CVIndependent

Wed11212018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

On this week's FBI-rated weekly Independent comics page: This Modern World talks guns with a glib sociopath; Jen Sorenson looks at what's fueling our demise; The K Chronicles celebrates a band called Death; Red Meat gets some surprise dental work; and Apoca Clips ponders Syria.

Published in Comics

Beyond the devastation and personal tragedy of the fires that have ravaged California in recent months, another disaster looms: an alarming uptick in unhealthy air—and the sudden release of the carbon dioxide that drives climate change.

As millions of acres burn in a cycle of longer and more-intense fire seasons, the extensive efforts of industry and regulators to protect the environment can be partly undone in one firestorm. In particular, as raging blazes pump more carbon into the atmosphere, state officials are grappling with the potential effect on California’s ability to adequately reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

The state’s environmental regulations are known to be stringent, but they have limits: They apply only to human-caused emissions. Pollution generated by wildfires is all outside the grasp of state law.

“The kinds of fires we’re seeing now generate millions of tons of GHG emissions. This is significant,” said Dave Clegern, a spokesman for the state Air Resources Board, a regulatory body.

In less than one week, for example, October’s wine-country fires discharged harmful emissions equal to that of every car, truck and big rig on the state’s roads in a year. The calculations from the subsequent fires in Southern California are not yet available, but given the duration and scope of the multiple blazes, they could well exceed that level.

The greenhouse gases released when forests burn not only do immediate harm, discharging carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases; they also continue to inflict damage long after the fires are put out. In a state where emissions from nearly every industry are tightly regulated, if wildfires were treated like other carbon emitters, Mother Nature would be castigated, fined and shut down.

The air board estimates that between 2001 and 2010, wildfires generated approximately 120 million tons of carbon. But Clegern said a direct comparison with regulated emissions is difficult, in part because of limited monitoring data.

“Nature doesn’t follow the rules very well,” said Jim Branham, executive officer at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, a state agency that has created a plan to better harness California’s forests in reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

As is so often the case in environmental catastrophes, one thing leads to another, creating what Branham calls the double whammy: Burning trees not only release powerful pollutants known as black carbon; once a forest is gone, its prodigious ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it is lost, too.

Scientists estimate that in severely burned areas, only a fraction of a scorched tree’s emissions are released during the fire, perhaps as little as 15 percent. The bulk of greenhouse gases are released over months and years as the plant dies and decomposes.

And if a burned-out forest is replaced by chaparral or brush, that landscape loses more than 90 percent of its capacity to take in and retain carbon, according to the conservancy.

Severe fires have the capacity to inflict profound damage in a short span. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the 2013 Rim Fire in central California spewed out the equivalent of the carbon-dioxide emissions from 3 million cars. That is a setback to the state’s effort to get cars off the road, another critical tool for reducing greenhouse gases.

The role of wildfires as a major source of pollution was identified a decade ago, when a study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that “a severe fire season lasting only one or two months can release as much carbon as the annual emissions from the entire transportation or energy sector of an individual state.”

It’s a measure of the dramatic ramping up of fires in the West that today, a single fire can meet that threshold.

The entire equation has been made worse by the state’s epidemic of tree death, caused by drought, disease and insect infestation. The U.S. Forest Service earlier this month updated its estimate of dead trees across California to 129 million. That loss alone could be a blow to the state’s vision of a low-carbon future.

“Dead trees don’t sequester carbon,” Branham said.

Forests as carbon-chewers are part of the state’s strategy for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions significantly by 2020 and beyond—a goal that could be undermined by nature’s caprice. The air board will direct state agencies to determine more precisely how much carbon can be absorbed by California’s variety of landscapes.

Air quality, too, is subject to state, local and federal regulations. But those standards go out the window in large fires, when soot and ash blanketing entire regions can be seen from space.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which sets air pollution standards nationally, has an “exceptional events” rule that exempts states from fines under certain extraordinary conditions.

California has invoked the rule during wildfires at least once before, in 2008, for fires in the Sacramento area. The request was accepted, according to the air board.

More recently, Sean Raffuse, an analyst at the Air Quality Research Center at the University of California at Davis, came up with the “back of the envelope” calculations for October’s Sonoma County fires.

Raffuse said he used federal emissions inventories from fires and calculated that five days of ashy spew from the northern California blazes equated to the annual air pollution from every vehicle in California.

Those kinds of computations are seldom replicated, largely for lack of the necessary instruments present at fire sites. But things are changing: Researchers have been attempting to better understand the full range of environmental damage wrought by wildfires. One tool is drones that can be flown through smoke plumes to collect samples for analysis.

“We don’t have the means to measure emissions from a wildfire like we do from a tailpipe,” Branham said. “We are lagging well behind in understanding and having hard data of the effects of these fires. And most of the data are chasing reality.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

As a child, Ignacio Ochoa would jump into a car and make the trek from his home in Coachella down to the Salton Sea with his cousins. They’d sit on the playa, looking out across the vast lake and watching birds dive into the water.

The waters then teemed with activity.

“We would cup our hands in the water and see literally hundreds of tadpoles,” Ochoa said. “Then, it seemed like the next year, it was all so different.”

Over time, Ochoa noticed conditions at the lake deteriorating rapidly. He’d return each time and find the playa increasingly covered in trash and dead fish. The air became harder to breathe. Crowds dwindled, and birds showed up in vastly smaller numbers.

Eventually, his family’s trips to the sea stopped altogether. He felt as though he was losing a connection to the lake—forever.

The future of the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake by surface area, remains uncertain. Water transfers at the lake have disrupted the area’s wetlands—indispensable stopovers for migratory birds from across the hemisphere.

According to the Audubon Society, a national organization that promotes policies that protect birds and the environments in which they live, more than 400 species of birds have been documented at the Salton Sea.

As water recedes, more of the playa is exposed, kicking up toxic dust in an area where air is already choked from agriculture production. The dust contains tiny particles that can trigger asthma and aggravate existing heart conditions in older adults.

The state recently rolled out its 10-year Salton Sea Management Program. The $383 million plan focuses on wetland restoration, which ostensibly will help suppress dust. However, issues regarding the Salton Sea go beyond science and the environment. Local advocates want state leaders to see this as an equity and social-justice issue, too.

The lake sits between Riverside and Imperial Counties. More than 20 percent of children in Imperial County are diagnosed with asthma, versus just 8 percent nationally, according to a 2015 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ochoa reclaimed his connection to the Salton Sea by returning to organize community members to participate in advocacy campaigns in support of the lake. He works with young people who come from working-class families that are dealing with asthma and cardiovascular disease—health issues tied directly to conditions at the lake, according to the same CDCP report.

The population in the area is predominantly Mexican and Mexican American, according to 2015 Census figures.

Ochoa said the area’s high levels of poverty and unemployment—and the area’s majority communities of color—represent factors that lead to a lack of power in the state. Some media reports paint residents simply as victims, with no way to affect their future.

“There is people power, too,” he said. “If you help mobilize people and provide them with access to information, that is a force to be reckoned with.”


Residents have seen decades of political promises turn into stagnation, even as one estimate claims the cost of continued inaction could reach $37 billion in public health costs over the next 30 years.

Ruben Garza and Cristian Garza, two brothers from Mecca who became youth-environmental advocates, represent a generation of Coachella Valley youth who remain hopeful in spite of all the stories about a looming crisis.

For years, health risks prevented the Garza family from returning to the Salton Sea. Cristian developed asthma and eventually suffered a collapsed lung that doctors attributed to years of exposure to the polluted air. Even with the risk of aggravating his lungs, he still goes to the lake to speak to residents about ways in which they, too, can become advocates.

“What will I do if I have family members who develop asthma?” he said. “I have the ability to do something about this issue now.”

Alex Portillo, another youth organizer from Mecca, said undocumented residents who want to get involved face extra risks due to the presence of Border Patrol agents in the region. She said a checkpoint set up near the south end of the lake often deters her peers from going to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge for volunteer cleanup days. During an interfaith advocacy event at North Shore Yacht Club on Dec. 2, some residents quickly left after it was announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were spotted in the vicinity.

Frank Ruiz, a wildlife conservationist with the Audubon Society, which organized the event, said the fear of deportation or detention is palpable in the area. He said it’s difficult to inspire people to care for the birds and wetlands when there is a risk that you may not see your family the next day.

“A community that lives in fear is not going to come to events,” he said. “We have to care about their issues. It should concern us if this will truly be a community collaboration to restore the sea.”

Ruiz said restoration and conservation are the main focuses for statewide advocacy groups like Audubon, but the main driver must be protecting human health—which means empathizing with communities from across political and racial spectrums.

Ruiz said he uses “El Salton Sea” as a way to acknowledge diverse languages, cultures and connections to the lake. It also helps him connect with Latino residents who may not know about the health risks tied to the lake.

“Groups and individuals who work together on this issue come from (different) backgrounds, often with differing opinions on best solutions,” he said. “But we can always find the common denominator, which is human health.”

Ruiz said Latino residents don’t see conservation as a priority—but that’s not because they don’t care. He said many communities don’t have access to resources for information. That’s why he partnered with Spanish-language media company Univision to produce a series of public-service announcements about the lake. In one segment, the announcer asks, “Did you know your health issues could be tied to conditions at the Salton Sea?”

Ruiz is also finding ways for residents to feel a sense of ownership over restoration plans and designs. He said some residents don’t see the value of building wetlands, which they think of as swamps.

“There must be local incentives—benefits that make people feel their input is valued,” he said. “Why not make enticing designs that bring economic incentives for locals?”

Ruiz, who has lived in the area for almost a decade, is also a local police chaplain. He identifies as Native American, through his Yaqui heritage; the Yaqui are from the Mexican state of Sonora and the Southwestern United States. He said this part of his identity helps him connect with other Native American groups, such as the local Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians.

Raymond Torres from the Torres-Martinez tribe said disagreements between various interest groups were common in the past. However, the focus on protecting human health in the region resonates with him.

Torres said he wants the ancestral history of Native Americans acknowledged in restoration work. A portion of their land was submerged when the Salton Sea was accidentally created early last century—and that land remains covered.

For the current generation, Ruiz said, he is opening pathways for educational research and restorative projects. He said he cautions the next generation from seeing the relationship with the Salton Sea only as “utilitarian” and not one of harmony.

“We tend to see nature as something that exists away from home,” he said. “Nature is part of us; it’s our home.”

Below: A group of birders with Audubon Society California take part in a birding trip in an area near the lake’s alternative energy projects.

Published in Local Issues

Portland, Ore.’s Willamette is no wilderness river. But on a spring day, downstream of downtown, wildness peeks through.

Thick forest rises beyond a tank farm on the west bank. A sea lion thrashes to the surface, wrestling a salmon. And as Travis Williams, executive director of the nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, steers our canoe under a train bridge—dodging debris tossed by jackhammering workers—ospreys fly into view.

The 10-mile reach, known as Portland Harbor, became a Superfund Site in 2000. Over the last century, ships were built and decommissioned here; chemicals and pesticides were manufactured; petroleum spilled; sewage and slaughterhouse waste was allowed to flow. Pollution has decreased, but toxic chemicals linger in sediments. Resident fish like bass and carp are so contaminated that riverside signs warn people against eating them, though some do. And osprey can’t read warnings, so they accumulate chemicals, which can thin eggshells and harm chicks.

Among the worst chemicals are polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Used in electrical transformers, coolants, caulk, paints and other products, these probable carcinogens were banned in 1979 for their toxicity, persistence and the ease with which they escaped into the environment. Even so, they continued entering waterways through storm drains here and elsewhere.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s remediation plan for Portland Harbor’s PCBs and other pollutants, expected to be announced soon, will cost between $790 million and $2.5 billion. The city of Portland, one of 150 “potentially responsible parties” on the hook for a percentage, has already spent $62 million on studies and reports. So on March 16, the City Council decided to join six other West Coast cities in suing agribusiness giant Monsanto to recoup some past and future cleanup costs.

California cities have led the way. San Diego filed in 2015, and San Jose, Oakland and Berkeley followed, as did Spokane and Seattle followed. 

Monsanto is best known for GMO crops and Roundup, but before it split from its chemical and pharmaceutical branches (also named in the suits), it was the sole U.S. PCB manufacturer from the 1930s to the late 1970s. “Monsanto knew that if you used (these products) for their intended purpose, PCBs would leach into the environment,” says Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve, but the company sold the chemicals anyway. “We believe that polluters, not the public, should pay.”

A victory would not only inspire more PCB lawsuits; it could suggest a pathway to help fill gaps in U.S. chemical regulation, says University of Richmond School of Law professor Noah Sachs, who specializes in toxics and hazardous waste. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, inspired in part by PCBs, has a weak review process and generally doesn’t require health and safety testing of chemicals before manufacturers can sell them. And the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act—CERCLA, the Superfund law—is concerned with who spilled or arranged to dispose of chemicals at a site, not who made them. “What we see here is testing a new legal theory,” Sachs says. “I hope companies that know their hazardous products are escaping into the environment are held accountable for the damage they’re doing.”

The cases’ novelty arises from their application of state public-nuisance laws. Each seeks to prove that Monsanto compromised public use and enjoyment of waterways by marketing and selling this class of chemicals while well aware of its dangers. The Seattle complaint, for example, cites internal memos from the ’60s in which company officials discuss PCBs as “an uncontrollable pollutant,” noting their global spread and harm to people and wildlife. There is “no practical course of action that can so effectively police the uses of these products as to prevent environmental contamination,” a Monsanto committee wrote in 1969. “There are, however a number of actions which must be undertaken to prolong the manufacture, sale and use of these particular Aroclors”—the company’s trademarked name for certain PCB compounds.

The cases follow on a stunning 2014 victory in the Superior Court of California. There, a judge found three companies had created a public nuisance by marketing and selling lead-based paint while knowing its health hazards, and ruled they should pay $1.15 billion into an abatement fund to remove it from homes. The Monsanto cases likely have a stronger public-nuisance claim, says University of California Davis environmental law professor Albert Lin, because, unlike residences, “waterways are clearly public resources.” Monsanto’s role as sole manufacturer also simplifies efforts to connect the company to contaminated areas.

Nonetheless, “the plaintiffs face an uphill climb,” says Peter Hsiao, an environmental attorney for international law firm Morrison and Foerster. The lead-paint case is being appealed, he notes, and similar lead-paint lawsuits failed in six other states. Attempts to use public nuisance law to address climate change, with California going after automakers, for example, have also foundered. Still, he worries a win could have an unintended chilling effect on innovation, “depriving society of the enormous benefit that comes from the safe and effective use of chemicals.”

First, though, the lawsuits must reach trial. Monsanto has been filing motions to dismiss each case—arguing that it never had a manufacturing presence on the West Coast and never discharged anything there. The first motion, against San Diego, will be heard in court May 25.

“The allegations … are without merit,” Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord wrote in an email. If “companies or other third parties improperly disposed of (PCB) products and created the need for the cleanup of any waterways, then they bear responsibility for the costs.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

For 62 years, Teresa Flores lived in a small house across from a railyard in San Bernardino. The smell of diesel fuel permeated the neighborhood, and dust coated cars and driveways. Her neighbors suffered from skin rashes, asthma, cancer and maladies no one could seem to identify.

Flores finally moved to the other side of town. Though she can breathe easier now, she knows there’s no real escape: San Bernardino and Riverside counties have some of the state’s worst air quality, blanketed as they are by the smog that blows eastward from Los Angeles and gets trapped by the San Bernardino Mountains.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is responsible for regulating much of that pollution, from stationary sources like oil refineries and power plants. With the state Air Resources Board, it also helps inform policy decisions by assessing public health in communities around refineries, factories and railyards.

In early March, the district’s board fired its director of 19 years, Barry Wallerstein, because he opposed loosening state pollution regulations in order to accommodate business interests, according to some board members.

“It’s scary,” Flores says. “I don’t know if the person replacing him has the knowledge of what’s going on in these communities.”

Wallerstein was ousted less than two months after the California Coastal Commission fired its director of five years, Charles Lester. Several commissioners say this was due to his management skills, though others, including Lester, blame it on a power struggle with commissioners lobbied heavily by homebuilders and business developers.

The firings raise questions about the future of California’s environmental regulations, generally considered the nation’s most progressive. Last year, a Republican majority was elected to the Air Quality Management District, and the vote to oust Wallerstein was strictly along party lines. The coastal commission’s vote was less politicized, but Sean Hecht, a UCLA law professor, says, “Many commissioners and board members believe that there is an irreconcilable tension between environmental regulation and jobs.” 

Both agencies wield a lot of power: The Air Quality Management District’s 725-person staff advises a board of 13 politicians and business leaders representing Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The district helps ensure that Southern California abides by federal Environmental Protection Agency laws, such as the Clean Air Act. Wallerstein made great strides in reducing smog in his tenure: The number of days exceeding federal ozone standards dropped by a third, although some criticized him for not responding strongly enough to the notorious methane leak at Aliso Canyon.

The Coastal Commission’s staff of 163 and its 12 commissioners work to uphold the Coastal Act of 1972, which protects public beaches and habitats along 1,100 miles of coastline. While Lester approved most proposed developments, he also implemented sea-level rise adaptation planning for local governments and fought to ensure public beach access for low-income communities.

Industry stakeholders often meet with members of both agencies, a fact that has always caused tension. Most recently, in December, the district’s board ignored recommendations and EPA rules to adopt a weaker smog-reduction rule backed by the oil industry. According to Joe Lyou, a Los Angeles board member registered as an independent, the Western States Petroleum Association “basically dictated” the decision from behind the scenes. Wallerstein was one of the most vocal objectors. Less than three months later, however, he was fired, and the board reaffirmed its smog decision.

Now, the question is who will run the agencies and in what direction they will steer them. The Coastal Commission is still seeking a director, but in early April, the Air Quality Management District hired Wayne Nastri, a former EPA administrator under George W. Bush. Nastri was president of a consulting firm, E4 Strategic Solutions, which represented energy companies involved in district decisions. The appointment isn’t surprising, Hecht says: “The current board wouldn’t be selecting someone if they didn’t have a sense they would be more of a hands-off regulator than Wallerstein was.”

Meanwhile, environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice have sued the district over the smog rulings, and state lawmakers are pushing legislation that calls for greater agency transparency. Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone of California’s 29th District sponsored a bill requiring coastal commissioners to identify the names as well as the requests of the developers they meet with, and Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, has proposed adding public health and environmental justice experts to the district.

Grassroots efforts to improve air quality and coastal access also continue. Flores works with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice to mobilize engagement in the low-income communities most affected by the district’s decisions.

“The laws are not followed through,” Flores says. “They’re always talking about things improving, but when you live in the middle of everything, you see it firsthand. We’re watching (politicians) closely.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

On this week's extra-delicious Independent comics page: The K Chronicles visits juvenile hall; This Modern World takes a confession from Brian Williams; Jen Sorenson treats a house like we treat our planet; and Red Meat has a belching issue.

Published in Comics

On the best Independent comics page of the new year thus far: Jen Sorenson examines questionable business philanthropy; The K Chronicles watches where he steps while in Paris; This Modern World finalizes the 2014 year in review; and Red Meat goes commando.

Published in Comics

On this week's Independent comics bonanza: Jen Sorenson tries to get some clean air; Roland and Cid do some inappropriate selling; The City puts its feet up; and Red Meat has an explosive time at the dairy.

Published in Comics

This week, The City ponders Google's attempt to bring the Internet to our field of vision 24/7; Roland and Cid meld Oscar Pistorius and the Academy Awards; Red Meat offers tips on construction with milk crates; and Jen Sorenson refuses to sit idly by.

Published in Comics