Archive for the ‘Dirty environmental politics’ Category

San Joaquin Valley’s chemical pall not going anywhere, except inside peoples’ bodies

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Google at work on alternative energy

* Curious this issue doesn’t grab more mainstream media attention. It pits the demands of big Agriculture against the socioeconomics of migrant and poor workers subjected to a pretty ravaging environment – pesticides, old-fashioned smog, diesel particulates, infected water, etc. And we used to think Burbank, epicenter of water pollution, freeway fumebanks and toxic ground, was dispiriting. From California Watch:

If New Year’s resolutions could apply to places, perhaps no place is as worthy of concerted change as the San Joaquin Valley. Home to nearly 4 million people, the nation’s breadbasket is described as “a patchwork pattern of separate and unequal places” in a report by the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. Titled “Land of Risk/Land of Opportunity,” the report confirms what community members and advocates have long suspected – that environmental hazards tend to be clustered around low-income populations with low levels of education and English literacy. These include urban neighborhoods like West Fresno, which has borne the brunt of slaughterhouses, waste dumps and other undesirable land uses, as well as unincorporated rural communities like Earlimart, where pesticide drift prompted years of citizen activism and ultimately new legislation. The report, linked here, is well worth reading. It’s chief finding may be that “one-third of the nearly 4 million people in the region face both high degrees of environmental risks and high degrees of social vulnerability.”

* Other news of note:

- The last word on the Solyndra controversy from the Washington Post.

- Wind-power as alternative energy is no longer just about tilting. It’s about practicality. Got a roof? Read about it here in Slate via MSNBC.

- Not everything that web juggernaut Google embarks on turns to gold … or even energy. Talking Points Memo nails it well with this piece.

- Finally, from the Department of We Already Knew That (Hereon referred to as the DWAKT) , this about America’s most gridlocked byways being in Los Angeles. Have you been on the Harbor Freeway lately, or noticed a hovering orange-brown film still clinging to the lower atmosphere? If you have, DWAKT is going to sound superfluous and gang-piling. Good old car culture. It begat smog, and smog begat environmentalism. If you doubt it, check out our acclaimed Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution of Los Angeles. We leave the obvious in the chemical dust to tell the full story.

Holiday Season first annual point – counterpoint babble

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

* POINT: The Ontario International Airport is worse than Los Angeles City Hall’s red-haired stepchild. It’s more akin to the deserted, forlorn cousin promised housing in a garden shed. Glad folks are just learning this.

- From the L.A. Times: “After three decades of steady growth and earning a Forbes magazine nod as one of the nation’s top “alternative airports,” Ontario International is now among the fastest-declining midsize airports in the country. A pillar of pride for the Inland Empire, which rode the housing boom to a colossal bust, the sprawling facility owned and operated by the city of Los Angeles lost a third of its 7.2 million annual passengers between 2007 and 2010. The airport is on track to lose an additional 200,000 this year — setting it back to 1987 levels, when Ronald Reagan was president and the Dow was below 3,000. Nationally, only Cincinnati is shedding travelers at a faster pace …”

* COUNTER-POINT: (A.K.A. first to the punch): my piece on this subject from way back when.

- “Thirty-six years ago, during the money-loathing Summer of Love, Los Angeles got control of the air at a bead-like price. For $1.2-million and future concessions, the city bought a postage-stamp airport in the dusty flatlands of the Inland Empire in the era before the subdivisions and chain-malls invaded. Though dry in detail, if not colonial in result, the 1967-transaction provided each side with something immediately useful. Los Angeles International Airport secured a backup landing strip for those nights coastal fog (or smog) socked in its runways. Ontario inherited a strapping big-city patriarch that could lure commercial jetliners to the scruffy, San Bernardino County outpost while chasing federal dollars to expand it. Ontario’s airfield was barely more than parched earth and booster dreams when L.A. came along. It had taken World War II training needs to convert the dirt runways there to concrete, and defense contractors after that to bulk up the facilities. The first passenger terminal, one converted from a hybrid chapel-theater-canteen, didn’t rise until the 1960s. It was bush league at best …”

* POINT: The cities of Glendale, Burbank and northwest Los Angeles have tried their level best to keep hexavalent chromium (chrome-six, “The Erin Brockovich chemical) under state standards by either diluting the tainted fluid with fresh suppies, shutting off compromised acquifers or just dumping the stuff into the Los Angeles River. Research in Glendale, meantime, is underway to figure out how to remove the industrial contaminant point blank. This is an enormous issue where the Cold War, environmental science, Superfund policies and municipal water management weave in and out of the water table pocked by decades of defense manufacturing (mainly Lockheed), chrome plating and other industrial work involving heavy metals. You just wouldn’t know it’s a crisis from the scant media coverage. Consider this short piece from the L.A. Times:

- “Although the City Council last week approved spending an additional $400,000 to continue research at two testing facilities — just two months after the council gave the green light to spend $550,000 in grant and state funding on more research — some city officials are getting antsy …”

* COUNTERPOINT: My article that launched a series and community hullaballoo about local chrome-six water contamination after I worked with the L.A. Times in the year-2000 exposing the problem. Sometimes, it seems like we all have dementia when it comes to remembering that there’s an unusually pernicious toxin infesting our water. Maybe it was the recession or terrorism that spurred us kick this can down the road? Or, environmental fatigue? Couldn’t be politics (insert laugh track) or the sheer magnitude of the issue.

(more…)

Smog, particulate matter, state lying, headlights on in the daytime murk – a festival of Chinese pollution links

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

In the Middle East, the Arab Spring unfolded. In Europe, the debt crisis sparked riots and soul-searching. In the United States, every big metro area seems to have experienced the jolt from an “Occupy” campaign unhappy with the concentration of wealth in upper-crust minority. But in China, many city dwellers are fighting for their every breath — or just flat dying — in air off the scale in terms of noxious chemicals brought about by the country’s breakneck industrialization. Will China’s communist leadership continue playing the great denial game until the mobs come for them, as they have in other parts of the world, or will there finally be some responsibility, accountability and truth-telling. I wouldn’t hold your breath for the latter, if past behavior is any barometer. I’d hold my breath unitl I escpaed Chinese airspace. Is this the way to run an ecomomic giant: foul up the air willy nilly and then call it a pesky fog or a great exaggeration.

* Score one for the U.S. We called their dirty air what it was. Ideological meterologists settled for “fog.” Who was right, and at what cost to average people? See this Wall Street Journal story:

” … The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, which broadcasts readings from its own pollution monitoring equipment on an hourly basis through Twitter, has been instrumental in piercing the veil around air quality in China’s capital — particularly in the month or so since celebrity real estate mogul Pan Shiyi cited its readings in calling for tougher air monitoring standards. Authorities in Beijing and most other Chinese cities measure air pollution by counting only particles between 2.5 and 10 micrometers in diameter. The embassy counts particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), which experts say make up the most of the city’s air pollution and cause more damage to the lungs. While Twitter is blocked in China, third-party developers have used the embassy’s feed to build mobile apps that are accessible inside the country. The most recent online outpouring seems to have been set off on Sunday night, when the embassy published a PM2.5 air quality index reading above 500 – a level expats refer to as “Crazy Bad” – that contrasted sharply with the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection’s description of air pollution over the weekend as “light.” …”

* L.A. Times on this issue from a dynamite reporter. MSBNC gets in its 2 cents.

* So you’re visiting the mighty Asian economic tiger and need to hit the bricks for the road home. Maybe breathe without hacking again. Good luck finding the airport through those hovering, blinding chemicals. GPS anyone? The L.A. Times reports:

“Whether it was fog or smog, thousands of travelers have been delayed since Sunday evening by the almost opaque air around Beijing Capital Airport. The delays at one of the busiest airports in the world raise questions about whether air pollution in China has gotten bad enough to derail the country’s economic growth. Hundreds of flights were canceled and even the highway to the airport had to be closed … Beijingers bought more than 20,000 face masks on Taobao, a shopping website; and people took to the Internet to mock their own government’s reporting of air quality. “They are treating citizens as idiots,” complained a young man on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblog. A middle-aged man wrote sarcastically, “The city looks like a fairyland but thanks to the government, it is only ‘slight pollution.’ ” …”

* Excellent, courageous coverage on this issue all the way around, and we really love what the Atlantic has to say in this blog, which has a link to a disgusting and revealing video. This is toxic air, folks, not a trick of the light:

“Everyone I know in Northern China has been writing about the recent sieges of off-the-scale air pollution, especially in Beijing. Much of the political and press controversy involves “PM 2.5″ — the fine-particulate pollution that is threatening to human health, that is closely monitored in the rest of the world, but for which the only known, publicly available data in China has come from an “unauthorized” measuring site on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing … As you see the video, bear in mind that what you might take for swirling “fog” on a moist morning in Seattle or along the Maine or California coast is in fact toxic air. That’s the point of the recent controversy, since the government has insisted on calling it “fog.” …”

Somebody needs to get these people a copy of our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles. The world was supposed to know better by now.

If we want to ditch fossil fuels, and all the smog and global warming that it manufactures in bulk, perhaps we should we get ourselves far beyond the clouds.

Monday, November 21st, 2011

* We love this type of story. Ingenuity meets necessity. Graps exceeds reach. A scientific revolution that might lubricate social harmony. Orbital power plants: a warming, exhaust-laden envivorment needs you.

From MSNBC:

“The sun’s abundant energy, if harvested in space, could provide a cost-effective way to meet global power needs in as little as 30 years with seed money from governments, according to a study by an international scientific group. Orbiting power plants capable of collecting solar energy and beaming it to Earth appear “technically feasible” within a decade or two based on technologies now in the laboratory, a study group of the Paris-headquartered International Academy of Astronautics said … ” Colonel Michael Smith, the U.S. Air Force’s chief futurist as director of the Center for Strategy and Technology at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, said the idea has the potential to send safe, clean electrical energy worldwide “if we can make it work. “Isn’t that what government and industry should be working to do?” he said in a telephone interview.

Sidebar: how realistic?

“The idea of beaming down power from outer space has surfaced in science-fiction stories and government studies for decades now. Commercial deals have been struck, prototype satellites have been proposed, international initiatives have been announced. But has any real progress been made toward developing space-based solar power systems? That’s what we’re talking about this Sunday on “Virtually Speaking Science.”

* In less inspiring news, check out this New York Times story detailing President Obama’s decision to pare back on anti-smog rules. We’re in 2011, but it’s the same story that it’s been for decades. When political fortunes go south and the economy sputters, hard-won environmental regulation is recast as reckless oversight so our government leaders can water them down, to hell wilth the consequences. Maybe some day Uncle Sam will, green-wise, grow up to the point it stops creating false choices. Maybe.

From the New York Times (with their standard picture of a polluted L.A. skyline):

“The summons from the president came without warning the Thursday before Labor Day. As she was driven the four blocks to the White House, Lisa P. Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, suspected that the news would not be good. What she did not see coming was a rare public rebuke the president was about to deliver by rejecting her proposal to tighten the national standard for smog. The half-hour meeting in the Oval Office was not a negotiation; the president had decided against ratcheting up the ozone rule because of the cost and the uncertainty it would impose on industry and local governments. He clearly understood the scientific, legal and political implications. He told Ms. Jackson that she would have an opportunity to revisit the Clean Air Act standard in 2013 — if they were still in office. We are just not going to do this now, he said … The full retreat on the smog standard was the first and most important environmental decision of the presidential campaign season that is now fully under way. An examination of that decision, based on interviews with lobbyists on both sides, former officials and policy makers at the upper reaches of the White House and the E.P.A., illustrates the new calculus on political and policy shifts as the White House sharpens its focus on the president’s re-election …”

Our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution, makes clear we are on history’s hamster wheel here.

Autumn green — a terrific (and lung-scarring) video, Central Valley particulates, the mile-high cough and the White House smog fandango

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

 

* Why Central California — yup, the San Joaquin Valley — is such a smog breeding ground. From the Atlantic:

“… One of the big things we’re dealing with is that we have a 1 to 2 ratio of people to vehicle miles traveled,” says Jaime Holt at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. These mobile sources of emissions add to the Valley’s problems, but Holt argues they’re not the main cause. The region’s agriculture is responsible for much of the region’s pollution. Up until a few years ago, farmers in the region would regularly burn brush and cuttings at the end of the season, creating huge sources of particulate matter in the air. A new state law, enforced since 2004, regulates the emissions of the agriculture industry in the state, and Holt says the Valley’s pollution problems have already started to decline. In 2002, more than 4,600 tons of 2.5-microgram particulate matter was recorded. In 2008, that figure was down to 1,600 tons. The problem is getting better, but it’s by no means solved. As agricultural burn-offs continue to decrease, the Valley can expect to see its air quality improve. But regardless of the value of those improvements, its geography and meteorology distinctly disadvantage it to suffer below average air quality …”

* Ever wonder about the quality of the air you breathe on airlines in that closed environment? Yep, we did, , too, and so have others. Here’s a story about potential domino lawsuits and a focus on what is either a dirty secret or an environmental mole-hill. MSBNC has the goods:

“A former flight attendant is believed to be the first person in the U.S. to settle a lawsuit against the Boeing Co. over what she claims is faulty aircraft design that allowed toxic fumes to reach the cabin, triggering tremors, memory loss and severe headaches. The amount and other details of the settlement Wednesday between former American Airlines worker Terry Williams, a 42-year-old mother of two, and Boeing were not made public as a condition of the agreement. But 250,000 pages of company documents turned over to the plaintiff’s legal team by Boeing seem certain to fuel the long-running battle over the safety of cabin air in commercial jetliners. “The issue is really heating up now,” Judith Murawski, a Seattle-area based industrial hygienist for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told msnbc.com, adding that she typically handles at least three new cases a week involving crew members exposed to fumes. Many calls come from crew members on their way to emergency rooms or urgent care clinics, she said …”

* You know your president is in trouble when his once bedrock convictions begin crumbling like a cracker dropped into a glass of water. Once more, we are showing ourselves to be the land of the short-sighted. Haven’t we already decided the environment matters and that sweeping, wholesale deregulation is not only recklessly unhealthy but economically dangerous? Who pays for all those pollution-sickened folks? Hint: you and me! The Washington Post, of course, has the lowdown.

“President Obama’s controversial decision last week to suspend new anti-smog standards offered hints — but not the full road map — of how the White House will navigate politically explosive battles with congressional Republicans over which industry regulations to sacrifice and which ones to fight for this fall. The Friday decision, which angered many environmental activists and won praise from business groups, represented the most high-profile case in a debate that carries deep implications for Obama’s reelection campaign as he tries to spur job creation, woo business donors and fire up his voting base. It came as the president prepares for a major address Thursday night to lay out a new employment strategy … The ozone decision signaled a new phase in Washington warfare. For their first two years, Obama and his team pushed through ambitious legislative initiatives such as the economic stimulus, the health-care overhaul and a rewrite of the financial regulatory system. Now, newly empowered congressional Republicans are driving an agenda of smaller government, deficit reduction and regulatory rollbacks that GOP lawmakers say will help spur job growth. And Obama, his presidency on the line amid fading hopes of a near-term economic recovery, is eager to show that he, too, recognizes the need to curb government overreach. At the same time, he needs to reassure anxious advocates on the left, many of whom have complained since last month’s debt-ceiling deal that the president has become too easily cowed by Republican arguments. It is a delicate balancing act for a president still searching for the right formula to spark the economy to life at the same time that he hopes to win back crucial independent voters.

The Dirt on Bill Burke, the Man Who’d Buy the Dodgers on Behalf of China: a Smogtown editorial

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Where’s Walter O’Malley when you need him?

 The revered owner of the Dodgers—who moved the team from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and privately financed and built Dodger Stadium in the early-1960s —was a man of stature unknown today in Chavez Ravine. Former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley once called the patrician O’Malley “the epitome of class.”

But who would say that about Dr. William (“Bill”)  Burke, a connected local businessman and political figure, with his offer leading an investment group to acquire the Dodgers for $1.2 billion?

The chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), the L.A.-region’s smog-control agency, and member of the California Coastal Commission, is simply carrying the money for Chinese interests seeking to buy the Dodgers from the bankrupt and disreputable McCourt family. And by Chinese interests, we’re talking the government of the People’s Republic, if initial news reports are accurate.

Burke is no O’Malley, that’s for sure. Here’s some background on him, with much more in our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.

Where O’Malley built a top-notch baseball empire with private funds, Burke has made a career acting essentially as a high-class bagman carrying money from other people to politicians, with more than a little self-aggrandizement along the way.

Burke is well-known for his political action committees, which have delivered millions of dollars to legislators and city council members throughout his career and given him access and clout in L.A. City Hall and Sacramento.

Not surprisingly, he constructed his for-profit L.A. Marathon on public subsidies and then cut corners when it came to paying legitimate fees levied by the city. The L.A. council looked the other way in Burke’s case, particularly those to whom he doled out campaign contributions. Compare that situation to a more recent one, when the council pulled the plug on the popular Sunset Junction Music Festival because the promoters failed to pay fees. The cancellation, just days before the festival was scheduled, left musicians and vendors hung out to dry, a fate never visited upon Burke.

Beyond the hypocritical spectacle of the region’s top clean-air advocate representing as a private businessman a country where air pollution kills an estimated 655,000 people annually, according to this 2008 study, there’s also ground-level dirt in the district chair’s past.

In 1994, the L.A. City Ethics Commission, along with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, fined Burke’s corporation $436,250 for laundering campaign contributions. But at least that was out in the open. As we document in Smogtown, Burke quietly arranged a $53,000 AQMD public relations contract for Layne Bordenave, the mistress of former-California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, records and interviews show. Bordenave simply took the money and ran without providing any service. Burke bragged that in exchange for the money, Brown promised to block legislation trimming the district’s authority during a rough economic patch in the 1990s.

Burke was back to bidding again in 2001, helping to kill the first California electric car mandate as General Motors wanted. Burke argued it was unfair to require electric cars when working-class stiffs of color still had to breathe diesel fumes from trucks on freeways and at the ports. He said he’d brokered a deal with G.M. to deliver a half-billion dollars to end diesel pollution in Southern California, if only the state would release G.M. from its obligation to build electric cars. G.M. got rid of the obligation, but never delivered the money, leaving L.A. and the state with pollution from both cars and diesel soot from trucks. Today, the electric car is making a huge comeback.

Not too shrewd, Bill. But that’s what happens to those in public service who are willing to carry money for special interests to get ahead. Repping the Chinese, with their reputation for environmental lethality, and G.M., whose recalicitrance to install exhaust-trapping technology helped entomb Southern California in dangerous fumebanks of smog for decades, fits a pattern.

Let this cautionary tale about Burke’s attempt to buy the Dodgers with the investment group sink in. Once it does, it’s easy to imagine Walter O’Malley spinning in his grave at the notion that the team he loved could pass to such hands.

For more, read William’s L.A. Weekly feature about Burke’s stewardship at the district, and Chip’s Pasadena Weekly expose on cap-and-trade fraud there under his watch..)

AQMD chairman representing smog-smothered China in a deal with the Dodgers, Obama caving in on a critical ozone rule: just another jaded day in Smogtown

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

* Bill Burke, longtime chairman of Southern California’s regional smog-fighting agency, is leading a group that includes the Chinese government, to purchase the L.A. Dodgers for $1.2 billion from beleaguered owner Frank McCourt. Burke, who founded the L.A. Marathon and is the husband to former congresswoman and County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, has given no official comments. But we have a couple: first, representing an ownership group with funding from China is incendiary, given Burke’s job with the South Coast Air Quality Management District and the fact that China has ghastly air pollution problems far beyond anything us current Westerners can imagine. (Folks who lived through the “great” L.A. smog crises might be about the only ones with damaged lungs and psyches who could relate). What message is Burke sending by aligning himself with a dirty, industrial powerhouse like that? That green (thimk dollars) counts more than brown, as in brown, crusty, noxious air pollution? Also, Burke has some questions to answer, and we’re not talking about the L.A. Marathon. In our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, we discover the smelly deal he cut with then state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. Let’s just say it involves political promises, a taxpayer-funded P.R. contract that produced no P.R. and a mistress.

- From the L.A. Times:

“In an international twist in the Dodgers’ ownership saga, Frank McCourt has been offered $1.2 billion to sell the team to a group indirectly financed by the government of China. The bid is headed by Los Angeles Marathon founder Bill Burke, according to a letter sent to McCourt on Tuesday. The letter was disclosed to The Times by two people familiar with its content but not authorized to discuss it publicly. The proposed sale price would set a record for a Major League Baseball team. However, the bid was received with skepticism within MLB, where executives wondered whether the proposal might be used by McCourt to stir negotiations with other potential buyers or to persuade a Bankruptcy Court judge to keep McCourt in charge of the team …”

Stay tuned.

* There’s a great bumper sticker out there that says, in effect, if you’re not cynical enough, you’re not paying attention. Optimists that we are, we’re also realists and pollution historians and we know that when the economy goes into the crapper, health-protecting environmental rules we all figured we’re mainstream and untouchable are suspended and put on ice. Well, one of the holy grails of enviromental protections against pernicious smog is about to spend time in regulatory purgatory. L.A. anti-smog crusaders like Ken Hahn must be rolling in their graves at the rollback built on so many people’s suffering. Then again, none of us are president of a hurting country. Ozone: what hath you done? We smell clusmy backpedal.

- The New York Times hits it on the head:

“The Obama administration is abandoning its plan to immediately tighten air-quality rules nationwide to reduce emissions of smog-causing chemicals after an intense lobbying campaign by industry, which said the new rule would cost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs, officials said Friday. “If he continues to represent Republican interests, he should open the door for Democrats to choose a candidate who represents them, rather than the opposing party.” The Environmental Protection Agency, following the recommendation of its scientific advisers, had proposed lowering the so-called ozone standard from that set by the Bush administration to a new stricter standard that would have thrown hundreds of American counties out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. It would have required a major effort by state and local officials, as well as new emissions controls by industries and agriculture across the country. The more lenient Bush administration standard from 2008 will remain in place until a scheduled reconsideration of acceptable pollution limits in 2013, officials indicated Friday …”

- More about this from the L.A. Times:

“President Obama announced Friday that he has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to drop controversial rules to cut smog levels, a move welcomed by the business community that has long decried them as onerous but one sure to alienate the president’s environmental base even further as his administration backs away from key anti-pollution initiatives. In a statement issued by the White House, the president said: “I have continued to underscore the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty, particularly as our economy continues to recover. With that in mind, and after careful consideration, I have requested that Administrator [Lisa] Jackson withdraw the draft Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standards at this time. Work is already underway to update a 2006 review of the science that will result in the reconsideration of the ozone standard in 2013. Ultimately, I did not support asking state and local governments to begin implementing a new standard that will soon be reconsidered,” the statement concluded …

* As if this wasn’t demoralizing enough, here’s a story emblematic of the collossal missed opportunity to jump start an alternative enery industry in the face of global recession and global warming because politicas interfered. From ABC News

“Solyndra, a renewable energy firm that became the darling of the Obama Administration, shut the doors to its California headquarters today, raising sharp questions from the administration’s critics about political favoritism in the federal loan program. “We smelled a rat from the onset,” Republican House Energy and Commerce Committee members Rep. Cliff Stearns and Rep. Fred Upton said in a statement to ABC News of the the $535 million government loan guarantee awarded to Solyndra in 2009. The manufacturer of rooftop solar panels opened in 2005 and in 2009 became the Obama administration’s first recipient of an half-billion dollar energy loan guarantee meant to help minimize the risk to venture capital firms that were backing the solar start-up. Obama made a personal visit to the factory last year to herald its bright future.

* Lastly, not so Greenland anymore.