Archive for September, 2010

L.A. smog crisis as an environmental/social case study wending its way into academia

Thursday, September 16th, 2010


We’re seeing our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, on more university-level reading reading and curriculum, and are grateful that Southern California’s decades of suffering and teeth-gnashing can reveal a lot about how and how not to confront an ecological adversary with many faces and facets.

As of today, Smogtown is listed in 435 public libraries, many with multiple copies.

For a taste of what some university professors are using to teach their students about Amercia’s pollution legacy, contemplate this list from a Holy Cross course entitled “Pollution and Power.” (Holy Cross is a small, Catholic liberal-arts college in Worcester, Massachusetts.

* Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (Hill and Wang, 1996).

* Julie Sze, Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (MIT, 2006)

* Chip Jacobs, William J. Kelly, Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles (Overlook, 2008)

* Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (California, 2007)

* Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, 2001)

 * Steve Lerner, Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor (MIT, 2006)

This Bookforum review of Smogtown remains one of our favorites, even with its little jab. L.A. – a city of “irreconciliables”

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010



Historians of Los Angeles have tended, even when critical of the city, to re-inforce its long-standing reputation as a place of fantasy. Among the first to examine LA as an object of serious scholarship was Reyner Banham, who, in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), imagined La La Land as a series of discrete laboratories for democratic life, an exciting but highly romanticized LA of sun, fun, and motoring. A generation later, that book found its dark opposite in Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990), which turned LA’s penchant for unreality against it, revealing a bloated science-fictional dystopia. Both books boast compelling urban histories and continuing relevance, but even as each attempted to explore the form and fundamental logic of the city, they glamorized its past, and LA remained under a haze of myth.

Some of it gets burned off in Smogtown, a meticulous chronicle of the city’s signature airborne grime and of the civic and social forces that emerged to stop it. The authors, Los Angeles–based journalists Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly, bring LA back to its unglitzy basics in a story of greed, pollution, and molasses-slow political change. Their history describes a decidedly dreary Los Angeles: Patio furniture fades, flowers die, and a man’s coral-colored tie turns bluish-purple over the course of an afternoon—all due to the smog that rolled into the city quite unannounced one morning in 1943. “The blocked skies,” write Jacobs and Kelly, “were tantamount to acne on a beauty queen.”

While Angelenos choked on the black stuff, variously described as an “aerosol barrage” and a “hanging bouillabaisse,” the government floundered. The Bureau of Air Pollution Control (BAPC) was the first local agency to tackle the crisis, starting in 1945. It failed to identify the smog’s source, as its engineers focused chiefly on sulfurous factory smoke and ignored gasoline-related fumes. The BAPC was replaced in 1947 by the Air Pollution Control District (APCD), under whose aegis Dutch-born biochemist Arie Haagen-Smit isolated automobile exhaust as the culprit. The APCD, however, couldn’t get much traction on the problem; neither could its successor agency, the South Coast Air Quality Management District; nor could the California Air Resources Board, the superagency created to coordinate statewide efforts. As Jacobs and Kelly demonstrate, the reason so little got done for so long was simple: Haagen-Smit (known fondly as Haagy) had solved the mystery, but in “linking smog with the tailpipe,” he put the antipollution bureaucracy in a bind for decades—caught between California’s burgeoning car culture and the smog-bedeviled people of Los Angeles.

It’s enough to make you feel bad for bureaucrats. Speaking of APCD chief Louis McCabe, one observer recalls, “The poor chap was being harassed from all sides.” Haagy’s credibility was called into question by “scientists” funded by the automobile and oil industries while rumors spread in the general population about a plot by big-business polluters to indict the “little man’s automobile.” The smogmen were charged with the daunting task of mediating between the public and private sectors and one another, all while dealing with angry citizens who threatened to “[come] down there after you with a hatchet.”


Friday, September 10th, 2010

* California Watch story about how other states are planning to attack California’s landmark, anti-greenhouse gas law if Proposition 23 fails. We’ll skip the moralizing and let you decide the intent.

” … The attorneys general of Alabama, Nebraska, Texas and North Dakota have been devising a legal strategy to challenge the California act, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, on the grounds that it interferes with the right to freely conduct interstate commerce, according to Wayne Stenehjem, the attorney general of North Dakota …”

* Ever wonder how China leapfrogged the West to become the largest manufacturer of solar panels and other green-energy technologies? So did the New York Times. Must reading, if you ask us. As we move towards a new energy dynamic, shouldn’t the world’s economies be operating on a level playing field. Right now it’s listing toward Beijing and the subsidies and advanatages they hand out.

“CHANGSHA, China — Until very recently, Hunan Province was known mainly for lip-searing spicy food, smoggy cities and destitute pig farmers. Mao was born in a village on the outskirts of Changsha, the provincial capital here in south-central China.

Now, Changsha and two adjacent cities are emerging as a center of clean energy manufacturing. They are churning out solar panels for the American and European markets, developing new equipment to manufacture the panels and branching into turbines that generate electricity from wind. By contrast, clean energy companies in the United States and Europe are struggling. Some have started cutting jobs and moving operations to China in ventures with local partners …

But much of China’s clean energy success lies in aggressive government policies that help this crucial export industry in ways most other governments do not. These measures risk breaking international rules to which China and almost all other nations subscribe, according to some trade experts interviewed by The New York Times …”

* Miscellany: science and politics

- Under fire from industry, scientific panel is ‘gutted.’ (California Watch)

This story reverberates strongly here, because it echoes this intersection of toxicological science and industry influence from 2004.

Dropping Science: Chromium six is a known carcinogen, but the implosion of a blue-ribbon panel of scientists means we don’t know how much is safe in L.A.’s drinking water.

 Researcher files whisteblower retaliation complaint againt UCLA (California Watch)

Degrees of separation between one of the most notorious emissions brokers and the Tribune Corp. bankrutpcy morass

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in this press release that Anne Sholtz, a then-high-flying entrepreneuer instrumental in creation of the planet’s first smog cap-and-trade, had admitted to defrauding an obscure New York-based energy trader called AG Clean Air. Sholtz’s little-noticed plea and corporate bankrutpcies ignited a mess that still has many smarting and confused, while giving global warming skeptics such as Texas Rep. Joe Barton ammunition to question the prudence of Pres. Obama’s hope for a greenhouse gas market. Oh yeah, there’s also this issue of whether Sholtz, a former Caltech economist and owner of a resplendent mansion, perpetrated an earlier fraud –with the supposed help of ex-CIA and military operatives — that never went investigated or flagged by authorities. See my story about her and “Operation Bald Headed Eagle” for the particulars.

Now, lookie here. The apparent parent company of AG Clean Air,  is one of the creditors of the Tribune Corp. bankruptcy. For those who don’t know, Tribune owns the Los Angeles Times, our hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune and other media assets. As this story shows, former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner is bidding to become Tribune’s post-bankruptcy chairman.

Here’s a crucial passage: “… Tribune and its creditors are still struggling to negotiate a settlement around charges that (Sam) Zell’s 2007 leveraged buyout was a case of “fraudulent conveyance,” meaning the transaction rendered the company insolvent from Day One. That settlement would serve as the basis for a plan of reorganization, but depending on how negotiations go, it could be months in coming or the case could easily devolve into litigation.

Nobody in the case doubts that senior creditors led by money center bank JPMorgan Chase and two hedge funds, Angelo, Gordon & Co. and Oaktree Capital Management, will end up owning Tribune by virtue of their $8.6 billion in claims …”

In a earlier article, the L.A. Times depicted Angelo, Gordon & Co. as a “distressed-debt hedge fund.” Here’s the company’s website, so judge for yourself.

When I contacted the company for comment about my last story on Shotz last summer, the PR flack initially denied there was a connection between AG Clean Air (which apparently stood for Angelo, Gordon Clear Air) and Angelo, Gordon & Co. until I disputed otherwise and said the court documents show the exact same New York address for both entities: 245 Park Ave., 26th floor, New York, NY 10167.

Coincidene? I think not.

Whether AG Clean Air still exists is not clear. That the parent is the same one entangled in the debacle that Sam Zell created with his highly leveraged Tribune purchase some years back seems undeniable.

How Sholtz and AG fit into the L.A. air-pollution saga is detailed and contexualized in our book, Smogtown: the Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.