Tag archive for disaster

The hazardous truth: Santa Clara Waste Water

My old friends at the Ventura County Reporter ran my latest obsession/story, which I’ve been working on for the last six months or so, off and on, and did a nice job with the lay-out, may I say. Here’s the crux of the matter:

What really happened when Santa Clara Waste Water (in Santa Paula area) blew up? Why is the entire management of the company facing trial on 71 felony charges?

For answers, see here:


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Scenes from an explosion: “Nothing to worry about — it’s just sewer water.”

After a vacuum truck blew up in the yard of Santa Paula Waste Water last November, the Santa Paula Fire Department arrived at shortly before 4:00 a.m. According to the interview with Captain Milo Bustillos, they were told “You have nothing to worry about it is just treated sewer water.”

As Bustillos and two other firemen looked around the plant, they were told “There is nothing toxic here, there is no chemicals, we are fine.” 

Bustillos did not at first notice the exploded vacuum truck in the darkness. When he saw that its back had been blown off, and realized they were standing in the soup of chemicals blasted throughout the yard, he became alarmed.

“We are in it now?” he asked. And when he was reassured again, he said “Don’t fucking lie to me, it’s not sewer water.” 

As Bustillos taped off the area, his boots caught fire. According to the interview detailed in the search warrant request:

“Bustillos called the Incident Commander and reported what happened. He tried to move the Santa Paula Fire Department truck. When the truck moved a short distance, a massive fireball erupted and engulfed the fire engine. It burned for approximately 10 seconds.”

Bustillos and the other firemen were evacuated. He felt sick and had difficulty breathing. Since then he has been taken off duty with serious lung and sinus cavity damage from the fumes. He said the doctors do not know how to treat him because they do not know what he was exposed to. He coughs often and the coughing does not provide relief. He is worried about his future health problems. He said:

“If they just would have been truthful when we got on the scene none of this would have happened.” 



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Scenes from an explosion: Santa Clara Waste Water exec admits falsifying records

In the wake of the tanker truck explosion that set the Santa Clara Waste Water plant near Santa Paula on fire last November, causing a multi-million dollar disaster, not to mention many serious injuries, the Ventura County District Attorney presented 67 witnesses to the Grand Jury in building a massive case against SCWW. After the Grand Jury issued the indictment, and Judge David Hirsh unsealed it and fifteen search warrants, followed by arrests, included were records of the police interviews immediately after the explosion, fire, and toxic cloud of November 18th.

The records make for interesting reading.

The testimony is damning in the extreme in the case of vice-president Chuck Mundy. He admitted to falsifying records. He did not admit this in the first two interviews with police, claiming the plant handled only non-hazardous waste, even after a fire broke out under the boots of the firemen who came in the wake of the explosion, and even after investigators raided offices at Santa Clara and seized files. But when investigators came to Mundy’s house with a search warrant, he talked.

In testimony in the first of the search warrants, the special investigator Jeff Barry writes:

“During the execution of the search warrant at Mundy’s resident, he consented to a recorded interview with me, Supervising Investigator Frank Huber, and Special Agent Kristine Wilson of the Environmental Protection Agency. Mundy was not under arrest and was told he was free to leave. This was the third time I interviewed Mundy within a short period of time following the explosion.”

“Mundy admitted to falsifying and forging chemical analytical results and sending them to the City of Oxnard regarding waste product SCWWC sent to Oxnard’s Waste Treatment Center via a dedicated 14-mile pipeline. Mundy said he cut out lab results with acceptable numbers and then glued that piece of paper on the actual lab results for testing on waste (which had unacceptable numbers). The result was a forged and falsified document that did not represent the actual waste SCWWC was sending to Oxnard’s Waste Treatment Center and eventually the Pacific Ocean.”

Since that time, Mundy has hired a lawyer and no longer is talking to investigators. Twenty bags of evidence were removed from the site, including examples of forgery.

The District Attorney charged the company, its corporate parent, and seemingly the entire management team at Santa Clara Waste Water with felony crimes. But they threw the book at Mundy. He faces trial on 49 counts of 11 felony types, including “causing impairment to the body of an employee,” “handling of hazardous waste with reckless disregard for human life,” and “conspiracy to impede enforcement.”

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Is a climate disaster inevitable? Adam Frank/NYTimes

Astrobiologist Adam Frank looks at climate change from a deep time perspective, and speculates that perhaps the reason we're having difficulty with adjusting is that it's a really hard problem that few if any civilizations in the history of time have managed to figure out. 

Frank points out that science now knows that virtually every star we see in the night sky has a system of planets, billions upon billions of which have come into existence. 

So where is everyone? Why do we seem to be so alone?

Hundreds of billions of planets translate into a lot of chances for evolving intelligent, technologically sophisticated species. So why don’t we see evidence for E.T.s everywhere?

The physicist Enrico Fermi first formulated this question, now called theFermi paradox, in 1950. But in the intervening decades, humanity has recognized that our own climb up the ladder of technological sophistication comes with a heavy price. From climate change to resource depletion, our evolution into a globe-spanning industrial culture is forcing us through the narrow bottleneck of a sustainability crisis. In the wake of this realization, new and sobering answers to Fermi’s question now seem possible.

Maybe we’re not the only ones to hit a sustainability bottleneck. Maybe not everyone — maybe no one — makes it to the other side.

It's a great little column: I fervently encourage you to read the whole thing

But on a deeper level, the column has a strangely calming aspect, because it takes away the blaming. We still have a chance of finding our way to safety. The bacteria felled by the Great Oxidation Event on the planet billions of years ago never did 

Here's an image from NASA: their rendition of the idea of astrobiology  apparently. Kewl. 


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IPCC report leaked: global warming a disaster of poverty

Seth Borenstein of the AP leads the national press in reporting on a leaked IPCC report starkly warning that global warming will give us a poorer, sicker, more violent world.

And he puts the language of the report itself front and center:

"Throughout the 21st century, climate change impacts will slow down economic growth and poverty reduction, further erode food security and trigger new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger," the report says. "Climate change will exacerbate poverty in low- and lower-middle income countries and create new poverty pockets in upper-middle to high-income countries with increasing inequality."

The warnings pull no punches:

The report says scientists have high confidence especially in what it calls certain "key risks":

—People dying from warming- and sea rise-related flooding, especially in big cities.

—Famine because of temperature and rain changes, especially for poorer nations.

—Farmers going broke because of lack of water.

—Infrastructure failures because of extreme weather.

—Dangerous and deadly heat waves worsening.

—Certain land and marine ecosystems failing.

Reminds me of a tweet today, that actually comes to us from deep in the past:







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Overrated movie of the year: Snowpiercer

Yours truly sees all sorts of movies with alleged environmental messages (even the recent Godzilla, for crying out loud) to see how pop culture understands the on-coming prospect of planetary disaster.

One of the best such movies in recent years was "The Host," from South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, which at least one other critic called "the best monster movie ever made." That 2007 movie had it all: a classic premise, brought to vivid (and anti-American life); a bizarre failure of a man who became a hero more or less in spite of himself; an endearing child battling a ghastly monster; an odd but captivating sense of humor; great action direction; a surly Communist to set events in motion — surely one of the best genre movies of the century to date. 

So yours truly eagerly awaited the director's next major outing, complete with a plethora of stars: young Chris Evans; Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and the two most memorable Korean characters from "The Host." And so did other critics, evidently, for as a group they have fallen all over themselves in praising it — jeez, the usually reliable Andrew O'Hehir of Salon has called it "the best action film of 2014, and probably the best film, period." 

Its numerical rating on Rotten Tomatoes comes in at an absurd 94%. Metacritic's algorithm puts it at 83% (Though the real people rating comes in lower — 75%).

But folks, let me tell you, even if you like the global warming analogy (in which a substance sprayed into the sky brings on a freeze fatal to nearly the entire planet, within six months), you won't like this movie. Even if you enjoy the brutal parable of the 99% living on a train, trying to win some decency in life from the 1% who runs the show. Even if you can stand the ghastly axe-battling, the hoary disco decadence, the bizarre schoolteacher ruling the kids — all the metaphors, in other words — it's still a crummy movie, with some of the most banal dialogue in memory, the most boring hero imaginable (Chris Evans, showing not a smidge of the wit of his previous outing as Captain America), and a completely unreal setting. 

Politically I have no real problems with the movie (except for the preposterous ending). But I don't think it's too much to ask for a veneer of plausibility, or, if that's not possible, at least a compensatory outrageousness or, um, fun? This is grim, bitter, harsh obvious stuff, in look and in plot. 

Think you can see its dullness in this publicity still:


Weird thing is that the critics praise the movie even as they damn so many of its individual elements. O'Herir says it has "a creaky start." David Edelstein, perhaps my fave overall critic today, says the action scenes "are choppy and gracelessly staged, and the actors are high on the hog." Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, another critic who usually keeps her wits about her, calls the movie 

a tonal mishmash that can never decide between thoughtful political metaphor, lightheartedness and pulverizing violence. Bong seems most at home with the latter, which he stages with tiresome, slow-motion fetishism, mixing costumes and weaponry in an effort to distract from the scenes’ sheer repetitiveness.

And yet her mostly laudatory review is headlined: "All aboard a cold train to nowhere!'

Inexplicable. Perhaps the legendarily overbearing producer Harvey Weinstein twisted arms, or spiked the critics' drinks, or something. 

Demand better environmental apocalypse movies! Avoid this dumb one. Please. 

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Leading British scientist links warming to flooding

In this country, scientists have been historically averse to link weather disasters — such as flooding caused by huge storms — to climate change.

The scientific cliche is well-known: No single meteorological event can be caused by climate change. 

A leading theorist of climate communications, Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego argues that the general public is desperate for leadership on the subject of climate change, and that by always qualifying away the linkage between climate and meteorology, scientists are undermining their own authority. 

In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times last year after Typhoon Haiyan, she wrote:

When we emphasize the uncertainty, we appear to justify a course of no action on climate.

Instead, we might focus on the reality of the threat that warming poses, even though we can't say with any certainty that it caused the particular case in front of us. We might focus on the fact that we expect warming to cause exactly this type of extremely intense typhoon to occur more often — as well as a range of other harmful and irreversible consequences, some of them quite certain.

Well, In the UK this year, after the worst flooding in 248 years, Dame Julia Sligo — the chief scientist of the Met Office — did exactly what Oreskes counseled,and bluntly warned that climate change means more such disasters to come, and unapologetically linked climate change to the flooding. 

Climate change is almost certainly to blame for the severe weather that has caused chaos across Britain in recent weeks, the Met Office's chief scientist has said.

Dame Julia Slingo said there was not yet "definitive proof" but that "all the evidence" pointed to a role for the phenomenon.


Climate change is almost certainly to blame for the severe weather that has caused chaos across Britain in recent weeks, the Met Office's chief scientist has said [to Rupert Murdoch's SkyNews network]. 

Dame Julia said the southerly track of the storms had been something of surprise.

She said: "They have been slamming into the southern part of Britain. We also know that the subtropical, tropical Atlantic is now quite a lot warmer than it was 50 years ago.

"The air that enters this storm system comes from that part of the Atlantic where it is obviously going to be warmer and carrying more moisture.

"This is just basic physics.'"

To an audience at the American Geophysical Union a couple of years ago, Dame Sligo said that her office was working on ways to forecast extreme events. Be interesting to find out if that system worked for the UK this year.

Here's a picture of one creature that might actually enjoy flooding — in Worcester last week, from the Daily Mail. 


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How much of our climate change fear real? (Achenbach)

Joel Achenbach is a super-popular writer for the Washington Post who happens to be interested in science-y developments such as climate change, asteroids, and disasters. He's also a man with a giant pen, or, perhaps these days, keyboard. He can write! So refreshing in science, may I say.

His latest thinking out loud, from this month: 

The apocalypse will be budgeted. That is our trajectory, anyway: The
bureaucratization of disaster. That which cannot be stopped will still
be crammed, heroically, onto a spreadsheet. We like to tell ourselves
that we’re ready for the day when the eschatology hits the fan.

A week after 19 firefighters died in their emergency shelters in Arizona, and just days after a Quebec town
was largely destroyed in an explosive train derailment, we’re
collectively steeled for the next calamity. Death and destruction are
carefully enumerated in the modern world. There were 18,200 weather
catastrophes (or “loss events”) worldwide between 1980 and 2012,
totaling $2.8 trillion in losses (in 2012 dollars), including
$885 billion in insured losses, according to the reinsurance giant
Munich Re. These disasters have killed 1,405,000 people. (Stalin,
apocryphally: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions
is a statistic.”)

At any given moment you can look at a NASA Web site
to see which asteroids have the potential to strike the Earth. There’s
one called 2007 VK184, for example, that’s about 425 feet in diameter.
It’s a minus-1.57 on the Palermo Scale and a 1 on the Torino Scale. What
does that mean? It means that it’s very unlikely to hit us when it
swings close in 2048, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

At some
level, we’re all doomsday preppers now. We’re part of a paradoxical
society that is, in the aggregate, wealthy and powerful, yet feels
vulnerable and insecure. The flip side of a cultural sense of
entitlement — to life, liberty, happiness and the freedom from accident
or misfortune — is the hurt and outrage when something goes terribly

Our civilization is increasingly like a fine-tuned sports
car that is very expensive to fix. It burns too much fuel. It’s
dangerous to drive. And when it’s not in the shop, we’re anxious about
the slightest dent or scratch.

We have a sense of being constantly
on the verge of disaster or in the midst of one. If there’s not a
disaster in the news, wait a week. There are disasters that come with
warnings, and those that appear from nowhere. Bulletin: On Friday, an
engineer parked a train hauling crude oil
on a hill above Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and went to a hotel for the
night. For some reason, the air brakes failed. The unoccupied train
rolled for miles, back into town. When it derailed, the explosion
leveled much of the downtown, including a bar packed with late-night
partyers, and killed at least 15 people, with dozens more reportedly
missing. They never knew what hit them.

Perhaps a modern
civilization always feels disaster-prone because we’re all so connected,
with live-streaming video from every part of the globe. There are no
faraway disasters anymore.

So the question is: How much of this vulnerability is real, and how much is it some kind of mass hysteria?

We’ve got our best committees working on that right now.

Honestly — how many studies is that opening-with-metaphors worth, when it comes to putting our national situation into perspective? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?

Impossible to say…but note how he parses the language. This is how we build understanding: By knowing the concepts — such as "exposure" — on which our thoughts are routed. A map to the paths in our minds. And like any map, it has edges, perceptual flaws, and limits. But the inclusive nature of language allows us to see these limits instantly, and respond in kind, emotionally.  

Our common language — you have to love it. Or, I do. 

But meanwhile, our overheated world refuses to wait…



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Drought-Proofing Ventura County

How a water district is trying to shelter 600,000 people in Ventura county from the potential for drought or disaster; how the first attempt went awry, and how the second one will work — we hope. (Climate change is in the background of this story, but I didn't get into the projections — no time.) 

Drought-Proofing Ventura County

And here's the architect of the $300 million plan, Calleguas' director Susan Mulligan.  

Susan Mulligan

I was very impressed with Susan, her plan and her willingness to answer difficult questions. Doesn't take much to charm a reporter. Just answer his questions directly, really. 

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Take Shelter — the birds are falling (again)

2012 opens with news of blackbirds falling dead from the sky in Arkansas — again. 

Thousands of dead blackbirds rained down on a town in central Arkansas last New Year's Eve after revelers set off fireworks that spooked them from their roost, and officials were reporting a similar occurrence Saturday as 2012 approached.

Police in Beebe said dozens of blackbirds had fallen dead, prompting officers to ban residents from shooting fireworks Saturday night. It wasn't immediately clear if fireworks were again to blame, but authorities weren't taking a chance.

Officer John Weeks said the first reports of "birds on the streets" came around 7 p.m. as residents celebrated the year's end with fireworks in their neighborhoods.

"We started shutting down fireworks," he said. "We're working on cleaning up the birds now."

Such was an image in two films this year, both contemplating environmental disaster. (Without the fireworks, admittedly.) The first being Melancholia, where blackbirds fall from the sky, and people plenty of good reasons to look to the heavens, as they contemplate the end.


By contrast, 2011 also featured a beautifully understated dramatic examination of oncoming disaster, called Take Shelter. In this movie a devoted father, plagued by delusional nightmares of a storm the likes of which has never been seen in Ohio, turns his life upside down. He alienates his brother, frightens his wife, and loses his job — all in the attempt to save his family. 

Despite being devastated by blackbirds falling from the sky, he wonders if he's going crazy. 

Describing what motivated him to make this film, the writer/director Jeff Nichols said:

I wrote TAKE SHELTER because I believed there was a feeling out in the world that was palpable. It was an anxiety that was very real in my life, and I had the notion it was very real in the lives of other Americans as well as other people around the world. This film was a way for me to talk about that fear and that anxiety. I hope there is an answer to this feeling by the end of the film. I believe there is, and it's the reason that this wonderful group of people came together to help me make TAKE SHELTER.

Yes, there is a palpable sense of disaster about to descend — no? For better or worse. Perhaps we're all wrong, but the fear is there, among us. 

Leave aside the much-reported record twelve billion-dollar climactic disasters of the U.S. in 2011. You can hear in the rhetoric of Ron Paul and his followers, remarked on by leading conservative Ross Douthat. You can  read it in frightened Tea Party economic analysis. You can hear it in the serious music of today, such as Holocene, by Bon Iver, and in A.O. Scott's superb encapsulation of the film's central drama:

Is Curtis mad, or is he prescient? You can debate this question when the movie is over — the brilliant final scene invites as much — but you are unlikely to find a comfortable answer. The real question is what difference it makes…in “Take Shelter,” [Nichols] has made a perfect allegory for a panicky time. There is no shortage of delusion and paranoia out there in the world. There is also a lot to be afraid of.

Once our culture located God in the skies; now we wonder if we can trust Him — or them. 


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