Category for Ventura County

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.

Photo

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.

Full Story » Comment (1)

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.”

Full Story »

Drought over for Ojai? Not yet, but…

Much of Ventura County has now (this water year, beginning in October) reached 100% of annual rainfall. Cheri Carlson writes in the VC Star

This is the first winter since 2011 for the area to get above-average rainfall.

Much of the Ventura County has had 120 to 180 percent of normal rainfall so far this year, ranging from 10 to 21 inches.

Four cities  – Camarillo, Moorpark, Oxnard and Port Hueneme – already have recorded as much rain as they normally would get in a year.

20170207_ca_noneIn Ojai, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, we have are at about 150% of normal, at over 15 inches (including over 10 inches in January). Yet look at the US Drought Monitor and it shows much of the county still in extreme drought.

As Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford writes today in the NYTImes, this wild ride from extreme drought to extreme precipitation will not surprise climate scientists.

“The other bitter reality is that this extremely wet winter will not wash away the drought. Depending where one looks, California lost out on one to three full years of precipitation from 2012 to 2016. That is a lot of water to make up in one year, and as of last week almost half of California was still in a state of drought. The moisture deficits that have accumulated during the drought have not been seen in our lifetimes. They have caused thousands of California residents to go without running water, resulted in groundwater contamination and permanent loss of aquifer storage capacity, and have severely stressed tens of millions of trees. As a result, even after this wet year, rural communities, groundwater aquifers and forest ecosystems will still feel the effects of the drought.”

But if we’ve had 150% of normal, and we are between one and three years of water deficit, surely it’s plausible to think that a really good storm — one that might drop between 3 and 10 inches of rain over six days, putting us at over 200% of an average water year, in record-setting territory, as is forecast — might bring us nearly to normal? Such as this image (via UC San Diego)  showing water vapor smacking California repeatedly over the next week?

Sounds plausible. Let us pray for rain — with not too much flooding. Just enough extremity, but not too much.

iwv_USWC_loop

 

Full Story »

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.

Full Story »

The future of water in Ojai in drought

Here’s a panel discussion (below) put on by the Ojai Valley Green Coalition and the Ojai Film Festival on the future of water here in town. May I say despite being the moderator that I think it’s a good one. This was for a large audience at the Arts Center on the 27th of October.

The fact that the town and its agricultural growers are facing an existential crisis — a drought that could last for decades — dials up the interest.

Let me just mention a few specific questions that came up, and quote the truly distinguished panelists on the future of water in Ojai in drought. (The video, which was shot and edited by Ray Powers, is a little less than forty-five minutes long.)

On the issues: first, Steve Wickstrum, who has been manager of the Casitas Municipal Water District for thirty years or more, was asked about how much water Lake Casitas has remaining in storage.

He said his calculations showed that the district right now has about four years of water left, but he indicated that with conservation, especially from the agricultural sector — which uses about 70% — the district had perhaps six or seven years worth of water.

And he reminded the audience of 150 or so at the Arts Center in downtown Ojai that state water would be a “Herculean” engineering effort. He said that it wouldn’t be possible for a “nominal fee.”

At the start of the event, I impulsively asked the audience if state water was available and not too expensive, would Ojai choose to join the rest of Southern California or would it maintain its tradition of local sustainability?

In l952, in a drought, the approximately 9000 voters of Ojai in that era voted by a more than 8-to-1 margin to form the water district and build Lake Casitas, which has kept the town in water for nearly seventy years.

Only about two people raised a hand to hook up with state water. One was a member of the Casitas board, and he later suggested that perhaps the audience was taken by surprise and not thinking it through sufficiently — after all, Casitas has been paying for the right to draw on state water for many years.

I asked the panel about the possibility of bringing state water to Casitas. Is that a matter of practicality, or is that a matter of principle? For Paul Jenkin, a civil engineer and a passionate environmentalist who has been working to restore local watersheds for many years as part of Surfrider, it’s a matter of principle.

“I think [local sustainability] is the greatest asset that we have,” Jenkin. “If you saw this film, you know that state water is not going to ever be a reliable source for us. And you have to ask about other agencies that are interested in through passing that water to us. For them to be hooked all the way into Lake Casitas, that’s their backup. And if state water ever becomes unavailable, it’s going the other way.”

I asked about megadrought. A recent study estimated that the Southwest — including Ojai — has a 90% chance of a megadrought, which means a drought of thirty-five years or longer, this century. It’s possible we’re in a megadrought now. I asked if we as a state are systematically underestimating the risk of megadrought.

Tom Ash, a water conservation manager in Irvine Ranch, said no, we are not taking megadrought seriously. “I see that in the context of working with [water agencies] from all over the state, as Stephanie [Pincetl] does as well, and we see a tremendous battle, you could say, in that we see more a desire to sell water than to conserve water. We’ve been talking about efficiency, about non-point source solution, and other conservation measures. We have to do everything and my frustration is that we’ve come a ways, but we haven’t come nearly far enough, fast enough.”

So — besides increasing supply with conservation, what can be done to prevent an increase in demand due to an on-going expansion of housing in Ventura, and in agriculture in Ojai?). Stephanie Pincetl, of UCLA, who has been working in conservation and sustainability for decades, mentioned a couple of possibilities:

“So there is one thing that can be done,” Pincelt said. “And that is to require water neutrality of any new development. And this has been implemented in a number of places across the state. So you can build whatever you want to build, but you’re not getting any new water. So you have to mitigate the water required by that new development with conservation somewhere else…and I agree [with Paul Jenkin] that it’s kind of stunning that new [agricultural] production is coming on line in this drought. It just seems that a moratorium on that sort of development should be considered.”

“Everybody has a part to play,” she said, a little earlier. “It’s not urban or ag. Imagine Ojai Valley without agriculture. How would it feel? Really different, and probably not that great, and you wouldn’t have that fabulous farmer’s market. It has to be not either/or, but us together, or we’re not getting out of the problem.”

Ojai Valley Green Coalition: The Future of Water Panel Discussion 11.6.16 720 from Ojai Valley Green Coalition on Vimeo.

 

Full Story »

Trump denies drought exists in California

The Donald, as he is known in tabloid reporting in New York, told Californians that their drought doesn’t exist. It’s not a problem, it’s just a government snafu.

From USA Today:

California suffered one of its driest years in 2015. And last year the state hit its driest four-year period on record.

But Donald Trump isn’t sold. The presumptive GOP nominee told supporters in Fresno, Calif., on Friday night that no such dry spell exists.

Trump said state officials were simply denying water to Central Valley farmers to prioritize the Delta smelt, a native California fish nearing extinction — or as Trump called it, “a certain kind of three-inch fish.”

“We’re going to solve your water problem. You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea,” Trump told thousands of supporters at the campaign event.

But even if you redistributed all the water from the Sierra and the Californi Water Project, that still would not solve what a certain politician calls “the water problem” in coastal Southern California, as this map via the LA Times and the U.S. Drought Monitor from May 17th shows.

droughtincaMay172016

Chart goes from “abnorally dry” (yellow) to “exceptional drought” (brown). Red is “extreme drought,” the second worst category.

Full Story »

The Hazardous Truth wins 2nd Best Investigative Reporting in CA for 2015

Yours truly is not going to win a state-wide award, or second place, too often, so please let me say that the Ventura County Reporter and I won a Best Investigative Reporting in California, 2nd Prize, for 2015.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association only gives out two such awards in each category (in our case, for weekly papers of about 30k subscribers) so it’s pretty meaningful methinks. Here’s what the announcement looked like from my editor Michael Sullivan on fb a week ago.

CNPAawardtoKitStolz

What did I learn from the experience of trying to report on the disaster at Santa Clara Waste Water? In which over fifty people were sent to the hospital by exposure to an explosion, fire, or a toxic plume of chlorine dioxide gas? In which the entire upper management of the company is on trial on 71 felony counts?

It takes an obsession. In my case, six months worth of obsession. Here’s the story, if you haven’t seen it.

And below take a look at a picture of the disaster the morning of November 18, 2014, from county records:

Feat_3b

 

 

 

 

 

 

Full Story »

A Matter of Dignity: Bill of Rights for Farmworkers

Really like the cover that the Ventura County Reporter found for my story on farmwork in Ventura County:

amatterofdignity

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That in one image and a handful of words expresses the plight of tens of thousands of hard-working people in the this part of the world. These are people who — as a progressive Christian named Erynn Smith, of The Abundant Table pointed out — are the people who go unseen in this county, the people Christ admired, the overlooked. The people amongst who most need better conditions, better lives.

Arsenio Lopez, who leads an organization called MiCOP, put it eloquently at the conclusion of the story:

“We have seen a lot of studies on farmworkers. Always those studies show that there are problems. … We cannot keep our eyes and our ears always closed to the suffering of the farmworkers.”
— Arsenio Lopez, Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project of Oxnard

Full Story »

Ventura County opposes backyard bee-keeping: Ojai fights back

Sorry I’ve been quiet: too many deadlines. Good news is that I have a number of stories to post, big and small, and so let me catch up please.

Here’s a story about a surprising fact. Ventura County, which annually grosses two billion dollars in agricultural revenue, discourages backyard bee-keeping.

Even though nationally bees and other pollinators are in decline. By over 20% nationally, according to a study cited by the National Wildlife Federation. From a story in the Ojai Valley News. We begin midstream:

The policy of the Agricultural Commissioner of Ventura County currently prevents beekeeping except in areas designated for agriculture or open space, according to Interim Ojai City Manager Steve McClary. “The property size and ownership qualifications prevents beekeeping on most residential properties,” McClary wrote in the item prepared for the Council discussion.c

The proposed ordinance will allow beekeeping on residential properties within city limits provided owners register their hive with the Agricultural Commissioner, have lots of at least 5,000 square feet, keep a source of water at all times for the hive, and maintain adequate space in the hive for the bee population to grow safely.

Mayor Paul Blatz asked if encouraging homeowners to keep bees in their backyards might mean more bees and possible problems for residents. [Glenn] Perry, [president of the Ojai Valley Bee Club] replied that actually a number of gardeners and farmers in Ojai, notably Steve Sprinkel of The Farmer and The Cook, had noticed that the bees in the area were in decline.

“I see a decrease in the number of bees around here that’s a little shocking in just the five years I’ve been here,” Perry said. “We’re not talking about an increase, but we are talking about making sure they don’t decline further.”

Councilman Randy Haney wondered if homeowners wishing to keep bees who live near schools could inform administrators about any plans to add hives to their backyards. Perry said his group would be willing to consider the idea.

“Our proposal is intended to be as reasonable and as responsible as possible,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Weirick pointed out that the National Federation of Wildlife just released a plan to support bees, calling for a “Million Pollinator Gardens” by the end of this year. The organization pointed to a national study that found a 23 percent decline in bee populations between 2008 and 2013.

Took kind of a fun picture of Weirick after the meeting, which the paper charmed me by running:

weirick_beekeeping

Full Story »

Here comes the super-hot summer of 2016

This year has been off the charts hot. Lots of graphics to that point:

superhotstart2016

The February heat anomaly this year [as charted by NOAA] is scary to me.

february2016anomaly

Already we are in the fifth year of drought, which has only slightly lessened, and not at all in central SoCal.

droughtCAmarch2016

And now models pointed are calling for an especially hot summer on the West Coast. Oh great.

Full Story »