Category for disaster

Home versus the Mountain

One of the acknowledged great non-fiction pieces of our time is John McPhee’s Los Angeles Against the Mountains, from l988, an uncanny and alarming foreshadowing of the disaster in Montecito this month.

It’s one of those astonishingly thorough and appalling pieces of writing, almost beyond journalismn, and to my mind can hardly be overpraised (but here, let me try!). Here’s a description of a debris flow from a survivor.

As the young Genofiles and their mother glimpsed it in the all but total darkness, the scene was suddenly illuminated by a blue electrical flash. In the blue light they saw a massive blackness, moving. It was not a landslide, not a mudslide, not a rock avalanche; nor by any means was it the front of a conventional flood. In Jackie’s words, “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.”

If you read on, it turns into a scene out of Titanic, except thank god the ship doesn’t sink. But there’s one passage from this piece that haunts me especially. On this creek-side property we have been warned to evacuate in case of any downpour. This is why:

Mystically, unnervingly, the heaviest downpours always occur on the watersheds most recently burned. Why this is so is a question that has not been answered. Meteorologists and hydrologists speculate about ash-particle nuclei and heat reflection, but they don’t know.

Jan 9, 2018 - Montecito, Santa Barbara County, California, U.S. - KERRY MANN navigates the large boulders and mudflow that destroyed the home of her friend in Montecito. The woman who lives in the home has not been seen since the early hours of Tuesday. At least 15 people died and thousands fled their homes in Southern California as a powerful rainstorm triggered flash floods and mudslides on slopes where a series of intense wildfires had burned off protective vegetation last month.  (Newscom TagID: zumaamericasnineteen760940.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

Jan 9, 2018 – Montecito, Santa Barbara County, California, U.S. – KERRY MANN navigates the large boulders and mudflow that destroyed the home of her friend in Montecito. The woman who lives in the home has not been seen since the early hours of Tuesday. At least 15 people died and thousands fled their homes in Southern California as a powerful rainstorm triggered flash floods and mudslides on slopes where a series of intense wildfires had burned off protective vegetation last month. (Newscom TagID: zumaamericasnineteen760940.jpg) [Photo via Newscom]

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Ta-Nehisi Coates: Not an optimist. Not on Twitter

The writer, journalist, and thinker Ta-Nehisi Coates has been embroiled in controversy for years now. Seemingly his every move attracts controversy, (for reasons mysterious to small-town hick yours truly). Near as I can tell Coates has not been doing anything another prominent and successful writer wouldn’t like to do, such as moving to Paris for a year with his family in 2009, or writing and publishing the great The Case for Reparations in The Atlantic, or for winning the National Book Award, or for attracting a vast following on Twitter, or for purchasing a brownstone in Brooklyn, or for today abruptly pulling the plug on that media.

Wikipedia:

On December 17, 2017, the philosopher and activist Cornel West published an editorial in The Guardian with the title: “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle”.[33] The premise of the article was that Coates “fetishizes white supremacy” and, in West’s view, represents “narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neo-liberalism” by wrongly casting former PresidentBarack Obama as a successor to such figures as Malcolm X as an African-American hero.[33] West believes that Obama (which on a previous occasion he had called a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface“)[34] should never be compared to activists, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., who in their fight against white supremacy spoke out against systemic biases in predatory capitalism and war; according to West, this is because Obama, while he is of the same racial class, is part of the system that the activists should fight against.[33]

The same day, West shared the article on Twitter, attracting tweets in response from many others, including hundreds of supporters of Coates.[35][36] The next day, West’s tweet was retweeted by the alt-rightwhite supremacistRichard Spencer, who indicated tacit agreement with West’s criticism of Coates.[35][37] Shortly afterwards, Coates, who had enjoyed a following of over 1.25 million other Twitter users, deactivated his Twitter account.[35][38][39]

As Jonathan Chait remarked from bitter personal experience, “neoliberal” has become the Left’s favorite insult, and seems to mean more or less not living up to the legacy of FDR in the Great Depression. In an essay about this insult, Chait includes a pretty great joke from Lyndon Johnson, who although lionized among liberals today for the Great Society and civil rights legislation, in his time was considered a sell-out by the Left:

“What’s the difference between a cannibal and a liberal?” Johnson joked during his presidency. “A cannibal doesn’t eat his friends.”

CoatesNYTimespic

 

 

 

 

But Coates, as that look indicates, isn’t here to joke around, he’s got something important to say, and frankly, part of what he’s saying is that the news isn’t good. That’s part of his message. To make that point (in an interview lost to memory) he spoke admiringly of Elizabeth (Betsyu) Kolbert, the indefatiguable chronicler of climate change and The Sixth Extinction.

That’s why I was so appalled when Krista Tippett, the usually thoughtful spirit animating the On Being podcast, insisted on asking Coates “the optimism question,”: even after specifically promising him she wouldn’t. It’s kind of incredible and it’s right in the transcript.

Ms. Tippett: And I told you before we walked out here that I’m not gonna ask you to be optimistic.

Mr. Coates: OK, but now you are?

Ms. Tippett: No, I’m not, because I see that everywhere you go, you’re telling this truth, and then white people want you to say, “OK, so where can we find our hope?” And I was watching you on Colbert recently — somebody saw that? He really wanted you to give hope.

Here’s what I find when you write: “Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. It focuses me.”

Amazingly, that eloquent defense is not enough. It’s as if Tippett is driven to insist on that most American of demands from a public performance: a happy ending.

Ms. Tippett: You don’t have hope. Or you don’t want to use that word, because that word —

Mr. Coates: No, no, no.

Ms. Tippett: But you are — there’s a focus. There’s an energy…

Mr. Coates: You know what it is? I don’t actually think I’m that singular in this. I don’t know — and I don’t know if there are journalists here, but you have to understand: That’s my training. I was trained as a journalist. Journalists go out and look for things that are wrong in the world, and then they write them. And it is not the case that your editor says, “OK, that’s a cool story, but there’s no hope at the end.”

[laughter]

That’s not a thing editors say to journalists, which is what I am. And so it’s not so much that I even object to hope. It’s just that the thing I do, that’s not a criteria for. You know what I mean?

She actually still doesn’t understand, but finally corners him on one corner of American life which does “give him hope” and inspiration.

Ms. Tippett: Where I find you to be closest to what I think other people are wanting from you, when they want you to be hopeful, is when you write and speak about Malcolm X.

Mr. Coates: Yeah, he gave me hope. He did, he did.

Ms. Tippett: You talk about — he presented, more than anybody else, the possibility of what you call “collective self-creation.”

Mr. Coates: Right. Well, you know what? I would listen to his lectures, and I just felt free. It’s not “hope” like — I think what people want is, “Tell us that we’re going to get past this.”

Ms. Tippett: That it’s going to be OK.

Mr. Coates: “Tell us it’s going to be OK.” So that’s one thing, right?

But there’s a different kind of hope. There are people in the world who accept that their life ends in death, and that’s bad, but that’s what’s gonna happen. And then within that, they find joys and hopes in between: “Oh, I have the ability…”

So for Malcolm — to me, it was: I can speak about the world in a way that is reflective of my life and my community. I can do that. I don’t have to calibrate my speech. I don’t have to calibrate how I look. I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way. I have that right.

And so that was big for me, as a writer. When I started writing, there was a school of writing that says: Given that the audience is obviously — when you reach to any size, is not gonna be majority-black — that you have to hold people’s hands. You have to explain to them. And the Malcolm influence on me said: No, you don’t. Write as you hear it. Write as you hear it.

And in fact, I don’t even think that’s a particular black thing, because if you’re black in this world, and you are gonna become educated on the — what is considered mainstream art in this world, mainstream traditions — nobody slows down for you. Nobody is gonna hold your hand [laughs] and explain The Brady Bunch to you. Nobody’s gonna do that. Catch up.

Yes. “I don’t have to calibrate how I walk to make other people feel a certain way.” Or talk, or write. Facing unpleasant facts, as Orwell said, is a job too — a job for a writer.

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“There will be no food in Puerto Rico”

…for a year or more, says an orchard owner who saw every one of his thousands of his trees killed in a matter of hours.

plaintaincropinPuertoRico

From the New York Times, well down the front page, far below the latest Twitter tweetstorm:

“Sometimes when there are shortages, the price of plantain goes up from $1 to $1.25. This time, there won’t be any price increase; there won’t be any product,” [grower] Mr. Rivera said. “When I heard the meteorologist say that the two had turned into a three and then a four, I thought, ‘Agriculture in Puerto Rico is over.’ This really is a catastrophe.”

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Greatest hurricane movie ever? Key Largo

Key Largo has to be the greatest hurricane movie ever, and one of starriest pictures of all time. The cast will knock you out: Beginning with Bogart and Bacall, and including Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor and Edgar G. Robinson, for crying out loud, who dominates the picture as a gangster threatened by the power of the storm.

This one frame from Key Largo tells that story:

“You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it.”

Image may contain: 4 people, people sitting

Can’t you just hear the harsh grain in Bogart’s voice, as he forces the brazen gangster to face a truth bigger than he can handle? Where are the heroic truth tellers of today? Where have you gone Humphrey Bogart? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

(In fact the inevitable “Shoot at Hurricane Irma” Facebook group formed in Florida in 2017 as Irma churned its way towards Florida — but forget all that, the movie is so much better. And so much better than the filmic Sharknado fare of today, or so it seems with the benefit of eighty years of hindsight.)

 

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In Ojai, global warming + summer = heat. But how much?

A week ago New York magazine published a blockbuster climate change story. Here’s the annotated/footnoted version. Highly recommended, because the writer — David Wallace-Wells — finds a way to bring home the urgency, using current science. It’s very simple, really. Instead of focusing on what will happen next year, or next decade, or by 2040, he looks at what will happen over the course of this century.

Here’s the cover, to bring the message home:

TheDoomedEarthcatalogue2

To put it simply, even if we as a species succeed in holding warming to 2 degrees Celsius this century, that still means a 4C warming by 2100, which means substantial portions of the planet will become uninhabitable.

From the story:

Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat. The original paper is by James Hansen, though for this and much of my account of extreme heat events I relied on Joseph Romm’s Climate Change.; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, This is from the World Bank’s very helpful 2012 report Turn Down the Heat, on life in a world four degrees warmer. and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe.The warning appears on page 15 of the Fifth Assessment’s Synthesis Report. As some readers have pointed out, these effects will come about gradually, beginning with the rare unusually hot day; those unusually hot days will gradually become more frequent in number. As with all of the climate effects in this article, it’s important to remember that heat stress is not a binary matter: It’s not that there are two options, lethal heat waves and normal, comfortable temperatures, but that global warming will gradually bring about more and more heat stress. The same is true, of course, for effects on agriculture, economics, conflict, and other areas. As Richard Alley told me, “We’ve warmed the world one degree. The general impression is that each degree is more costly, more damaging, than the previous one. The first degree — most estimates are that the first degree was almost free. But we can see a dotted line into Syria. The second degree will cost more than the first degree. You might say it costs the square of the warming.” Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015.“Even if such aspirations are realized, large increases in the frequency of deadly heat should be expected, with more than 350 million more megacity inhabitants afflicted by midcentury,” this paper warns. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer.Also from Turn Down the Heat. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today.The report can be found here. As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know,heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.”This is from page 138, though it refers to the same NOAA study mentioned above. The high-end IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still.

Several scientists pushed back against the article’s conclusions (and, I suspect, against the graphics and headline, which transmitted a message of doom and extinction). I’ll mention a couple of worthy voices in this debate, but move on to the local issue, which is of greater importance to residents to Ojai.

Ojai is already a warm place in our long Mediterranean summers: what if it gets hotter? Could Ojai be one of those places that will within our children’s become inhabitable?

This graph from NOAA shows that June temps have been soaring as of late. Probably this is due to the drought: without the evaporation and transpiration of water from the ground, temperatures warm more quickly than would otherwise be the case. But still…

CAdivisionsixmaxtempsinJune

 

The question of how much Ojai could warm this century has not really been asked, to my knowedge. Can we stand to consider this possibility? Anyone interested in the answer to that question? What if it’s knowable?

This week NOAA (the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) held its monthly climate call for media. Climatologist Jake Crouch mentioned in his presentation that “typically when we have really warm years in the lower 48 we see a drought pattern.”

So I (Kit Stolz) asked the natural follow-up: Is there some unusual factor, ocean warming or something not necessarily seen in the usual datasets, that could explain this unusual warming?

Crouch said, in effect, no. “As to the temperature outlook, we saw some natural ridging building across the southwest, bringing hotter temperatures and some human health impacts to the region. We think it’s more of a weather phenomenon than any other factor.”

So there you have it. Until some new research comes in, anyhow.

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President Trump unveils new climate policy

Trumptoworld

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For Atlas Obscura: Why Scientists Are Worried about a Landslide No One Saw or Heard

Here’s the lead (er, lede) I pitched to Atlas Obscura, which (to my delight) they ran unchanged, giving me a welcome chance to write an interesting story I learned about at the AGU Fall Meeting from Kevin Krajick of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory:

If a steep mountainside in a remote national park gives way and drops 200 million tons of rock into deep glacial water, will anyone hear?

In the case of the massive landslide that fell into Taan Fjord, Alaska, the answer was no—and yes.

No one heard the mountainside fall into the fjord on a rainy night on October 17, 2015. No one saw an almost unimaginably huge and powerful wave crest at 600 feet and sweep down the inlet. The tsunami obliterated forests on both sides of the inlet, and its rush to the sea dragged an iceberg over a marine spit and out into coastal Icy Bay. The enormous wave, an estimated 60 feet high in the middle of the inlet, traveled eight miles to open water and made it all the way to about five miles north of Icy Bay Lodge.

Thousands of miles away, at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory north of New York City, a pair of geologists noticed an unusual squiggle on a seismograph. The team of Göran Ekström and Colin Stark has in recent years pioneered a new method of detecting unusual seismic events that don’t send out the fast-moving compressional waves characteristic of earthquakes. Instead they look for subtler surface waves, or undulations, that radiate much more slowly through the surface of the earth. These are the kinds of waves sent out by collapsing volcanoes, calving ice sheets, and massive landslides.

“There are not that many landslide detections by us in a given year, maybe just half a dozen,” says Ekström. “We now know that when we detect something, it is often spectacular. We had just detected another landslide in the Yukon a week earlier, and had it confirmed, so I was quite excited when I saw another detection in the Saint Elias range, especially since it was not detected by anyone else, and because it was so large.”

Story looks great (sez me). Thanks to the photographer Bjorn Olson and the scientists at Ground Truth Trekking for the photos and for taking time out from vacations in exotic places with little connectivity for taking the time to talk to me, such as the wonderfully articulate expedition leader Bretwood “Hig” Higham.

Here’s the rest of the story, with a favorite photo, of the Taan Fjord and Mt Saint Elias. Please read!

taan fjord

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Wounded Earth: poem and photograph

The late great C.K. Williams thinks through the suffering of the earth — whose suffering is it really?

Is it as I suspect not that rare for you to be
wounded ravaged stripped of so much
of what you wore with seeming pride

your seething glittering oceans your forests
nothing new for you meteors comets
volcanoes extinctions the battering ice ages

so perhaps we shouldn’t psalm poor earth
for truly we moan and despair for ourselves
cast into that future we dread while the time

in which we sorrowed you’ll not have regretted
because how can earth not have a past
and how can earth even with a past so fouled

not notice how we departed leaving our heirs
to mourn this patch this sherd of existence
we’d been so confident we’d cherish forever

C. K. Williams

Falling Ill
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The last lines haunt, and bring up the work of the great wounded landscape photographer Edward Burtynksy, recently profiled in The New Yorker (and esp powerful on-line by the way).

Burtynsky photographs the “wounded ravaged stripped” earth without apology, rather like the earth in Williams’ poem I think, and photographically strips it of us and all our wailing and moaning and shows it as it is. Our feelings about the damage mean so little to the planet really.

oilbunkering5nigerdelta2016

 

Or Burtynsky puts it in The New Yorker story:

“I am not out to tell people a unitary story about what they should do to save the earth but, rather, to give people a picture of what it takes to live the way we do.’ ”

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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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The earthquake in Oklahoma in 2016 — and in Colorado in 1966

Oklahoma is now the most earthquake-prone state in the nation, considerably outdistancing California, according to the USGS. Yesterday morning a 5.6 in magnitude quake hit northcentral Oklahoma, with shaking felt as far away as Arizona and the Midwest. The record-settling quake has been linked to oilfield wastewater disposal, according to state regulators, who ordered a 500-square mile shutdown in disposal activity Saturday, according to the Washington Post.

Not so coincidentally, the discovery that disposal of liquid wastes underground causes seismicity was first discovered fifty years ago due to an earthquake measured at a very similar 5.3 in magnitude. How that happened was part of one of my favorite story leads a couple of years ago, so forgive me for reposting — it’s a really interesting story.

The U.S. Army had a problem, a big problem: 165,000 gallons of some of the deadliest war materials known to man, including napalm, chlorine gas, mustard gas and sarin, a nerve gas developed by the Nazis, tiny doses of which can kill in minutes. After stockpiling these weapons of destruction for decades in its Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, the government decided the time had come to dispose of the hazardous wastes but didn’t know how.

The solution? In l961, authorities drilled a well 12,000 feet deep, far below any aquifer, and over the next five years pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic wastes into a cavity in the rock miles beneath the surface.

One problem: Not long after the pumping began, Denver and nearby suburbs began to experience swarms of earthquakes. Most of them were quite small, less than 3 in magnitude, but in a region that rarely experiences earthquakes, 1,300 earthquakes in four years raised questions. Then, in August 1967, a significant earthquake — magnitude 5.3 — shook the city of Denver and the nearby suburb of Commerce, with damages that totaled over $1 million.

The Army stopped pumping the toxic wastes into the injection well. Geologists discovered the liquids had been pumped into an existing fault deep in the “basement” rock. The fault had begun to lose strength and slip, even after the pumping stopped

For city officials, this was alarming, but geologists were intrigued to discover it was possible to trigger earthquakes along existing fault lines, and a team of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey soon launched into an experiment in an oil field with known earthquake faults in Rangely, Colo. The goal? To learn what volume of fluid pressures were required to trigger earthquakes, and to see if seismic activity could be stimulated and then brought to a halt. The experiment worked, on a small scale, and encouraging results were reported in the journal Science in March of 1976.

“We may ultimately be able to control the timing and size of major earthquakes,” the team, led by C.B. Raleigh and J.H. Healy, speculated. They suggested drilling wells along the San Andreas Fault, and injecting water to release seismic pressures with little earthquakes. They hoped in this way to prevent the legendary “Big One,” an earthquake comparable to the massive and ruinous l906 San Francisco earthquake, which has a 3 percent to 30 percent chance of occurring in the next 30 years in California.

“They actually proposed this idea, to drill wells and pump in water and trigger small earthquakes along the San Andreas,” said William Bilodeau, who chairs the geology department at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. “And they got fairly far along in the planning process and then people began to say, ‘Wait a minute — what happens if we set off a really big earthquake? What’s the [legal] liability?’ ”

The rest of the story is about Ventura County in the present day, which (fortunately!) turns out for geological reasons not to be particularly vulnerable to this kind of oilfield waste disposals.

The county still has plenty of earthquake issues of its own, not to mention oilfield waste disposal problems.

Taylor Swift’s immortal line comes to mind re: Oklahoma —

Hey now we got problems
and I don’t think we can solve them

But Oklahoma, after years of denying any possible connection between oilfield waste disposal and seismicity, this weekend shut down disposal wells in a vast area — 725 square miles, according to the Tulsa World.

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