CVIndependent

Thu06042020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

The global coronavirus pandemic has inadvertently achieved what state officials have sought to do for decades: It made Californians keep their cars parked. Freeways and highways are clear. And the constant burn of fossil fuels has been markedly diminished.

The statewide stay-at-home order has brought about drastic reductions in air pollution and planet-warming emissions, experts say. The Los Angeles basin, where the term smog was invented, has enjoyed the longest period of good air quality days since 1995, according to a UCLA researcher.

Highway traffic is down by more than half since the start of the pandemic, according to official tallies, and emissions that form smog and soot have been reduced by about the same amount in parts of the state.

For Californians with chronic health conditions, such as asthma and heart disease, the unexpected breath of fresh air is welcome. But to be clear, no one is celebrating. The boon to public health, coming in the midst of a public health crisis, is difficult to measure against the widespread illness and loss of life wrought by the coronavirus.

“There’s no good thing coming out of this. This is not a way we want to see a better environment,” said researcher Jordan Wildish of Earth Economics who created a dashboard tracking worldwide air quality data since the start of the pandemic. “This has been a pretty dramatic and pretty unique event.”

Significant drops in air pollution have been measured across the globe since the start of the pandemic last month, particularly in China, which toggles massive production facilities off and on, impacting worldwide emissions.

But officials caution that any environmental benefit is likely to be temporary. They expect pollution levels to ratchet back up to normal levels once isolation orders are lifted and customary economic activity resumes. Translation: Once this is over, Californians will get back into their cars.

In the meantime, researchers are marveling at the profound change in air quality since mid-March.

Citing data aggregated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor Yifang Zhu said average levels of tiny airborne particles known as PM2.5 dropped from about 16 micrograms per cubic meter to about 12 in the four-county Los Angeles basin after the stay at home orders. She characterized that 25 percent reduction as “significant.”

“We don’t need a pandemic to breathe clear air,” said Zhu. “This should be the air we breathe every day.”

Other measurable pollutants in the area also have plummeted, according to Wildish’s dashboard: Nitrogen dioxide, which can irritate airways and trigger asthma attacks, has decreased 54 percent. It also is a key ingredient of ozone, the main form of smog that blankets much of California.

Other cities with well-documented pollution problems have reported similar improvement. Particulates dropped about 71 percent in Bakersfield in the last 10 days, while nitrogen dioxide dropped 73 percent in Fresno, according to Wildish’s dashboard, which is updated hourly.

California has always operated on a simple calculus: When roads are empty, skies are clearer. According to the state Department of Transportation, “average traffic volumes from the most recent data available (Sunday, April 5) indicate traffic volumes have decreased 51 percent on average when compared to April 2019.”

Transportation is a perennial pollution offender, but experts warn against ascribing too much credit to reduced traffic for the clean air. Weather also is a key factor.

“There’s no doubt there has been some very clean air, but it started before the stay at home orders,” said Philip M. Fine, deputy executive officer of the planning and rules Division for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates air pollution in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, a region of 15 million residents.

Bands of storms sweeping through the state in the last month have improved air quality dramatically, Fine said, as they always do, with the capacity to cut particulate matter and other pollutants by as much as half.

The coronavirus erupted during breezy and rainy weather, which typically makes for good air quality. “Weather, by far, is the biggest factor in air quality,” he said. Winter usually has the lowest levels of smog, particularly in Southern California.

Still, the role of cars and trucks in fouling the air is undeniable: About 80 percent of smog in California’s atmosphere comes from mobile sources, and of that, the bulk of the pollutants can be attributed to heavy duty trucks, ships and planes.

Fine said that emissions from those sectors have dropped off by one-fifth, tracing the same downward trajectory as the state’s economic activity.

The nexus between poor air quality and poor public health is well known, said Ed Avol, a professor at the University of Southern California, who studies the impacts of air pollution in at-risk populations.

“We know that vehicle exhaust is associated with increased asthma and increased respiratory problems. It affects how well kids’ lungs grow and how they develop,” he said.

In recent weeks, health officials have surmised that people with certain respiratory illnesses and other conditions linked to prolonged exposure to poor air quality are at higher risk to coronavirus.

“Air pollution impacts a body’s ability to defend itself,” Avol said. “In areas where there is more pollution, the virus has a head start. If you are exposed to it, can your body fight it off as well?”

That relationship was underscored this week as researchers at Harvard University published a study showing a statistical link between coronavirus deaths and patients with long-term exposure to pollution, especially fine particles.

Using COVID-19 death reports obtained from more than 3,000 counties across the country, the Harvard researchers overlaid local air quality data and health factors to determine pollution’s role in the patients’ deaths. They reported that in counties with high levels of fine particulates, the increase in the death rate among people who died from the virus was 20 times higher than the rate attributed to the particles for all causes of death.

“A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate,” the authors wrote. The findings “suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes.”

A University of California, Berkeley, group has assembled maps that show by county the highest levels of airborne particles and the rates of coronavirus cases. The highest risks were found in Kern and Kings counties in the San Joaquin Valley.

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

Published in Environment

Man, you know it’s been a crappy week when you’re quoted not once, but twice in national stories about the sudden demise of your industry.

Bleh.

But you know what … screw the negativity. There’s enough of that going around. Let’s focus on the positive elements—or at least the potentially positive elements—of the havoc COVID-19 is wreaking worldwide.

Positives? you may reply. There are positives in all this awfulness?!

While I don’t want to diminish how bad things are for many people—and how truly awful they may get in the weeks ahead—yes, there are some small, tiny, slivers of silver linings here.

For starters:

• The pandemic is finally forcing the state to take immediate, drastic action on the homelessness problem. What if, just maybe, we come out of this having made some progress on the huge issue?

• The worldwide shutdown has already drastically lowered the amount of pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions on the planet. Maybe, just maybe, this is an opportunity?

• The efforts being made to fight the virus and adjust to our shelter-in-place reality may lead to scientific advancements, a decline in individualism, a return to a faith in true experts, and all sorts of other good things. Politico Magazine asked more than 30 brainy folks on how COVID-19 will change the world, and what they came up with was mostly positive.

• On clear nights, we can go outside and enjoy the universe. Yes, we’re allowed to go outside and look up at the heavens, and Independent astronomy columnist Robert Victor has some advice.

“In the southeast, about an hour and 15 minutes before sunrise on clear mornings, you’re sure to notice bright Jupiter with two companions nearby. The rest of March will be excellent for following Mars, as it passes Jupiter and Saturn. (You can really notice the reddish color of Mars, from oxidation of its iron-containing surface material!) From March 20 to 31, all three planets will fit within the field of view of low-power binoculars. After that, next chance to see all three in the same binocular field together won’t be until 2040!”

So … yeah. It’s not ALL bad. While we prepare for more horrible things, let’s all hold on to the hope that better times—truly better times—will follow.

Here are today’s updates … almost all of which are positive in some way or another:

• Around the time I hit send on yesterday’s Daily Digest, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he was extending the shelter-in-place order—already in place in Palm Springs, but not the rest of the Coachella Valley—to the rest of the state. And therefore the rest of the valley.

• I like this idea: The city of Rancho Mirage is giving some help to the city’s restaurants that stay open and offer delivery and takeout during the shelter-in-place order. 

• In a similar vein, the state is making it easier for those restaurants to sell liquor, too. Key quote: “Bona fide eating places (i.e., restaurants) selling beer, wine, and pre-mixed drinks or cocktails for consumption off the licensed premises may do so when sold in conjunction with meals prepared for pick-up or delivery.” Yes!

• First the feds moved the tax-payment date. Now the tax-filing deadline has been extended three months, too.

Netflix is setting up a $100 million fund to help the people who work on Hollywood productions. Awesome move.

• Computer owners: Your machine can help contribute to the fight against the coronavirus.

• Local drag star Anita Rose is doing online drag shows—and promoting others’ online drag shows, too!

• Late-night star Conan O’Brien—who should have never been fired from The Tonight Show—will resume doing full shows the week after next … using Skype and an iPhone.

• Finally … since I started off with the bad news about the continent’s alternative newspapers, I’ll end with the good: These papers are doing amazing work, even as the future looks dire. My friend Chris Faraone of Dig Boston did a roundup of how we’re covering this shit show.

That’s all for today. Just a heads-up: In order to save my sanity, and make my work better moving forward, we’ll probably take tomorrow off from the Daily Digest. But if we do, never fear: We’ll be back Sunday. Now, I have to go finish the April print edition and send it off to press. I’ll have more details on that later—but above is a sneak peak of the cover. I asked my amazing cover designer, Beth Allen, to find an image that sums up these … interesting times, and even though that was pretty much an impossible ask, I think she pulled it off.

Published in Daily Digest

On Nov. 1, 2019, District 28 State Sen. Jeff Stone, a Republican, resigned to become the western regional director of President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor. On March 3—the day of California’s primary election, as well as Super Tuesday nationally—voters will start the process of choosing Stone’s replacement.

Five candidates—three Democrats and two Republicans—are running in the district, which reaches from Temecula Valley in the west to the Colorado River in the east, and includes nearly the entire Coachella Valley. Presuming no candidate gets a majority of the vote, the top two finishers will move on to a special vote on May 12, and the winner will serve the final two years of the term.

The Independent recently spoke to all of the candidates and asked each of them the same set of questions, on topics ranging from the Salton Sea, to their personal accomplishments, to California’s primary format. Here are their complete answers, edited only for style and clarity, and presented in the same order as the certified list of candidates.

Anna Nevenic

Retired registered nurse, nonprofit director and author

Democrat, 72

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

We have been talking for some 20 years about it, and we should have started doing something about it years ago, because you can’t fix that problem in one day or one year. But we haven’t done any of that. We’ve just been researching and analyzing and wasting more money in the process.

My plan always has been that we can’t save the whole lake. So we (should) cover the area with trees, so that we have a big park, which will also be good for the wildlife. They should have done that right away. Then (we) use what revenues we have and work together with the private sector to use the algae, because we have a lot of algae, which are good for renewable energy. There’s talk about bringing water in from the Sea (of Cortez) and using recycled water to help regenerate the sea. But you have to be sure before you can say there’s a plan.

People can say, “This is what I want,” but it has to be realistic.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

As a community activist working in the health-care profession for the last four decades, I’ve been working to have health care for all, because health care is the most important asset we have. It should not be treated like a commodity, because our bodies should not be for sale. We can save money, too, if we take measures and prevent people from becoming disabled. Prescription-drug treatment is a key component of any individual’s health care plan, and we need to be increasing access to safe and affordable prescription drugs. It is unacceptable that Americans pay inflated prices for vital medications. Health care for all ensures that health services are appropriate, effective, cost efficient and focused on consumer needs. Preventative care will play a major role in meeting health-care needs. Prevention works, costs less, and it saves lives.

Also, we should be diversifying our economy. Most of the jobs created in our area are low-wage jobs in hospitality and the restaurant business and so on. A lot of them are part-time jobs, which are OK for senior citizens, but are not OK for the young people, because they don’t have health care overage or retirement plans. We need to bring high-tech industry (into our district). It’s growing in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, but in the entire Inland (Empire) area, we have maybe a few startups, but nothing really. And that’s very important to bring wages up, especially for young people who are supposed to be our future.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

I’ve been a community activist and rallying for health care for all for the last 40 years. I’ve been going to Sacramento and trying to get a bill passed. Every year, we lobby for that … but it’s the regular citizens who are making this happen. So I’ve been working with the environmental movement, and fighting for sex education in schools. Each time, you have to gather signatures on the petitions, and then you go and lobby for the bill. I’ve been doing that for the last four decades. I’ve educated many people as to why they should get involved, why it’s important to go to alternative media like PBS to get the information you need. I give lectures to young people wherever I go, and I’ve spoken to thousands and thousands of young people explaining what the generations before them did to provide them with things they all enjoy today like civil rights.

I never got married … that’s my point. So I’m proud I didn’t do it. Instead, I’ve spent thousands of hours of my time going to different conferences, and participating in annual summits where you talk about the economy, and other issues of importance to the average citizen. I’ve spent more time doing that than making my own living, because I felt as a young girl that there were many people who were not as strong as I, and they needed help in some way.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

The only reason I’m running is because I hope to educate enough people that influence and money is a problem, and (they should) not to be influenced by the establishment that only promotes people who raise big money while ignoring the others. I feel that, because of my professional background, my educational background and my civic engagement, I’m the most prepared for this position. I have traveled, and I’ve seen how other countries deal with their health-care issues. If you listen to all these powerful voices like the (American) Medical Association or the trial lawyers or big pharma, somebody’s always standing in the way. So I try to educate as many people as possible that they have to use their own minds.

There is a solution to every problem, and for every dollar we invest in preventing problems and intervening early, we save $7. So, I believe that one person can make a difference. That’s why I wrote a book called Out of the Shadows about American women who changed the world. I do believe that I could influence (legislative) colleagues to put the money in the right place where we really need it.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

From when I was about 11 years old, I saw all these horrible movies about war and misery and what people are capable of (doing to each other), and I always thought that when I grew up, I might be able to help make a better world, and a better society by working together rather than against each other. I’ve been a peace activist all my life, and I still am. People don’t understand that $1 trillion is going to the military, and how are we going to pay for all the other problems that we have? We have such a broken system. But if you believe in the Constitution, you know that it says, ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ It doesn’t say anything about being led by the professional politicians. I think it’s a problem, because we have people (in elected office) who want to stay there forever, because it’s a good position, right? But I just want two years, and I believe that if I’m elected, I’ll be able to put my agenda in front (of my legislative colleagues) and say, ‘OK. There’s already a solution for this problem, and this one, and this one. So let’s do it!’

I’m an independent voice. I will do what is right for the people who elected me, and not what’s right for wealthy corporations and individuals. I will never change my positions. I don’t blindly obey any policy platform. So if I’m elected I will take the approach that everybody matters. Every child matters. Every person matters. And all my decisions will be based on human needs, not on corporate needs.


Elizabeth Romero

Assistant vice chancellor of governmental community relations at UC Riverside

Democrat, 36

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

As a resident of the eastern Coachella Valley, obviously I have firsthand experience and knowledge about what is happening in and around the sea, especially related to some of the environmental-justice issues that are currently impacting our communities. I think the most important thing is that we have to ensure that we are moving forward in a way that is founded in science and research, so that we can find the best solution to mitigate—not only the current dust (pollution being dispersed into the air), but also find long term solutions that allow us to restore the sea, not only for habitat (redevelopment), but for economic development, as well as long term continuity of the sea.

If we have an option to bring water into the sea, which is something that I think has been on the table and is still being explored, then we should pursue that. So there are various proposals out there, and I’m open to listening to and assessing all of them. But what I think is really important now is to also leverage the $220 million in funding that has already been allocated in the budget through the water bond so that we can actually get some projects moving.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

There are several issues that I’m passionate about addressing. I don’t think there’s one single issue that we need to point our finger at, but there’s a whole host of things that are intersectional and that we need to focus on. Those include the state’s affordability issues, which some would say is what’s pushing us into the crisis around homelessness. But it’s deeper than that. It’s about people having access to affordable and diverse housing in the region, which means (we need better) transportation access, health care and quality education. There is this whole host of different issues that I think it’s really important that we focus on. … We’re finding that as we talk to people, there’s not one single issue. People want quality jobs. People want a quality environment and quality education. So, (overall) we want to make sure that we’re focusing on issues that matter to the residents of the 28th District.

When you mention “diverse housing” as a need, what exactly are you referring to?

I think we need to have entry-level housing and affordable housing, (which can be done) obviously by expanding access through California’s Section 8—a government funded program that aims to help low-income families find housing—but also through self-help programs. We need to have first-time home-buyer programs and veteran housing programs. So there are many programs that exist, not only through the state, but through the federal government that we need to leverage and expand here in the desert. This housing needs to be built throughout the Coachella Valley, so that our communities are built out in a way that allows people to live closer to where they work.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

Most recently, professionally, as assistant vice chancellor of governmental community relations at UC Riverside, I’ve been very focused on helping to expand the number of doctors serving our region. I’ve worked to help raise $100 million to build a School of Medicine education building that will double the size of the current class at UC Riverside from 250 (per class) to 500 over time. Also, we’re focused on leveraging the state funds to fully fund residencies and programs that are addressing direct health-care access needs in our region. As you know, we have a health care crisis in our region (due to the fact) that the underserved communities of our region don’t have the same number of doctors that the more affluent communities do. So we’re trying to level the field in terms of having primary-care physicians who are focused on serving the entire region. The best way to predict where a doctor will actually start their practice is (determined by) where they did their residency. So that’s why it’s important to embed these doctors in our communities throughout the 28th District. That way, we will be able to deal with the health-care shortage we’re experiencing long term.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

My career in the region has spanned over 20 years of serving the greater Coachella Valley area, and throughout Riverside County. I’ve been elected for 13 years in a very purple part of the district (to the Coachella Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees and then the Riverside County Board of Education). I’ve been successful in serving this area for a couple of reasons, and I think they underscore the qualities that you’re speaking to: I’m a coalition builder and a good listener, too. Even though I may not agree with someone’s point (of view), I’m always willing to engage in the conversation. Also, I’m someone who’s able to bring people together to solve issues. My campaign currently has the support of Republicans and Democrats and everything in between. I’ve worked on both sides of the aisle. I’ve served for county supervisors in a nonpartisan office, and I’ve sought to just do the work. I think that’s really important for this race.

Moving forward as a state senator, I think we need somebody who’s focused on getting results, and addressing the issues that matter to everyone. There are issues that are cross-cutting. People, regardless of their party affiliation, want to have quality schools. They want to have access to healthcare. They want quality jobs that have benefits. So I think it’s important to focus on the issues that matter to the people in our region, and work across the aisle to make things happen.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

Obviously, it’s the system that we have. I think it’s important to communicate, as a candidate, to the voters. So, in all fairness, I think it’s definitely a process that allows us to put the best candidates forward, and have them come to voters who can participate in the democratic process and decide (which candidates) they want to move forward.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I’d be honored to have the votes of your readers. As a lifelong resident and a homegrown candidate that has served this community for over 20 years, I am poised to hit the ground running on day one. I can ensure that our voice will be heard in Sacramento and that we will be leveraging the state resources that we need to address the issues that are important in our region. So, I would be honored to have the vote of all of your readers on March 3.


Joy Silver

Businesswoman; housing adviser; political activist

Democrat, 64

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

I’m really happy to talk about (this issue), because, for me, running for this office is the continuation of working on the things that I’m already doing. A lot of times, politicians get elected and say, “When I get elected, I will do this and the other thing,” and they elucidate some things that they’ll accomplish should you elect them. But for me … it’s about continuing to finish what I’m already pursuing. … What’s important to know about the Salton Sea is the “sea-to-sea” solution which has received traction throughout the desert cities. Resolutions have been passed through a number of those city councils (supporting this approach) as an answer to stopping the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea.

The recommendation of the Salton Sea Coalition—of which I’m a member—is to put the engineering in place to start what is called the “ocean water import.” Now, the second part of this is to support the declarations of emergency that have been passed by Imperial County. The first declaration of emergency regards the local emergency for air pollution. The second one addresses the stoppage of emptying raw sewage into the New River. Both of those emergency declarations are of critical importance to overcome the delays that have happened (while trying) to implement any of the projects. What is great about these declarations is that they mitigate the permitting issues, procurement issues and agencies getting in each other’s way, including using money, because once the declarations of emergency are accepted, (any corrective actions) can be paid for without another bond. The total state revenue is $146 billion, and the “rainy day fund” has $16.5 billion, and the budget surplus is $21.5 billion. So the money is there to move forward and mitigate the declarations of emergency on both the raw sewage and the air.

Getting that into forward motion will push solutions toward getting done. We’ve got to use the available funds to clean the water and update sewage treatment. This needs to be for both the New River and the Salton Sea itself, since there’s been an increase in pesticides (flowing into the sea) along with the raw sewage and military munitions (contamination). The Region 7 State Water Control Board has been non-compliant around these issues for the past 27 years, and that has to change. (The region covers approximately 13,000,000 acres, some 20,000 square miles, in the southeastern portion of California.) There have been funds earmarked (by the state) for the Salton Sea, and we can use them to start the engineering plans to begin water import. There have been about 11 proposals for importing ocean water already submitted, and we need an unbiased agency to evaluate those proposals. That will determine what the actual cost is for importing ocean water. Ocean water, with salinity management, offers the most feasible path to restore the Salton Sea and protect the region from environmental disaster.

The good thing that’s happened is that (Arturo) Delgado is the assistant secretary for Salton Sea policy at the California Natural Resources Agency. He has made the commitment to the community that there will be an open and unbiased evaluation of those ocean-water import proposals, and that’s really major, from our point of view. You know, the connection (from the Salton Sea) to Mexico’s Sea of Cortez was actually there at one time, so, fully restoring the sea would restore the environment, and bring back the birds and the plants, restore boating and fishing, and help with economic development in the area. All of that will mitigate the health issues (including elevated) asthma and respiratory illness rates. Right now, as that sea water evaporates, the playa just releases more and more toxins into the air.

It’s so interesting to me that people who are unaware of the challenge happening with the Salton Sea don’t realize that they’re actually breathing in the toxins released. We breathe the same air (all over Southern California). So, this is not simply a problem in Brawley, or Salton City, or Imperial or Riverside County. This is a problem for California and further. I think that understanding needs to be made clear to Sacramento, and that would be my job, to advocate for moving (a solution) forward in some way.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

Here’s where I have difficulty with this question: “the single.” The reason it’s so challenging is because the issues that we face are integrated. So, there is no one solution of one item that’s going to solve that very issue. See what I’m saying? Unless things are going on along, at least, three tracks, you can’t really solve any issues without the other things rolling forward.

That being said, what I would look at as one of the pressing issues that we’re facing is the need for affordable housing—whether it’s for seniors on fixed incomes or veterans in need of support services due to (post-traumatic stress disorder) challenges, or entry housing pricing for young families and work-force housing for those with jobs in the district and have to drive far out of their own neighborhoods. This (housing initiative) goes further in that it helps create solutions as well for the homelessness crisis. My intention to address this is to develop a legislative initiative—which I’m working on right now—that refocuses the funding efficiencies of the state to allow for easier permitting and funding when criteria has been met that is not dependent upon federal funding sources.

What actually is the strategy as to how you would go about accomplishing such objectives?

Well, we have to reallocate our existing resources to developing efficient strategies for funding affordable housing. Part of the funding of affordable housing relies on federal tax credits, for example. We see legislators who are putting together bills to mitigate the timelines of how long it takes to go through the processes to bring affordable housing into line and to go into construction in communities. Some of that has to do with the permitting process, and some of it has to do with conditional use of permits, which means that municipalities get to choose the location for what the use of the land can be. (What’s needed) is bringing municipalities on board to find land to integrate affordable housing communities. So, how do you fund that? It has to be more state focused. There has to be more incentive through the state, so that the competition for funding is lessened, and there are more no-profit developers who can begin the process of construction. So that’s one of the big issues that we’re facing.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

For me, we’re still on the subject of affordable housing, and what I’m most proud of is that, when Palm Springs says we have land available, but we can’t find a developer to come in and build an affordable housing community, I said at the time to someone who was on the City Council during that time period, “I’m going to bring a really good organization into Palm Springs to do that.” So, consequently, I did, and I now work as a consultant for that nonprofit organization (the Community Housing Opportunities Corporation) as their regional director for Southern California, and we’re bringing more affordable housing communities into Riverside County right now. I’m very proud of that.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

A couple of things. The first thing is that I am not a career politician, and that’s important, because I can afford to be strong in my stance to represent our district. Also, I have skills and experience in the real world that I bring to a legislative body. That’s important, because when you represent people, you represent those who actually are in the work force, who have experience in creating business, who actually provide health care and these are the kinds of skills that I have. So when a piece of legislation is put forward, knowing how things actually work in the real world can help that legislation be stronger and not simply be developed without being able to see that it may cause obstructions that no one intended, because they actually didn’t know how the thing itself works. I think that’s an important piece. I’m also able to motivate people into taking action, and that’s a quality that’s really critical in moving something forward. That’s why I got into running for this office, because I was already mobilizing and motivating people to move forward, and so I thought, “OK … we’re moving forward, but we have some challenges in getting things done—like with the Salton Sea Coalition or other things that I was moving forward with—so it’s time to move those obstructions out of the way on the state level.” We haven’t really had any representation in District 28 that moved things forward. Basically, we had representation that was saying “no” and keeping things at status quo, and certainly not fighting for our fair share of resources to get those things done.

Also, I am persistent, with a laser focus on goal attainment. I possess an awareness of different community needs throughout our district, because I’ve been out there talking to people for a good three years now. I hunt down the truth, and I stand up for solutions when they’re for the common good. (Because I’m not) a career politician, even if (the position) is politically unpopular, if the solution is for the common good, then I’m willing to take that stand. So, meeting people where they are in this district that’s more than 6,000 square miles means a lot of travelling. But I’m willing to go out and meet with people throughout the district, and I bring those people together to move things forward. I’m a fighter. I’m inclusionary, and I’m a negotiator.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

Here’s the thing: I’m not really sure about this, because my senate races have been my first such races (both in 2018 and the current 2020 campaign). I don’t know what it would be like in a different environment. I think what we’re seeing right now is the different political parties having their primaries let the political party’s strength (in a particular region) decide who is the stronger candidate. That could be advantageous, but not having experienced that (scenario), I don’t know for sure. Having the run-off election be between the two highest vote-getters can be difficult, because I don’t think it offers (the voters) the same amount of choice as, potentially, the party primaries do.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I would like to let your readers know that I’m a working-class kid who was once out on the street, but I worked my way up from an entry-level job at a health-care clinic to the executive suite. I have said before that I’m not a career politician, and I have real-life experience in health care, senior care, housing development and renewable fuel technology. I’m the renewable-energy-economy candidate, actually. I’m not running to get things done when I’m elected. I am running to get the things done that I’m already doing.

My agenda for change will focus on reducing the cost of prescription drugs and opposing harmful cuts to health care. I want to tackle the homelessness crisis and provide housing, also for homeless veterans. And I will fight for our fair share of state funding, because you know what? Riverside County cannot afford to wait any longer.


Melissa Melendez

U.S. Navy veteran; California District 67 assembly member

Republican, 52

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

From the people who I’ve talked to about this issue, and from the things we’ve seen coming through Sacramento, I can say from the beginning that we really need more money. The government really needs to step up here and help us out. But I do think there are things we can do in conjunction with that, which range from some wetland development along the edges and the open areas. We can partner with state, local and federal entities on that. I would say we could be creating some habitats in there, too. These would be habitats that the community could access as well. We could provide some other amenities in there to really get community buy-in. The reality is that we need more water out there, which we can do in the future by bringing it in from new sources.

I feel like we’ve just been standing still on this issue. A little bit of money gets thrown in there, but then the situation doesn’t change. I think that some of the things I mentioned are things we can do immediately. I think the governor promised about $220 million, but that is contingent on the bond measure passing. So what happens if the bond measure doesn’t pass? I don’t think that’s a fair solution. While I appreciate the (governor’s promise to direct) $220 million, let’s be honest: It’s going to take more than $220 million to solve this problem.

Is there any particular restoration strategy that you favor?

Yes. More water. We know that the issue is that we need to fill the sea back up. We have to do that. Years ago, my great uncle lived near the Salton Sea, and I remember him talking about it as the place to be, and the place to go. But now you look at it and say, “What the heck happened here?” Why has it been neglected for so long? So, it’s got to be a group effort, and now is not the time to point fingers and argue about whose fault it is. Let’s get something done.

I’ve heard talk about a “sea-to-sea” water replenishment strategy. Do you think that’s a viable approach?

The problem we always seem to run into is that environmental groups come in and challenge whatever is trying to be done. That’s always going to be an issue. The question is how we can get everybody to at least agree to some (restorative actions) in the middle, because it’s a health hazard out there. People are getting nose bleeds, and there are asthma problems and other respiratory problems. This is not something that we can argue about all day long as far as environmental concerns, and then do nothing. People deserve better than that.

I’m in the western part of our district, and there are times when we can smell the Salton Sea where we are. And that (polluted air) wafts over Los Angeles, even. You’d think that they would say, “Hey, what’s going on here?” So, everybody thinks that there’s just one answer, but there isn’t. I think people need to be mature about this and (understand) that you’re not going to come with some silver bullet. This calls for a multifaceted solution, and we have to stop trying to find that magic wand to wave and fix everything, because that’s not going to happen.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

I think the two top issues, in the whole state really, are affordability and the homelessness crisis. That’s what people have been talking to me about, and that’s what we’ve seen in the polling. The cost of living is pretty darn high in California, and it impacts every aspect of our lives, from housing affordability to long commutes and the time that people are spending on freeways. I will say that I have personally authored legislation. … I’ve even offered bills to re-purpose the high-speed rail funding and put it into the building of new housing. There is a bill that we put forward to make sure that the gas tax money is actually going to (maintaining) the roads instead of other pet projects which everyone is frustrated with.

The homeless issue—which I think is the No. 1 polling issue in California—everyone’s concerned with that. I did put policies forward to address chronic homelessness that can be lessened, or averted, by providing more mental-health funding, because we know that there’s a large contingent of homeless out there who have some mental-health issues. They really need some help, so we’re going to beef up the funding for that, in addition to making sure that those out there who have substance abuse issues are getting the help that they need too.

Relating to “sober living” homes: Basically you (or anyone) living in your neighborhood could open a “sober living” home. As long as you have six or fewer clients living there, there are no regulations that you have to follow. It is literally the wild west. It’s kind of insane. So we put a bill forward saying there are certain standards that have to be met, because people have been coming out here from all over the country to get help. But, once (the patient’s) money runs out—their health insurance or whatever form of payment they’re using—they kick (the patient) out. They have a term for it: They call it “curbing.” Talk about dehumanizing someone. And (the patients) don’t get the help. So, now we’re back to square one. I think that’s all pretty important when we talk about the homelessness issue. It’s not just that people can’t afford a place to live, although that is a portion of it. But there’s a whole host of other issues out there that we can do something about and adjust.

These policies that you’ve been referring to: Are some of them still pending in the Legislature, or have they been passed already?

These are bills that have been introduced and have failed to get passed in the Legislature. We’ve gotten further with them each year we bring them up. Apparently it takes like 50 attempts to get something meaningful through, but we’re working on it. Even on the “sober living” homes bill, we had the coalition of the (home) operators who came forward in support of the bill. Their feeling is that they run a legitimate organization, and they want the bad actors to be gone. They want rules to be followed, because (the bad actors) aren’t helping people. But the other side is saying that when it comes to addiction issues, (the patients) are a protected class, and we don’t want to get into a situation where we’re somehow violating their civil rights by saying where these “sober living” homes can and can’t operate, which we weren’t trying to do. We were just trying to say that there are certain rules and certain standards to make sure that they are actually helping people.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

That’s an easy question. That would be marrying my husband and going on to have our five kids. They are the best thing ever. You know, politics is short-term, and even a career is not forever, but family is forever, and I’m very blessed. We’ve got great kids: the oldest one is a (United States) Navy diver; we’ve got one in college, and two in high school; one in eighth grade, and they are the loves of my life. That’s definitely the thing I’m most proud of.

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

It’s a precarious situation at the end, but I think it’s important for all of us who are serving to remember that we serve the people that we represent. We are not to be serving the special interests that dominate the halls in the state capitol. I made that commitment to be their voice when I first got elected, and I’m going to continue to be their voice. I’ve hosted over 100 town halls since I’ve been in the Assembly. We do two a month: one during the day, and one in the evening. We do that because voices need to be heard. I always tell them that I can’t represent them effectively or well if I don’t know what’s on their minds and how they feel about the issues. Frankly, I wish every legislator would do that. It’s been very helpful, because sometimes we have bills that come up, and they are definitely partisan bills, and I have to ask my constituents what they want me to do. We had the late-school-start bill last year—and party politics don’t come into play there—and went and asked (constituents), ‘What do you want me to do?’ For everybody who has kids, this is going to affect you. So, I think I’ve been most effective and best represented the people, because I do that. You know, when you win your re-election (races) for the state Assembly by large margins with (backing) from Republican, Democrat and Independent voters, that means they like when their representatives listen to them and come talk with them.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

I get a lot of complaints about the “top-two” (primary format), and I have to remind people that the Legislature did not do that; the voters of California actually did that. I think (the voters at the time) were convinced that it would bring forward candidates who were more in the center (of political ideology) rather than on the fringes. But I have not seen that happen, actually, so I don’t know that it worked. But I know that people are really irritated when they look at their ballot, and if they’re a Democrat and they only see two Republicans, or if they’re Republican and they only see two Democrats—they don’t like it. They want choices. So has it served the public? I don’t think so. I don’t think it changed anything, to be honest with you, other than frustrating the voters.

From your perspective as a candidate, does it matter?

I think it does. I mean, if you have to make a choice, you’re making a choice ideally between two different things. But when you have two people in the same party, then it becomes (a question of), “How different are they, really?” Maybe those candidates aren’t really different, and it just comes down to who has more money. And, who has more special interests backing them. I don’t think that’s fair to the voters. They want clear and distinct choices, and that’s very hard to get when you have two people in the same party on your ballot. I mean, imagine how left out you feel as a voter if you’re in one particular party, and nobody from your party is on the ballot for you to choose from. When you talk about voter apathy, that could have something to do with it, because people say, “You know what? Someone I would prefer to support isn’t even on the ballot. So, why bother?” It has an effect on every (race) down ballot, too. If you don’t go in to vote for your state Assembly member or your state senator (for instance), because somebody from your party is not on there, that means maybe you’re not voting for ballot initiatives, either. And your vote could be very important (in terms of) determining whether or not something passes.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I do want to point out that I have the endorsement of the (Riverside) County sheriff, of the county district attorney and of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. I think that should let people know that I take public safety very seriously, and I take protecting their tax dollars very seriously, too—considering the fact that we’re going to have a ballot initiative in November that is going to tinker with Prop 13 and how property taxes are assessed.

I want people to know that I didn’t get into politics by design. Politics is not exactly where I expected that I would be. I got into because, after leaving the Navy, it’s just kind of a way of life. You go serve. You don’t just take care of yourself; you go serve everybody in your community. So, that’s how I look at it, and public service is pretty much all I’ve done for my entire adult life. I hope (the voters) see that in the work that I’ve done, and in the ways that I’ve communicated with my constituents, the outreach that we’ve engaged in. When I get emails from my constituents, I answer every single one of them myself personally. I don’t do it by email; I hand-write my response, and I like doing that better. Frankly, all we ever get in the mail now is bills and junk mail, and, it’s nice to have someone actually write something to you. So, I answer them all by hand, and I hope (constituents) recognize that I do that because I think that’s what (each constituent) deserves, and they deserve someone who respects them regardless of whether or not we agree on a particular issue.


John Schwab

U.S. Marine veteran; owner and operator of a residential facility for developmentally disabled adults; real estate broker/mortgage broker

Republican, 43

What specific steps would you recommend to stop the erosion and evaporation of the Salton Sea, and to mitigate the negative effects of the multiple health threats already evidenced in the eastern Coachella Valley, such as increased asthma and respiratory illness?

Ever since I was stationed at the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, they’ve been talking about cleaning up the Salton Sea forever—and they just haven’t done anything. So we really need to take care of it, because it’s just become more of a problem with all the respiratory infections out there.

I’m willing to work on coming up with a solution to help start cleaning it up. I’ve come up with some ideas that can help the area out there, because they just keep kicking the can down the road. Nothing’s getting done, and it’s just getting worse

Any specific thoughts you have on how to attack the problem?

I’d like to talk to a lot of people about the environmental impact reports for that area and what needs to be done. We’re talking, in my estimation, about years of cleanup. It’s not going to happen quickly, but it is something that needs to be addressed.

Other than the Salton Sea challenge, what is the single most pressing issue currently facing District 28 constituents, and how do you intend to address it if elected?

My No. 1 priority is traffic. I’ve lived in this state since I was 18 years old, so it’s been 25 years now, and traffic has gotten worse and worse. With more housing and more people, we still have limited space on the freeways and roads. So, I’m willing to work with the California Transportation Commission and the California Department of Transportation to come up with solutions to many of the issues that we have with traffic.

Do you have any particular strategy that you think could help alleviate this serious problem?

These are just some thoughts: scheduled commute times, more (traffic) lanes, maybe some roundabouts in certain areas and on certain roads, and maybe even look at additional roads. In this area, (to travel east-west), you’ve got to take the Interstate 10 freeway, and that’s it. It’s been that way forever, and if something happens on the 10, you’re not moving. I listen to the radio most of the time, to calm me down and soothe me. I even put the classical music on.

What is the one accomplishment of which you are most proud?

It would be my personal life, because I’ve got really good kids. They’re very respectful, and they (reflect) what I grew up with. I’m originally from Richmond, Ind., and my kids are very respectful of their elders and people. They’re polite and well-mannered. When I started this campaign, I was trying to get signatures for the nomination, and you’d be surprised how people treat each other. So, just by raising great kids (who will be) great stewards, that helps make the state, counties and the cities better. That is the future, right?

Given today’s highly partisan political environment, what are the most important personal qualities you possess that will help you succeed, both in terms of winning elections, but also having a legislative impact if elected?

I just look at the facts. I’m not all about fluff. I’m not going to sit here and promise you everything, and not deliver. What I talk about is coming up with solutions and trying to solve problems in the district. I’m not going to cure everything, but I’m going to work hard and diligently, and, it may be behind the scenes. I don’t have to be out here speaking in front of a crowd. I don’t need to be telling (people) what I want to do. I just need to put my nose to the grind, work with professionals who can give (me their) expert opinion, and try to get things done.

Do you believe that the California “top-two” primary format is fair for candidates? Fair to the public interest?

I don’t have a problem with the best two (moving on). The top two vote-getters after the primary going (into the runoff election) is fine with me.

What else would you like voters to know about you and your campaign?

I’m just a regular neighbor, a father and husband; my kids are still in school. I’m just trying to do the best we can for the people in the district. I’m not a career politician. That’s not what I want to do. I’m just trying to stop some of the ridiculous laws, and lessen the tax burden that the state (government) keeps putting on the people of this state. I love California, but a lot of my friends and family are looking at the future, and trying to figure out if California is somewhere they want to stay, because (the state government) is burdening a lot of the people who live and work here. So, I decided to run for those particular reasons specifically.

I’m not an attorney. I don’t have any hidden agenda. My (focus) is on traffic, public safety and lowering fuel prices. I wasn’t a political major in college. I am really for the people, and that’s what I’d really like to share. They’re the ones who sit down and, hopefully, do the research. They look through the fluff and the rhetoric, and then they get to decide for themselves.

Published in Politics

Commuters in California may not have to worry about federal threats to yank highway funding just yet—but the recent tiff with the feds over California’s clean air plans is bigger than a simple paper-shuffling standoff.

The fight started with a two-page missive from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Sent in September, the letter accused California of what the EPA called a “backlog” of federally required paperwork detailing the state’s plans and policies to cut air pollution. The EPA threatened to level sanctions at the state, including withholding federal highway funds, if California did not withdraw plans that the federal government considered “unapprovable.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom called it retaliation, a “brazen political stunt.” In response, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud told CalMatters in an emailed statement: “Highlighting that California has the worst air quality in the nation along with other serious environmental problems is not a political issue.”

Then last week, California’s head air quality enforcer, Mary Nichols, responded to the EPA, saying that highway sanctions typically take more than 18 months to mete out, and in any case, the backlog is on the EPA’s end, not California’s. “Indeed,” she wrote, “you may not have been aware in writing your letter, (the California Air Resources Board) has been helping U.S. EPA to resolve its administrative backlog for years.”

The EPA’s Abboud told CalMatters it is reviewing Nichols’ letter, and reiterated that the agency is asking California to withdraw any plans to cut air pollution that can’t be approved, writing: “Every state must comply with the federal air-quality standards. California is not alone or unique in this requirement.”

There’s more to the story than California trading barbs with the feds, according to University of California, Los Angeles, environmental law professor Ann Carlson. “This is (the) EPA being willing to play very fast and loose with the facts in order to push the president’s agenda.”

So what are the facts? And how will this affect you?

What’s the paperwork California and EPA are fighting about?

Thanks to California’s 39-million-plus people, its pollution-trapping terrain, and the sunny conditions primed for stewing tailpipe emissions into smog, the state has historically bad air quality.

About 93 percent of Californians live in areas that don’t meet federal targets for air pollutants like ozone, the major component of smog, or tiny particles of pollution. California and its patchwork of local air districts are required to come up with something called a State Implementation Plan, or SIP, describing how the state intends to cut air pollution.

Those SIP submissions are piling up at the EPA—more than 130 of them, according to Wheeler’s letter. Why so many? Because “SIP” can refer to both the overarching roadmap for hitting federal clean air targets, and the collection of rules and regulations needed to get there.

That roadmap and the piecemeal trickle of local and statewide policies all end up at the California air board for approval,and for ultimate submission to the EPA. The EPA then has 18 months to decide whether to approve the submissions—which would make the regulation enforceable at the federal level, too, according to Kurt Karperos, deputy executive officer of the Air Resources Board.

In the meantime, the air board and air districts typically start implementing the regulations.“To the extent we can, we do not wait for EPA to act,” Karperos said. “The challenge is too great in California for us to sit around and wait for EPA.”

Can the EPA really take away California’s highway funding?

Federal and state officials agree on this much: If the air pollution dispute winds its way to federal-funding sanctions, Californians can expect to see restrictions on how the state uses certain federal transportation funding. That may affect specific highway projects, but it is too early to know.

Still, experts say that sanctions, if it comes to that, will take a while. “Even though it’s a big headline, and he’s threatening our money, we have time to work through those issues,” said Tanisha Taylor, director of sustainability at the California Association of Councils of Governments, at a recent workshop.

Once the EPA formally notifies a state that its SIP is missing or inadequate, an 18-month clock starts ticking before the EPA can impose sanctions, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service says. Those sanctions typically start with crackdowns on pollution from sources like heavy industry, according to a Federal Highway Administration webpage. It then takes another six months for sanctions to escalate to highway funding.

Rather than threatening sanctions that couldn’t hit until at least 2021, Karperos said, “Focusing on fixing and clearing out the backlog—EPA’s backlog—would have been a much more productive (use) of everybody’s time.”

So if sanctions are a distant threat, what’s the big deal?

The concern is that partisan politicking is replacing a science-based, collaborative federal and state effort to reduce California’s very real pollution problems.

Nichols called the threat of sanctions “an abuse of U.S. EPA authority” in the letter she sent last week. The next day, nearly 600 former EPA employees sent their own letter urging Congress to investigate whether the EPA’s correspondence with California—including a second missive about homelessness and water quality—constituted retaliation against the state.

When asked whether the White House was involved in drafting or motivating the EPA’s letter about the backlog, Abboud said: “No.”

It’s one part of a bigger picture, said UCLA’s Carlson—one that shows the EPA repeatedly taking aim at California. She pointed to the antitrust investigation launched by the Department of Justice after California reached a tailpipe-emissions agreement with four auto companies. And just days before the EPA sent its two letters, the Trump administration finalized a rule to strip California of its power to police tailpipe pollution on its own terms—a move that will end California’s zero-emission vehicle program intended to combat both air pollution and climate change.

Wheeler’s letter, Carlson said, “Is so hypocritical at a time when EPA is trying to remove from California the authority that it needs to come into compliance with air quality standards.”

In its emailed response to CalMatters, the EPA’s Abboud said, “The Federal government has done nothing to bar California to set health-based pollutant standards, and we are ready to assist California in improving the air quality in their state.”

The air board’s Karperos worries that this very public battle with the EPA is, in fact, a distraction from doing exactly that: cleaning up California’s air.

“Rather than threatening to withhold highway money over an administrative issue that we’re working to clear up, it’s much more important for U.S. EPA to be thinking about what it needs to do to clean up trains, which they regulate,” he said, listing other polluters the EPA is largely responsible for: planes, ships and certain off-road vehicles like construction equipment.

Nichols’ letter includes a graph showing that by 2030, these federally regulated polluters are expected to churn out more of a key smog ingredient than the cars, trucks and equipment California regulates across a major chunk of southern California.

The EPA did not respond to a CalMatters request for comment about Nichols’ concern that EPA is failing to reduce emissions from federally regulated sources. Abboud said only that “California has been granted Clean Air Act waivers for a wide variety of emissions from a wide variety of vehicle types,” and provided a link to a list. He also sent a link to a press release about air pollution trends, saying: “EPA and its state and local partners continue to see substantial reductions in emissions that contribute to ozone, particulate matter, and other criteria pollutants across the country.”

In the end, it isn’t about pointing fingers, Karperos said — it’s about keeping Californians healthy. “We may argue about backlogs, but it’s really about what’s in the air they’re breathing.”

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

Published in Environment

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

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