pricing and renewable energy growth throughout the region, supported by the Clean Power Plan,” Clegern says. “Proposing a repeal is a terrible signal to states looking to cooperate.”

If the Clean Power Plan wasn’t going to make a difference in California, it still would have moved the clean-energy needle in other states, especially Western states such as Wyoming and Montana, and states in the Deep South that are still heavily dependent on coal. Its call for a 32 percent nationwide cut in the power sector’s greenhouse gas emissions, compared with 2005 levels, was carefully tailored to each state’s capabilities. When a draft of the Clean Power Plan was unveiled in the spring of 2014, Georgia still prohibited consumers from generating solar power on their rooftops for sale to utilities — a law that quickly changed as the specter of climate regulation loomed.

California’s cap-and-trade program was endorsed by two-thirds of both houses of the legislature in July, extending it through 2030. Nothing that happens on a federal level can change that.

Pruitt’s proposed rescission of that regulation, then, only makes California’s climate missionary role more important, says Cara Horowitz, a law professor with the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles. “The Clean Power Plan was important to California because it was going to bring other states on board with its trajectory,” she says. “Absent that federal prod, the state needs to go back to convincing other states to become partners” in the climate fight.

“The most fundamental way” to do that, Horowitz says, “is to show that these policies are working. We’re expanding our economy, we’re cleaning up our grid, we’re serving as a model for other nations. We’re cleaning up our transportation sources.” This week, Governor Jerry Brown signed a suite of new laws to encourage sales of more zero-emission vehicles.

And in spite of controversy, criticism and legal challenges, the state’s cap-and-trade program was endorsed by two-thirds of both houses of the legislature in July, extending it through 2030. Nothing that happens on a federal level can change that.

Pruitt’s rollback is still subject to a 60-day comment period after publication in the Federal Register. And if he refuses to restrain greenhouse gas emissions in another way, he’ll also have to reverse the EPA’s 2009 ruling that carbon dioxide is harmful to human health and safety — the “endangerment finding” at the root of the Clean Power Plan. California, regardless, will continue on its course.

“We will persist,” says the air board’s Clegern, “because clean power benefits everyone.”

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An Environmental Victory in Oxnard

A state regulator signals its intent to deny a controversial gas-fired plant proposal.

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Power plant on Oxnard coast. (Photo: Ricardo Dearatanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Puente Power Project opponents say state regulators’ rejection of the proposed plant is the most significant battle in a grassroots war against a fossil fuel giant.

In a move environmental advocates call unprecedented, two members of a committee of the California Energy Commission (CEC) last week said the state regulator plans to reject NRG Energy’s proposed 262-megawatt Puente Power Project in Oxnard. A letter opposing Puente, penned by CEC committee members Janea Scott and Karen Douglas, cited environmental concerns and strong civic opposition, along with a requirement to consider “feasible alternatives that avoid or reduce those impacts.”

Assuming the other three members of the CEC agree with the members of the panel who wrote the letter – and who have followed the controversial issue for years – NRG’s project is effectively dead. A proposed decision, which observers expect to follow the CEC panel’s recommendation, is coming in November. A final decision will come in some time early next year after a public comment period.

Those familiar with the three-year legal battle say the CEC’s unusual decision to signal intent well in advance of a ruling was spurred by a desire to give the local utility company, Southern California Edison, additional time to create a request for offers (RFO) for clean energy alternatives to NRG’s 58-year-old Mandalay Generating Station, which will be decommissioned in January, 2021.

The CEC’s statement of intent followed a study conducted by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the regulator in charge of grid reliability, exploring three clean energy alternatives that could the meet the area’s energy needs in the absence of Puente. In a letter released September 29, CAISO stated that clean energy alternatives are technologically feasible and could meet the region’s needs, and that RFOs for those alternatives should be expedited.

Puente’s opponents say the CEC letter is the most significant battle in a grassroots war that pitted residents, advocates and the city of Oxnard against a fossil fuel giant. They argued that NRG’s proposal for another gas plant on Oxnard’s coastline was an environmental justice case, as the predominantly Latino and low-income community 90 minutes north of Los Angeles had been struggling for years to reclaim its beaches from industrial development.

Matt Vespa, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, one of the groups opposing the NRG proposal, said the CEC decision was “huge and surprising.”

“Honestly, I thought it was going to get built,” Vespa told Capital & Main, pointing to the fact that NRG already had a contract to build the plant, which ordinarily gives a project momentum.

“Plus, the staff of the CEC had put out analyses that were very dismissive of the environmental impacts to the area, which makes [the CEC] letter even more surprising,” Vespa said.

The project had already crossed a major hurdle when the other overseeing regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, approved it in 2016.

“NRG has repeatedly said the region needs a huge gas-powered plant to keep the lights on,” said Lucas Zucker, a spokesman for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “But having a commission that’s actually charged with keeping the lights on in the state disagree really destroys that argument.”

“I hope the cleantech sector sees this as a watershed moment where they can be cost-competitive with gas-fired plants,” Zucker said, adding that his group and local residents are “celebrating, but not resting yet.”

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California Game Changers

California Game Changers: Can We Ban Fracking?

Co-published by International Business Times
Environmentalists and community activists have long lobbied for a statewide ban on fracking. “Given what we know about fracking’s dangers, [banning it] is just a no-brainer,” says one advocate.

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Judith Lewis Mernit




Illustration: Nicolás Zúñiga

Oil drilling in Los Angeles has been associated with asthma, heart disease and low-birthweight babies. Close to 300,000 people in Kern County reside within a mile of an oil well.

Co-published by International Business Times

If you were to parachute into Kern County about 40 miles west of Bakersfield, you might doubt California’s status as a national leader on climate. Pumpjacks spread out in every direction across a hellscape scraped bare of anything green. Scattered at irregular intervals, spires of latticed steel reach up more than a hundred feet, secured with guy-wires: evidence of hydraulic fracturing, a practice sufficiently infamous that its household nickname, fracking, invokes images of tap water so toxic you can light it on fire.

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Fracked oil wells are everywhere on this southeastern extreme of the San Joaquin Valley, hard by the leeward side of the San Andreas fault. Big oil companies such as Chevron and Mobil began hydraulically fracturing wells here in earnest during the late 1970s, after the OPEC embargo made oil expensive and scarce. Drillers learned that by injecting a powerful slurry of chemical-laden water and sand into sedimentary rock, they could blast under played-out conventional wells and squeeze out oil left trapped in fissures, or could access reserves that traditional drilling otherwise couldn’t. (They could also inject acid into a certain kind of petroleum-bearing rock to dissolve it, another “well stimulation” method less common, but just as controversial, as hydraulic fracturing.)

The view from Bakersfield’s bluffs is breathtaking and dissonant: The lush green  Kern River Valley; black pumpjacks, planted over scoured and parched brown earth, extend toward the horizon.

Environmentalists and community activists have long lobbied for a statewide ban on fracking, arguing that the unique chemical cocktails that make up fracking fluids present novel risks to human health. “Given what we know about fracking’s dangers, [banning it] is just a no-brainer,” says Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. But up until two year ago, no one but the drillers even knew where fracking was happening.

“We didn’t know how much water was being used, which chemicals they were using, even where it was happening — it was a big data vacuum,” says Briana Mordick, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. That changed with the 2013 passage of Senate Bill 4, then-State Senator Fran Pavley’s well stimulation disclosure act. Now, you can look up fracked wells on a map maintained by the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

You can also look up what each company puts in its fracking fluids, which may or may not be meaningful. “Two-thirds of the chemicals used in fracking don’t have any public health profiles,” Mordick says. No one has yet done the studies to prove what dangers the chemicals pose. We might know that a common component of acidizing, hydrofluoric acid, eats away at your bones (one drop on your finger and you cut it off or die). But we don’t know whether any chemical escaped into the environment and directly made anyone sick.

Other industries have more established connections to Kern County’s elevated rates of lung disorders and heart disease. Poverty takes a toll on health, as do pesticides from farm fields and exhaust from two major freeways and a railroad. “We are the heart of California,” says Juan Flores, a 31-year-old community organizer with the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, in Delano, a mostly agricultural city about half an hour north of Bakersfield. “If something gets moved from north to south in this state, it goes through here.”

Flores figures that each of the county’s principal industries — oil, agriculture and goods movement — account for about a third of the valley’s pollution. Fracking is responsible for only about a fifth of oil’s contribution. Still, he believes a fracking ban is worth fighting for, if only because fracturing encourages wells to be drilled where there were none before. And even if fracking’s precise environmental damage remains somewhat of a mystery in California, the destruction wrought by oil and gas operations does not.

A recent study in rural Colorado found that children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia were three to four times more likely to live in close proximity to an oil or gas site. Oil drilling in Los Angeles, which happens in dense, urban neighborhoods, has been associated with asthma, heart disease and low-birthweight babies, primarily because it exacerbates air pollution. Close to 300,000 people in Kern County reside within a mile of an oil well, the majority of them Latino and living near or below the federal poverty line. Hydraulic fracturing makes more oil possible.

“To kill the environment where people live –that is the worst thing you can do.”

Flores is a tall, imposing presence, with a low forehead that gives way to thick, black hair. He grew up in Mexicali and came to the U.S. as a teenager with his parents, both of whom are farmworkers. Despite spending four years as an anti-fracking activist, he seems relentlessly cheerful, even when discussing painful subjects. I ask whether he believes what oil company representatives have told me, all speaking on background: That the oil industry in California is subject to the strictest environmental rules in the nation. “The good part is that I do believe that,” he says. “The bad part is, if we’re dying in California, with the best of the best — I can only imagine the suffering they’re going through in Kansas, in North Dakota, in Texas. To kill the environment where people live — that is the worst thing you can do.”

Fracking activity in the San Joaquin Valley slowed temporarily after SB 4’s rules took effect in 2015, says Kyle Ferrar, who monitors the Western U.S. for the FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that collects data and other information on fracking in the U.S. Besides disclosure, the law requires strict groundwater monitoring unless drillers obtain exemptions. “When those rules were passed, they were pretty strict, and rightfully so,” Ferrar says. Now permitting has picked up again, and thousands more wells have been stimulated since 2016.

Flores worries the upward trend could continue, especially as older fields age and if oil prices rise. When we spoke, the Bureau of Land Management had signaled an intent to open up more of California’s public lands to oil and gas exploration. A few weeks later, a federal judge struck down that plan, on the grounds that the agency failed to fully investigate the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, which could affect as many as a quarter of the new wells.

The administration still has options to pursue; the BLM could well come back with a revised plan sometime in the next four years and prevail. Flores hopes that before that happens, the California legislature will impose a statewide ban, despite the extent to which oil irrigates California politics. (Oil and gas interests donated $2.8 million to campaigns in the November 8, 2016 election. Close to 48 percent of those contributions went to Democrats.) In the meantime, he says, “we’re expecting and hoping that [local lawmakers] will upgrade their county and city oil and gas ordinances, focusing on the health of the community,” he says. “[Then] the oil industry would not be so attracted to [these] communities to extract oil.”

Last year Monterey County voters did just that, bucking oil’s well-funded opposition to approve Measure Z, prohibiting fracking and other well-stimulation methods within the county’s boundaries. And unlike some other California counties that have passed similar laws — Santa Cruz, San Benito, Alameda, Butte and Mendocino — Monterey County actually has oil: More than 1,000 wells operate on four fields near San Ardo, in the Salinas Valley. Chevron and Aera Energy almost immediately filed suits to stop the law from being implemented, and public hearings over exemptions and timelines have been contentious.

Lawsuit or not, Hollin Kretzmann contends that Measure Z is a model for other jurisdictions that want to take action at a local level. “New York’s fracking ban started with a couple of rural townships,” he points out. “It spread to a dozen townships. The governor was under enormous pressure from the public, and facing the science was forced to [sign] a statewide ban.”

The oil companies, they’re going to be left behind,” Juan Flores says, standing in the shade of an abundant valley oak in Panorama Park, an expanse of manicured grass on Bakersfield’s bluffs. The view from the bluffs is both breathtaking and dissonant: Looking down, you can see the lush green of the Kern River Valley; along the horizon a field of black pumpjacks, planted over scoured and parched brown earth, extends into apparent infinity. Flores traces with his finger the route of a canal that carries water left over from Chevron’s Kern River operations. Eventually, that water mixes with fresh water in an irrigation canal. During the drought of the last six years, farmers used it to keep their nut groves green. “Think about that,” Flores says, “when you eat your almonds and pistachios.”

It’s clear that Bakersfield’s boosters still take pride in this landscape. You don’t name bluffs, a park and a scenic drive “Panorama” because you’re ashamed of the view. But Flores notes that some of the field’s pumps have gone idle. Since oil prices crashed from their well-over $100-a-barrel highs to under $50 a barrel in 2015, Kern County’s economy has struggled.

“I notice the anger, the frustration of the oil workers who have lost jobs,” he says. “I know it makes it worse for them seeing me in documentaries saying, ‘Yeah, I really want fracking to stop.’ But what I want them to notice is that oil is not everything. They can jump on this train of renewable energy and be the leaders of it.”

He imagines another future for Bakersfield’s windy, sun-baked vista: Hundreds and thousands of solar panels and wind turbines, generating clean power for California’s grid. “Even more than that, I can see community members owning that energy, being part of it,” he says. “We’ll be so much better off with energy that won’t hurt us.”

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Finding Resilience in the Face of Disaster

The press tends to cover the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. Readers get heroic stories, viewers see great visuals, and if they are lucky, the victims get help while people are paying attention. Then comes the long road to recovery.

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Rev. Jim Conn




A home in Puerto Rico with the word “HELP” painted on its roof, Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection )

“I think I was in total disaster fatigue last week,” my wife Susan said to me as we began a little down time over the weekend.

And no wonder. Hurricane Harvey had no sooner finished devastating Houston and surrounding areas, than three more storms lined up facing Florida and islands in the Caribbean and the Atlantic. People fled several small outer islands, like Barbuda, only to find themselves stranded in a Puerto Rico shattered by record rains and winds.

Then came the news of vast wildfires throughout the American and Canadian West. From the Columbia River Gorge to the worst ever inside the Los Angeles city limits, these fires consume almost two million acres, a territory nearly the combined size of Rhode Island and Delaware. This was not supposed to happen in the wake of last winter’s drenching rains. The land and the vegetation were expected to be wet enough to forestall such horrors.

At the same time, monsoon season dumped record rains on Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, while an estimated 20 million people face famine across northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. Then the earthquakes hit Mexico.

The storms and the fires come with warnings that this is what human-caused climate change looks like. The increasing incidences of catastrophic storms and fires come from a common source. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is part of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), sea levels, temperatures of sea water and its surface, the air above the oceans, and over the land have all gone up. Meanwhile, sea ice, glaciers, ice sheets and snow cover have decreased. These phenomena all result from the amount of carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere.

With information that clear, no wonder climate change deniers don’t want the American people to know. So President Trump has salted his cabinet with deniers and wants climate change information scoured from the government’s web sites, just like the governor of Florida has forbidden his Environmental Protection Agency’s employees from using the words like “climate change” or “global warming.” But there is a reason why NOAA is in the Commerce Department and not, say, at Interior, where you might expect it: Business relies on forecasting calamity. Stability matters. Predictability makes a difference in the profit/loss column.

Knowing what’s coming matters to people in the pathway of destruction, too. Newspapers and television cover the threat of approaching catastrophic fires and storms because they provide warnings and generate suspense for the rest of us. The press also tends to cover the immediate aftermath because people want to know what happened. Readers get heroic stories, viewers see great visuals, and if they are lucky, the victims get help while people are paying attention. Then comes the difficult stuff and the long road to recovery. Network television turns away, and newspapers and broadcast outlets—except those based in the disaster area–may only continue a storyline for a brief time, unless they return years later for a historic look back.

But for the people on the ground, the horror of tragedy continues. Following Katrina in 2005, my wife joined a team of church people who volunteered in New Orleans. She came back shell-shocked by the devastation. Six months after the hurricane, the streets were still filled with piles of debris, fallen trees, uprooted shrubbery. Houses just being opened still held dead refrigerators filled with toxic mold.

Construction workers in hazmat suits gutted a home, down to the studs, so it could be rebuilt. A year later when we went back together, homes still stood empty, uninhabitable, some with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers in the front yard. Trees, stripped bare by the winds, were just beginning to leaf again. Remnants of the wreckage sat everywhere. Street car lines weren’t operating in some locations. That was still true a year later. Vast areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, remain mostly vacant even now. It takes a long time to recover from disaster.

In these situations local resilience and national response make a difference. People sharing food, cooking together, sorting through the rubble, building temporary shelters – all these efforts matter. In the immediate wake of Harvey, the volunteer “Cajun Navy” showed up with their small boats and skiffs. They rescued everyone they could without regard to race or religion or wealth because “Floodwaters don’t discriminate,” as they say. FEMA-sponsored teams soon began arriving from across the country, including California.

Donation centers popped up, of course. Some are worthy, others not. Before contributing to the rebuilding anywhere, make sure you find an organization that’s trustworthy. And sometimes the best known – like the Red Cross – are not the most locally effective or transparent.

These devastated places will take a long time to be habitable again. Lives will be upside down for a very long time. We Americans have a short attention span. As these catastrophes pile up, my fear is that we will get worn out before we work it out. A significant part of that work will be reducing our impact as human beings on this planet.

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