Archive for 2014 October

Anterra suspected of dumping hazardous waste in Ventura County

As I mentioned in a post in early September, Anterra, a small company with two offices in the Ventura County, was raided back on September 8th by District Attorney Christopher Harman, for a suspected criminal violation of law.  

I talked to the District Attorney in a story published in the Santa Barbara Independent, but he refused to tell me what the violation was about.

Meanwhile Brian Baca, who oversees enforcement of industry for Planning in Ventura County, told me with complete conviction that they had no contact with the district attorney and no idea what his investigation was about.

Which only added to the mystery. Here's the lede from my story:

Last week, the Ventura County District Attorney sent police squads to seize records from two sites run by Anterra Energy Services, which operates the only commercial injection wells in Ventura County legally allowed to dispose of fluids generated by oil production. Senior Deputy DA Christopher Harman said the company is the target of a criminal investigation but would not discuss the reason why. “I can confirm the search warrant,” he said. “I can’t comment on what the investigation is about.”

You can hear my puzzlement.

Well, today in Superior Court, the concern of the investigators was revealed: hazardous waste. Here's a portion of the search warrant in the court records, via the Ventura County Star

Searchwarrant anterra

According to this warrant, the district attorney Harman "intends to show that a felony has been committed or that a particular person has committed a felony."

What is the nature of such a suspected crime? Well, it's still not stated explicitly, but according to the warrant released by the court action pursued by Anterra, the district attorney wants to see documents relating to hazardous wastes:

Anterra hazardous waste

Etc. So it's reasonable to assume that the county believes Anterra illegally disposed of hazardous wastes. Might this be related to the uptick in drilling and production in recent years, the so-called "oil boom?"

That would fit with the county's separate pursuit of Anterra for violating its permit by disposing of too much waste in its Class II injection well in Oxnard. 

This may or may not be related to fracking — and it may or may not matter. 

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Oilco’s spend $9 million to defeat county anti-fracking efforts in CA

According to this excellent story from Reporting on Health fellow Leilani Clark, oil companies such as Aera, Chevron, and Exxon-Mobil have donated more than $1.7 million to efforts to defeat Proposition J in San Benito county, which would ban fracking. 

Ever heard of San Benito? True confession: I hadn't. Despite spending most of my life in California. 

San Benito, located perhaps fifty miles south of San Jose, turns out to be tiny. Less than 60k humans, and a lot of cows. An experienced activist with Food and Water Watch told me the county has about 24k voters. Some of those voters are ranchers, and some of them don't like the idea of fracking. 

Every morning, just after breakfast, Joe Morris heads out to check the water for his herd of 130 pasture-raised cattle. This year, thanks to California’s extreme drought, the creeks on his property have run dry.

“A herd of cattle without water is not a pretty sight,” says Morris, a rancher who has practiced holistic management of the water and soil on his family’s San Juan Bautista ranch since 1991.

Morris Grassfed Beef is part of a large network of organic ranches, farms, and vineyards in San Benito County, a rural enclave just south of the San Francisco Bay Area, where farming is a way of life. Earthbound Farms, the largest industrial grower of organic produce in the U.S. is located here, along with dozens of smaller operations that produce much of the local meat, vegetables, and fruit relied upon by chefs and restaurants in nearby urban areas. All these farms rely on water, but the drought isn’t their only concern. Farmers and ranchers like Morris also worry that the area’s precious water might go toward hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in the county.

As one of two counties with fracking bans on the local ballot this November, San Benito County has also become the site of a heated political battle between oil companies and anti-fracking ranchers, farmers, and residents. A similar fight is going down in Santa Barbara County, where oil companies have funneled $7.6 million into a campaign against Measure P, a citizen’s ballot initiative that would ban future high-intensity petroleum operations on unincorporated county land.

California's a big place, but wow that's a lot of money to spend in two counties. If you're not an oil company, I guess. Chevron, for instance, made close to $5 billion in the second quarter. 

Here's a pic from the Morris Ranch in San Benito county. 


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New climate rhetoric: “the least worst of all possible worlds”

What makes a t-shirt about the grim future cool?

An even-greater-than usual recent episode of Radiolab focused on this question. It found a route into the question through a bizarre fact: an ultra-obscure philosophical book from Zero Press called In the Dust of this Planet has overnight (well, this past year) become a fashion/cultural icon of pessimism

Or, just a cool t-shirt. 


But the coolness can't be denied, because the reference has the legs. Not just the model's, but the central idea of the book — from young philosopher Eugene Thacker — turns out to have been central to the (really) cool mini-series True Detective of this past year. 

Example? Look at the scene in which the lead anti-hero Rusty Cohle discusses the flatness of our existence versus the perspective of our lives seen from the fourth dimension — with a graphic visual demonstration to boot.

Some observers trace this to Nietzsche's idea of the horror of the eternal return. Which is interesting, but even more interesting is the idea from the broadcoast –the idea of the horror of philosophy. 

Thacker talks about how (as I understand it) horror movies with a supernatural element dramatize what cannot be known by philosophy or logic. The monsters that spring from the darkness in our imagination: — that's the true horror. Our inability to see past our limits. This is where Radiolab shines, and I encourage you to give it a listen

Essentially Thacker takes Nietzsche's idea as a jumping off point: 

Nietzsche suggests that the thought of the end of all thought is really the pinnacle of humanism, in which even the possibility of human extinction is recuperated by the heroic capacity of human beings to think it, to comprehend it, maybe even to accept it. Thus the speculative opportunity of extinction becomes, ironically, a form of therapy. this is what we see happen in culture today, where speculation about extinction is rampant, from pop science to books about "the world without us" or science documentaries on "life after people." Even the discourse around climate change and sustainability plays into this. It's been interesting to see it shift in subtle ways. At one point not so long ago, the rhetroic was about changing our habits so as to change the planet – little changes resulting in big changes. Now it seems that it's too late. We've pretty much fucked things up, and watched ourselves do it. So the rhetoric has changed from “saving the planet” (a ridiculous and naive proposition—that the planet     needs to be saved by us is the height of human presumptuousness), and more towards a new rhetoric of minimizing the negative effects, doing the least amount of damage, living in the “least worst” of all possible worlds. A strange, compromised pessimism.

Radiolab actually discusses this idea of Thacker's. Plus, why this image of Jaz-Z is cool:


But although in one respect Thacker is right — the planet will continue with or without us — in another he's completely wrong. When people talk about "saving the earth" they mean saving us, our civilization, our culture. Not just the rocks. We are the people called earth, as Neil Young put it in a recent song. 

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“I got trapped on a path”: Charles Bowden

About ten years ago I wrote an essay, perhaps my best to date, about John Muir, that was published in the spectacular nature magazine Wild Earth. (Which sadly no longer publishes, nor can it be found on-line.) I found myself in good company, with the likes of E.O. Wilson, but the best piece in the magazine that month was written by a fellow I had never heard of named Charles Bowden. The piece was called "Snaketime," about how he was befriended (sort of) by a rattlesnake who liked to hang out on his porch. 

Here's an excerpt:

For the snake a few things are obvious: I am large, and this is certain because of my footfall. She can hear the footfall of a mouse. I am rich in odor. She can pick up the faintest scents, identify them, and follow a single strand as clearly as if it were signage on an interstate highway system…And I am irrelevant unless I get too close. She will ignore me if I stay six feet away. She will ignore me if I become motionless for 180 seconds.

If I violate the rules of her culture, she will work through a sequence of four tactics. First, she will pretend to be invisible and hope I do not see her. If that fails, she will try to flee. If that fails, she will rattle in hope of frightening me away. And finally, if I am completely ignorant of simple courtesy and get within a foot or so of her, she will attack me…

She herself is cultured. In her lifetime, she will attack maybe twenty or thirty or forty times. She will never attack any member of her own species. She will never be cruel. She is incapable of evil.

Bowden became a magic name for me, as he turns out to have been for many other Western writer and editor types. The last issue of High Country News had a wonderful profile of the man, fortuitously written by Scott Carrier before Bowden died recently (in his sleep). It's not fully available on-line, understandably, as High Country News needs subscribers, but here's an excerpt:

Bowden knows why I've come. This morning, before I arrived, in order to prove he's been working, he emailed a new book to an editor in New York. It's called Rhapsody and he says it's a love story about wild places…I ask him if it's true he has been hiding out. 

"I just got tired of talking to stupid people on the phone," he said. "I wanted to strip everything down and start over."

He knows I understand the feeling and lets it sit for a moment with the crickets. 

"I got trapped on a path," he says.

Bats are dive-bombing bugs above our heads.

"I wanted to write about nature, about animals, what it's like to be an animal, but I went into murder reporting and now I'm recovering."

I can't see him but I know he's lying on his back with his hadn on a cup of red wine, looking at the stars.

"Everything you see out there is constantly re-inventing itself," he says. "We call it evolution. It's all one big yes."

The crickets agree.

"I want to write something that matters. In order to do it you have to get rid of yourself. The lion on the hunt ceases to be the lion and becomes the deer."

I know what he's saying, but I'm wondering how to describe it the folks back at headquarters.

"In the end all writing is about adding to life, not diminishing it. that's what life is all about. there isn't a plant out here that' snot trying to take all that chlorophyll and light and trying to add to life. The book I sent today I did 15 drafts, or I stopped counting at 15. I don't know if it's any good. I just know it about killed me and it's the best I can do."


Thank you Chuck Bowden. Look forward to reading your Rhapsody

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Nature in a can: Tenn Williams and Thom Pynchon

In Night of the Iguana, a play first performed in 1961, but evolved out of a short story over a period of about fifteen years, Tennessee Williams expressed anger at our species for ruining our planet.  

In the movie of 1962, starring Richard Burton as a disgraced priest, his character, at the end of his rope, spits out his frustration at "Man's Inhumanity to God."

The pain that we caused Him. We poisoned his atmosphere, slaughtered his creatures of the wild, polluted his rivers. We've even taken His noblest creation, man himself, and brainwashed him into becoming our product, not God's. Packed, stacked, and canned.

Fascinating that Williams chose that metaphor to describe our destructive actions. Occurs that this is one industrial practice that has become a word in our language. "Canned" refers not just to fish, but to music, too, and thought — the fact has become a verb. Become a past tense. 

Thought of this when just yesterday I came across a passage in Thomas Pynchon's pretty hilarious recent novel, Inherent Vice, on pretty much the same theme, in a completely different style:

Let me set it up. Our anti-hero is a mediocre long-haired private eye named Doc living in Southern California in the l970's. He isn't afraid and might have Sam Spade potential if he would just stop smoking so much weed. He like Spade of course is after a complicated woman who might have a thing for him but is trouble. But she's hard to find, and meanwhile he's hanging out with an attorney friend who happens to like a particular soap opera. An ad for a brand of canned tuna comes on the televison. Our anti-hero's buddy, Sauncho, who's a little obessive but not stupid, kind of flips out. Doc happens to be in the bathroom pissing. He hears Sauncho screaming and comes out. 

"Everything cool?" [Doc says]

"Ahh…" [Sauncho] collapses on the couch. "Charlie the fucking Tuna, man." 


"It's all supposed to be so innocent, upwardly mobile snob, designer shades, beret, so desperate to show he's got good tase, except he's also dyslexic so he gets "good taste" mixed up with "taste good," but it's worse than that! Far, far worse! Charlie really has this, like obsessive death wish! Yes! He wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumper capitalism, they won't be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it…"

"Saunch, wow, that's…"

"It's been on my mind. And another thing. Why is there Chicken of the Sea, but no Tuna of the Farm?" 

Might help to see the character from the commercial:


Pynchon's novel, by far his funniest in my experience of his work, will be on a few movie screens this year, in a film directed by P.T. Anderson, featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, and Benicio del Toro, who might deliver the rant above. Could be fun. 

Inherent-Vice-Del Toro

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Why are Americans so extreme?

Heather Havrilesky wants to know what it is about extreme fitness that fascinates Americans:

A blond woman in a hot pink spandex tank hoists a sledgehammer over her shoulders, then slams it down with a dull thud onto the big tire in front of her. Beside her, another woman swings her sledgehammer even higher, grimacing and groaning with the effort. Their faces are bright red and dripping with sweat. It’s 9:45 a.m. and 85 degrees, and the sun is glinting off the asphalt of the strip-mall parking lot where the women are laboring."Swing it higher, above your shoulder!” a woman bellows at them, even as they gasp each time they raise their hammers, each time they let them fall.

Scary thing is, Havrilesky isn't making this up:


As one woman pauses to wipe the sweat from her eyes, she spots me studying her. I’ve been trying not to stare, but it’s a strange spectacle, this John Henry workout of theirs, hammering away in front of a women’s fitness center, just a few doors down from a smoke shop and a hair salon. It looks exhausting, and more than a little dangerous. (What if a sledgehammer slips and flies from one woman’s hands, braining her companion?) It also looks fruitless. Why not join a roofing crew for a few hours instead? Surely, there’s a tunnel somewhere that needs digging, or at least some hot tar that needs pouring.

Love it when a writer can get sarcastic in the sober, sedate NYTimes. But she has an idea — Puritanism, of course. OF COURSE!

The whole notion of pushing your physical limits — popularized by early Nike ads, Navy SEAL mythos and Lance Armstrong’s cult of personality — has attained a religiosity that’s as passionate as it is pervasive. The “extreme” version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it. And as with most of sports culture, there is no gray area. You win or you lose. You leave it all on the floor or you shamefully skulk off the floor with extra gas in your tank.

But our new religion has more than a little in common with the religions that brought our ancestors to America in the first place. Like the idealists and extremists who founded this country, the modern zealots of exercise turn their backs on the indulgences of our culture, seeking solace in self-abnegation and suffering. “This is the route to a better life,” they tell us, gesturing at their sledgehammers and their kettlebells, their military drills and their dramatic re-enactments of hard labor. And in these uncertain times, it doesn’t sound so bad to be prepared for some coming disaster — or even for an actual job doing hard labor, if our empire ever falls.

She's probably right. Here's another example that freaked me out — a laconic extreme hiker, who did (not walked) the John Muir Trail this summer when he had a few days to spare — and who now intends to through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail….in winter

Justin Licheter writes:

The plan is to try to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail this win­ter. By thru-hike, I mean use what­ever human pow­ered means of travel is best for the con­di­tions. This will range between, hik­ing, snow­shoe­ing, and back­coun­try ski­ing, and stay­ing along thePCT cor­ri­dor. We are call­ing it the PCT cor­ri­dor because due to con­di­tions and snow cover it will be vir­tu­ally impos­si­ble to stay on the trail at all times. Often the trail tread will be buried under 15 feet of snow.

Well, my research indicates that the winter is likely to be dry for the next couple of months. Perhaps Lichter and his companion will have finished before the big snows hit the Sierras. 

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NASA vs. NOAA: battle of the winter forecast charts

The headline exaggerates, of course, but doesn't in fact mislead. Here's a graph of a NASA climate model, depicting a forecast of precipitation in the U.S. for the next winter. Colors tell the story. 


In truth, it's a little hard to decode the anomalies chart, but this turns out to be just one of eight climate models forecasts. The trouble is that seven of those eight, as Eric Holthaus mentioned this morning on Twitter, depict little or no rain for the winter three months in California. 

Troubling. Am trying to reserach, verify, discuss for a story. But also striking is this contrast with the NOAA forecast. 



It's a bit different isn't it? At least for SoCal. Much better chance of rain. 


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El Niño 2014 October forecast: Glass little over half full

NOAA released its October outlook for our winter, based on ocean temperatures, and continues to find a 60-65% chance of the appearance of the boychick.

Here's my fave set of graphs today, from another site, and here's my fave single graph:


These are tempeartures taken across a section of the equatorial Pacific, the vast belt across the widest girth of the planet, that the experts consider central for the formation of El Niño.

As you can see, this year is in the red — meaning warmer than usual ocean conditions, which harbingers a warm winter with possibility of wetness for California — but only by a tiny bit. 

It's especially small compared to big El Niño years such as 2010 and of course the epochal 1997-1998, a year of catastrophic weather that literally changed the world. Note too that the forecast was well in the red for 2012, a predicted El Niño, which did not develop and left us in drought. 

On the other hand, if you look at the depth of blue/cooling over recent years in this indicative region, you see a steadily diminishing. This was the point The New York Times made a month or so ago in a story with a conclusion that struck me as anomalously insightful. 

“Even if we don’t see an El Niño, it doesn’t mean California is going to be dry,” [the climatologist] said.

In fact, Mr. Halpert and Mr. Pierce said, one bright spot in the long-range outlook is that with the odds favoring at least a weak El Niño, the opposite weather phenomenon, known as La Niña, is less likely. La Niña occurs when Pacific water is colder than normal, and the result for California could be very dry weather.

“At least when you have a weak El Niño it’s not a La Niña,” Mr. Pierce said. “So that’s some limited good news.”

Impressive to me when a highly changeable news story remains relevant well after the pub date.

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The American pine-nut vs. climate change: NPR

A week or so ago had the privilege of living in the western fringe of the pine-nut forest of the Southwest and became fascinated with these super-hardy and super-productive trees, upon which so much life in this region depends. (Not so much human life these days, true, but once upon a time.) 

So today I couldn't help but perk up when I heard Dan Charles of All Things Considered report on pine nuts today, and reveal that a great deal of commercial pine nuts probably are smuggled out of Siberia, of all places, to China, because the pine nut trees in Russia are enormous and hugely productive. 

Once a year, the pine trees drop these cones onto the forest floor, and entire Siberian villages move into the forest for a month or so to gather them. "It doesn't take any special equipment," Sharashkin says. "You go into the forest, you pick up the cones from the ground, put them into burlap bags, and then transport them to wherever they are being crushed to extract the nuts."

Charles also talks to a couple of American experts, who fear that climate change and insect attacks are taking a bite out of pinyon pine forests today. He quotes Penny Frazier as stating that in twenty years we've lost "half that ecosystem" here in the U.S. (It's a little unclear if she's talking about the Missouri region in which she lives, or all of the American Southwest.)

But the good news is that she and at least one other pine-nut admirers have started a mail-order business to sell good ol' American pine nuts gathered from the wild. 

It's a worthy idea. Will check out and report back. Might want to go looking myself: a local blogger who spent a lot of time scavening as a kid reports on what it's like to try as a family in Frazier Park. 


Sounds kind of fun actually. At least with boys eager to climb trees. 

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The arrival of autumn — in the eastern Sierra

Mountaineer/photographer Cory Freeman reports that fall has come to the eastern Sierra, a week or two early. 


Wish we could say the same in SoCal.

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