Category for activism

Nerve gas for Ventura County, thanks to the Trump EPA

As Lily Tomlin has pointed out, “No matter how cynical you become, you can’t keep up.” Especially in these days of Donald Trump.

Last week (was it only last week?) a meticulously sourced story in the New York Times by Eric Lipton (Why Has the EPA shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Calls the Shots) detailed how a smart advocate from the American Chemistry Council, Dr. Nancy Beck, was given broad authority to take over the agency’s regulation of toxic chemicals and personally rewrite the rules. It’s a tremendous story with one particular angle of great importance to Ventura County.

To keep it as succinct as possible…last year, after decades of controversy, a bipartisan bill revising the rules of chemical regulation passed Congress and was signed into law. Lipton’s story frames what happened to that legislation under Scott Pruit, the new EPA administrator appointed by Trump, as a polite but edgy dialogue between a scientist named Wendy Hamnett, who spent her career at the agency, and was contemplating retirement, and Beck, who was given unprecedented rule-making authority by the new administration.

Hamnett wanted to believe the EPA would continue to conscientiously regulate chemical use under the new bill, but was taken aback to discover that one of the most dangerous of chemicals on the market — the pesticide Chlorpyrifos, which had been slated to be banned — would not be regulated.

“It was extremely disturbing to me,” Ms. Hamnett said of the order she received to reverse the proposed pesticide ban. “The industry met with E.P.A. political appointees. And then I was asked to change the agency’s stand.”

The E.P.A. and Dr. Beck declined repeated requests to comment that included detailed lists of questions.

“No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for the E.P.A., said in an email. “The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

Hamnett tried to keep the faith in the agency and the 2016 bill, the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act for the 21st century, but…back to the Lipton story: .

That would translate into a rigorous crackdown on the most dangerous chemicals, regardless of the changes [at the agency].

But her confidence in the E.P.A.’s resolve was fragile, and it had been shaken by other actions, including the order Ms. Hamnett received to reverse course on banning the pesticide chlorpyrifos.

The order came before Dr. Beck’s arrival at the agency, but Ms. Hamnett saw the industry’s fingerprints all over it. Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, instructed Ms. Hamnett to ignore the recommendation of agency scientists, she said.

The scientists had called for a ban based on research suggesting the pesticide might cause developmental disabilities in children.

Photo

Farm workers in a field picking berries. Chlorpyrifos, a pesticide blamed for developmental disabilities in children, is still widely used in agriculture. In March, Mr. Pruitt overrode agency scientists’ recommendation to ban it. CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

To keep the pesticide on the market, under E.P.A. guidelines, the agency needed to have a “reasonable certainty” that no harm was being caused.

“The science and the law tell us this is the way to go,” Ms. Hamnett said of a ban.

But the reaction from her superiors was not about the science or the law, she said. Instead, they queried her about Dow Chemical, the pesticide’s largest manufacturer, which had been lobbying against a ban.

The clash is recorded in Ms. Hamnett notebook as well as in emails among Mr. Pruitt’s top political aides, which were obtained by The Times.

“They are trying to strong arm us,” Mr. Jackson wrote after meeting with Ms. Hamnett, who presented him with a draft petition to ban the pesticide.

Mr. Jackson, Ms. Hamnett’s notebook shows, then asked her to come up with alternatives to a ban. He asserted, her notes show, that he did not want to be “forced into a box” by the petition.

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Ms. Hamnett recorded Mr. Jackson’s reaction to a pesticide ban in her notebook.

“I scared them,” Mr. Jackson wrote in an email to a colleague about his demands on Ms. Hamnett and her team.

As a possible compromise, Ms. Hamnett’s team had been talking to Dow about perhaps phasing out the pesticide instead of imposing an immediate ban. But Dow, after Mr. Trump’s election, was suddenly in no mood to compromise, Ms. Hamnett recalled. Dow did not respond to requests for comment.

She now knew, she said, that the effort to ban the pesticide had been lost, something Mr. Jackson’s emails celebrated.

“They know where this is headed,” Mr. Jackson wrote.

A couple of years ago an equally great (and award winning) story by Liza Gross for The Nation detailed the fact that Ventura County is one of the most pesticide drenched lands in the state and the nation. To wit:

Oxnard and surrounding Ventura County grow more than 630 million pounds of strawberries a year, enough to feed 78 million Americans. But that bounty exacts a heavy toll: strawberries rank among California’s most pesticide-intensive crops. The pesticides that growers depend on—a revolving roster of caustic and highly volatile chemicals called fumigants—are among the most toxic used in agriculture. They include sixty-six chemicals that have been identified by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as the most likely to drift through the air and cause harm. Studies in laboratory animals and humans have linked many of these chemicals—including the organophosphate chlorpyrifos and fumigants 1,3-Dichloropropene (1,3-D), metam sodium, methyl bromide and chloropicrin, all used in strawberry production—to one or several chronic health conditions, including birth defects, asthma, cancer and multiple neurodevelopmental abnormalities.


Dayane Zuñiga

Use of many of these sixty-six pesticides has fallen statewide since 2007. But a handful of communities saw a dramatic increase. By 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, more than 29 million pounds of these chemicals—more than half the total used in the state—were applied in just 5 percent of California’s 1,769 census ZIP codes, according to an independent investigation by this reporter. In two ZIP codes that Zuñiga knows well—areas that include the Oxnard High neighborhood where she trained and south Oxnard, where she lives—applications of these especially toxic pesticides, which were already among the highest in the state, rose between 61 percent and 84 percent from 2007 t0 2012, records at the California Department of Pesticide Regulation show. Both are among the ten ZIP codes with the most intensive use of these pesticides in California. And both have sizable Latino populations—around 70 percent—thanks, in part, to the large number of farm jobs in the area. The great majority of the people who work in the strawberry fields in Oxnard, which hosts the largest population of farmworkers in Ventura County, come from Mexico.

As so often is the case, the wonky details and the fact that brown people bear the brunt of these chemical impacts means very little discussion of the continued use of Chlorpyrifos has ensued. One notable exception comes from Nicholas Kristof, who at least once a year points to the danger of chemicals in his Sunday Times olumn. This past Sunday Kristof was especially blunt in an interactive column called: Trump’s Legacy: Damaged Brains.

The pesticide, which belongs to a class of chemicals developed as a nerve gas made by Nazi Germany, is now found in food, air and drinking water. Human and animal studies show that it damages the brain and reduces I.Q.s while causing tremors among children. It has also been linked to lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease in adults.

brain_0016_Layer

The colored parts of the image above, prepared by Columbia University scientists, indicate where a child’s brain is physically altered after exposure to this pesticide.

And now the Trump administration is embracing it, overturning a planned ban that had been in the works for many years.

What recourse can citizens who care about health — especially the health of people who live near strawberry fields — have except not to eat commercially-grown strawberries? I wish I knew.

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Toles on climate denial in the White House

The great Tom Toles has been struggling a bit (it seems to me) with the obdurate nature of this White House, but found a way to make a climate point amusingly today…as 1.4 million in Florida face evacuation.
thepharohandclimatechange

Californians shouldn’t be crowing: Superfloods happen here too.

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Trail signs along the PCT: Section Q

Just have to say that the trail signs in Section Q — the Marble Mountains — in the far north of California were the best (that is, most Zen) that I have seen along the length of California. They deserve remembering in their own right, so here goes:

Marble MoCame untain Wilderness sign IMG_2590

Next day I after about 5 or so miles I came to what turned out to be a superb water source, the sort of place I should have camped near, but oh well. Lovely place for a second breakfast.

Water sign IMG_2620

It’s a gorgeous area, which the signs hint in their own quiet way. If you look very closely you can see a grasshopper crouched in a nick in the sign above tghe “I.”

Sky High Lakes IMG_2728

This isn’t exactly a sign but it’s emblematic as hell of the area.

log waterfall IMG_2754

Wasn’t all beautiful: substantial burns to walk through at times, and the sky was smoky, from fires burning to the north and west.

PCT burn sign

This sign, at the base of the gorgeous trail along Grider Creek; well, if you look closely you will see it has some occult aspects. On the top post is written “State of Jefferson” with its rebel XX symbol, but below the post is written State of Mind. Pretty cool.

Cliff creek sign

Entering the tiny town of Seiad Valley, one sees these “No Monument” signs everywhere…though this one simplified the question impressively.

No Monument sign IMG_2918

Even the official signs in this area (Section R now) are most interesting than most.

Snag signs IMG_2929

I love the way signs in this section live past their legibility.

Zen sign IMG_2998

Or are taken into the landscape via trees:

Echo Lake IMG_3021

But this was my all-time fave:

PCT in tree IMG_3050

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The Lions of Ventura County

Let me post (with some pride) my cover story this week in the Ventura County Reporter, on mountain lions, which benefitted enormously from pictures donated to the cause of the cougar by the National Park Service.

Here’s the cover:

P-19 cover

How could you not love P-19? And here’s the story.

THE TRUTH ABOUT BIG CATS | Saving the wild lions of Ventura County 

A small but important fact, gathered at the last possible moment, that sticks in the memory: “The California Department of Fish and Wildlife records show no mountain lion attacks on humans in the history of Ventura County, according to department spokesperson Kirsten MacIntyre.”

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The forgotten radicalism of Jack London

In the West Coast’s leading literary journal, Threepenny Review, Howard Tharsing explores the forgotten radicalism of Jack London. Like Tharsing, London knew the relentless humiliation of poverty all too personally and all too well.

Tharsing writes:

Having myself been homeless for most of 2012, I was struck by the recognition that life for the poorest among us, the unhoused, is today very much what it was a hundred years ago when Jack London wrote about his own experience of poverty. Like me, London knew the general torpor into which poverty drives you because, having no money, you can find simply nothing to do; the hostility which the comfortable direct at you, and the ease with which they pass judgment; and the small humiliations, such as the exhausting hours spent waiting in line for a bed in a shelter only to be turned away when you finally reach the front of the line because the place is suddenly full.

London’s youth sounds almost movie worthy:

In 1896, when Jack London was twenty, the San Francisco Chronicle had referred to him as “the boy socialist of Oakland.” His fame grew out of his power as a public speaker. Week after week he stood on a soap box in the little park in front of City Hall arguing that the unbridled capitalism of his day condemned a great many of his fellow citizens to lives of degradation and misery while enriching a small number outrageously. Dozens of speakers held forth in the park every week, but Jack London always drew the biggest crowds and held their attention better than any other speaker. And in 1897, when Oakland passed a law forbidding public meetings on public streets, London challenged the law by getting himself arrested for climbing on that soap box and speaking. Oakland authorities were surprised that instead of paying the fine or consenting to spend a few days in jail, London demanded a jury trial. Acting as his own lawyer, London argued that the law violated the constitution’s guarantees of the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and he won.

As anyone who has ever read London’s great The Road will recall, he was fearless and relentlessly active  — recently his photographs from London, focusing in part on the poor he wrote about in “The People of the Abyss,” were exhibited.

Below is a photo he took in 1902, of Spitalfields Garden in London, of homeless women sleeping.

homelesswomenphotoJackLondon

 

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David Foster Wallace thinks about nature

In his classic (and often hilarious) essay for Harpers on the Illinois State Fair from l993, Ticket to the Fair, David Foster Wallace ruminated on many questions, including how people see nature in the MidWest.

He wrote:

Rural Midwesterners live surrounded by unpopulated land, marooned in a space whose emptiness starts to become both physical and spiritual. It’s not just people you get lonely for. You’re alienated from the very space around you, in a way, because out here the land’s less an environment than a commodity. The land’s basically a factory. You live in the same factory you work in. You spend an enormous amount of time with the land, but you’re still alienated from it in some way. It’s probably hard to feel any sort of Romantic spiritual connection to nature when you somehow have to make your living from it. 

To concentrate this thought: because rural Midwesterners can’t escape nature, they can’t romanticize it either. By contrast — he theorizes later in the piece — Easterners can see going to nature as getting away from it all because they don’t have much of it in their life.

A theory: Megalopolitan East-Coasters; summer vacations are literally getaways, flights-from — from crowds, noise, heat, dirt, the neural wear of too many stimuli. Thus ecstatic escapes to mountains, glassy lakes, cabins, hikes in silent woods. Getting Away From It All. Most East-Coasters see more than enough stimulating people and sights M-F, thank you; they stand in enough lines, buy enough stuff, elbow through crowds, see enough spectacles. Neon skylines. Convertibles with 110-watt sound systems. Grotesques on public transport. Spectacles at every urban corner practically grabbing you by the lapels, commanding confines and stimuli — silence, rustic vistas that hold still, a turning inward: Away. 

Here’s an example of an “Away” in Wallace terms: Half Dome last week from over its back (Eastern) shoulder, or officially, the “subdomes.

And as a Westerner it’s true for me too — I believe in “Away.”

HalfDomefromthesubdomes

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The madness of Trump’s “alternative facts”

A tsunami of derision has attached itself to the President Trump’s best explainer/apologizer KellyAnne Conway’s assertion last week that the President’s press secretary was offering alternative facts to explain the President’s obviously wrong belief regarding the (small) size of the crowd at his inauguration. Even some of the best coaches in professional basketball, led by Steve Kerr of the Warriors, have joined in the mockery.

When asked about his [Houston Rockets] team struggling, going 3-5 over their last eight games, [Coach Mike]D’Antoni told reporters: “Actually we won all those games. I’m going with that alternative fact thing.”

The best column I’ve seen on the subject of the new administration’s um, assertion of untruths, comes from Dana Milbank, the most popular newspaper columnist in the country, who points out that President Trump is “barking mad.”

“It was almost raining,” the new president told CIA workers in Langley, recounting his inaugural address, “but God looked down and he said, we’re not going to let it rain on your speech. In fact, when I first started, I said, oh, no. The first line, I got hit by a couple of drops. And I said, oh, this is too bad, but we’ll go right through it. But the truth is that it stopped immediately. It was amazing. And then it became really sunny. And then I walked off and it poured right after I left. It poured.”

Really sunny? I was there for the inaugural address, in the sixth row, about 40 feet from Trump, and I remembered the exact opposite: It began to rain when he started and tapered off toward the end. There wasn’t a single ray of sunshine, before, during or after the speech. Was my memory playing tricks on me?

No, of course not — the current President of the United States has so little regard for fact that he will without a second’s qualm lie about even the weather, even about the same weather experienced by thousands of his fellow Americans, and millions more watching on television. Many professionals are saying in public that he is in fact clinically mentally ill.

But this week along with the derision and the psychoanalysis I heard some words of wisdom (methinks) from a much-loved California public official, John Laird, California Secretary for Natural Resources, who told a packed crowd of hundreds of cientists, bureaucrats, and advocates at the California Climate Change Symposium that we must not be distracted from their work in the environment and on climate change by “alternative facts.”

I quote Hunter Thompson, who said in the Nixon years “when the going gets tough, the weird turn pro.” It’s tempting to want to do all things but if we’re going to be pros we’re going to have to focus. It means people need to work on one or two or three issues. Being scattershot is not the right response. I think people sort of get this: if I care about reproductive rights I get with Planned Parenthood. I join the ACLU to defend immigrants rights. But the question [I have for you] is, how do I plug in on climate change? What I want to do in closing is pass that challenge on to you. I think that there is a ready and willing public and it’s not enough for government agencies to say this is what we’re doing, even though I think we’re doing our best work in years.

I’ve gone this far without mentioning “alternative facts.’ There’s a nuance here. If you focus totally on alternative facts you’re allowing someone else to drive the debate and it’s on us to focus on the real facts…That means not going down ratholes and that we really focus in a way that is meaningful and not scattershot. I think we are to up to it and we are going to drive this debate. So don’t get deterred. We are going to be pros.

Yes, we are — and it starts with believing our eyes. Shouldn’t be impossible, as Orwell reminds us.

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Jerry Brown challenges Trump on climate

In a fiery speech on science, climate, and policy at the American Geophysical Union today, Gov. Jerry Brown challenged the “miasma of nonsense” from the incoming Trump administration on climate questions and promised the thousands of earth scientists in the audience that the state of California would support their work.

“Never has so much power been lodged in so few hands,” Brown said to the scientists. “But it’s not about this politician or that politician. It’s about big oil, big financial institutions. We need to mobilize all your efforts as truth tellers to fight back.”

brownspeech

Brown’s pugilistic rhetoric inspired several standing ovations from the scientists, who are being attacked in the right wing press. The incoming administration has already sent a questionnaire to the Department of Energy asking for the names of scientists working on climate issues — an implicit threat of a witchhunt (Politico).

“The time has never been more urgent or your work never more important. The climate is changing, temperatures are rising, oceans are becoming more acidified, habitats are under stress – the world is facing tremendous danger,” said Brown at the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting in San Francisco. “We’ve got a lot of firepower. We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the universities, we have the national labs and we have the political clout and sophistication for the battle – and we will persevere. Have no doubt about that.”

Brown reminded the scientists that California has a long history of taking the lead on questions of the environment — with clean air standards from the California Air Resources Board that were eventually adopted by the Obama administration for the nation, for example. He spoke of signing memorandums of understanding with over 100 nations, states, and provinces (for more detail see the statement from his office).

I’ve never seen a more inspiring speech given at the AGU (and I’ve seen many, from the likes of James Hansen, Lonnie Thompson, et al).

“This is a big fight,” Brown said, and made it clear that he welcomed the fight. He even promised that if the incoming administration “turns off the satellites, that California will launch its own damn satellite. We’re going to collect that data.” (From the Sacramento Bee story, the best I’ve seen on the speech.)

But one of the most interesting turns (which has not been reported as of yet) came when the former Jesuit acolyte Brown reminded the scientists of the spiritual vice of “tepidity.” He went on to suggest that by “reduction ad absurdum” the incoming administration will make ridiculous its own dismissal of climate change.

He scoffed at right-wing “clowns in the media,” calling out Brietbart by name, for claiming that global warming is due to “cow farts.”

“Eventually the truth will prevail,” Governor Brown continued. “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future and you are there, the foot soldiers of change and understanding and scientific collaboration.”

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Is desalination the answer for drought in Ventura County?

Although climate change was hardly mentioned in the two-hour discussion of desalination led by Ventura County supervisor Steve Bennett last Thursday at the county government center, the question of drought has clearly been very much on the minds of water officials in the county.

Even more alarming, possibly, might be an earthquake that could interrupt supplies to county residents from the State Water Project, which supplies most of the water to about 640,000 people in the county.

Said Susan Mulligan, an engineer who manages the Calleguas district that supplies most of the county, during the discussion:

“The question of an earthquake cutting us off isn’t a question of if; it’s a question of when. If 75 percent of the water [from the State Water Project] is cut off, we don’t even have health and safety water at that point.”

The quote comes from a story in the Ventura County Star by Tony Biascotti. The even-handed story stayed away from conclusions, except to point out one vexing fact. Because it will take on the order of fourteen years to permit, research, and build a seawater desalination plant — according to a study cited by Mulligan — such a plant won’t solve our current water shortage woes right now.

Bennett took an unusual and fresh approach to the water supply question: stating no position of his own, and pointing out that the county has no direct authority over water, he nonetheless brought four real experts to the podium, gave them ten minutes each to make a presentation, and then asked questions — about cost, about permitting, about alternatives, and so on. Here’s the video, from his supervisorial site.

From this reporter’s perspective, the most useful advice came from Joshua Haggmark of Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara was once dependent, as is western Ventura County now, mostly on a local watershed and reservoir (Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara), augmented with groundwater from wells. After an on-and-off again history with a desalination plant, build in response to the last drought in the late 1980’s early 1990’s, Santa Barbara has now has all but completely exhausted Lake Cachuma. Until it really begins to rain again, if it ever does, the county now relies on a great variety of different sources, as illustrated by this slide from Haggmark’s presentation:

waterhaggmarkpresentation

 

 

 

 

The strongest proponent of desalination was Scott Maloni, a vice-president from a private company called Poseidon that has built a fairly large plant in San Diego that supplies a significant portion of the county’s water. That’s the upside: the downside is that it cost a billion dollars, and took fifteen years to construct and permit.

Two significant questions were not asked, from this reporter’s perspective. What plans, if any, does Mulligan and Calleguas have to develop some form of desalination? They clearly have a need for water for at the minimum health and safety for two-thirds of the county: What are they thinking?

Second, if as much science indicates Southern California is headed for a substantially drier future, is there any real alternative to at least some desalination? (Desalination doesn’t have to draw from the sea — it’s cheaper and easier to desalinate brackish groundwater or effluent from water treatment plants, such as in Oxnard.)

(The climate change/perpetual drought question may be a hyperobject: a fact so big and omnipresent it cannot be mentioned in local reporting. This is part of a fascinating theory being pioneered by a BBC documentarian named Adam Curtis.)

But judging from the tenor of Haggmark’s remarks about what happened in Santa Barbara, my conclusion is that water districts may not have much choice but to develop a diversity of sources to survive, including some desal. He said:

“Desalination is not going to solve all your problems, but it certainly helps to have diversity in your supplies,” said panelist Joshua Haggmark, water resources manager for the city of Santa Barbara. “You want diversity in your stock portfolio, you want diversity in your community, and water supply is the same thing.”

Interesting to hear him connect the concept of diversity to both politics and investments.

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Following the Wolverine with a camera

Twenty-odd years ago, while walking the John Muir Trail, I glimpsed a flash of black and white running across a snowfield at about 11k feet. The creature looked about the size of a small dog, and I *think* it was a wolverine. The other likely possibility at that elevation would be a marmot, but marmots are brown, and this creature was definitely had white and black colorings. But he was gone in a flash, and I’ll never know for sure.

Photographer Steven Gnam, on the other hand, has been tracking wolverines in the mountains of the West for Patagonia, and has posted some remarkable images of this elusive and gorgeous creature. Worth savoring.

wolverine

 

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