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California Officials Concerned Over Oil and Rail Industry Secrecy


Natural Resources Defense Council

One thing about these industries – when the oil and rail barons get together, tidy profits are sure to be made. But at whose expense? And if the latest mile long oil by rail collaboration has nothing to hide, why won’t they tell the public what is in the rail tanker cars, where they’re going and how often they’ll be passing through town?

It turns out that the oil and rail industries won’t even share that information with the federal government, despite having promised it months ago. The main regulator of rail safety, Cynthia Quarterman, chief of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) complained recently that the U.S. oil industry is not sharing important data on oil-by-rail shipments that may help prevent accidents. A U.S. Senator noted that “This lack of cooperation from the energy industry confirms all of our worst fears of their failure to prioritize safety.”

Crude oil by rail shipments have grown forty fold over the last five years, and the last year has seen more spills and accidents than the previous thirty combined (see this interactive map from McClatchy news service). The decimated downtown of Lac Megantic, Quebec, the site of a terrible oil train derailment last summer that took 47 lives, stands as a stark reminder of the safety risks that communities along oil train routes face.

California officials have also expressed concern over being kept in the dark about crude oil rail activity in densely populated areas. Last week, leaders in Berkeley and Richmond grew so concerned over crude oil trains running through their cities that resolutions passed with unanimous support to oppose crude by rail.

Unfortunately, much of the legal authority to regulate rail safety lies with the federal government, which has been playing a game of catch up in the midst of what they have termed the Bakken Blitz of exponential growth in crude oil rail transport. Federal action has been slow, prone to weakening in response to industry protest, and woefully inadequate.

Given the serious public safety risks of mile long crude oil trains suddenly entering Richmond, putting that already over-burdened community in even greater peril, we joined three other groups in a lawsuit to stop the Kinder Morgan crude oil terminal last week. Not only did the regional air quality management district quietly hand Kinder Morgan a permit for the terminal without any public process, they didn’t even notify elected officials in Richmond of the mile long crude trains.

The Kinder Morgan crude oil terminal in Richmond may have a twin in the McClellan railyard outside of Sacramento, which suddenly began taking crude oil trains on the sly without any public notification or environmental review. In this case the facility didn’t have a permit for the crude oil rail operation but was quickly granted one from the regional air district without any fine and dodging public notice.

One recent editorial in Sacramento cautioned of the “devastation that can happen when corners are cut on safety and local officials are kept in the dark,” recalling the deadly natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno in 2010, that took 8 lives and leveled almost 40 homes due to negligence from that utility. Accidents happen, but with much greater volumes of unusually volatile crude oil moving by rail, lax safety standards, and so many communities situated around rail lines, we are virtually guaranteeing serious public safety hazards.

At this point it seems like the industry has crossed a line taking our collective public safety for granted as an expendable commodity of their trade. It’s past time to join the cities that have already acted: Seattle, Spokane, Albany, Berkeley, Richmond and counting: No more crude oil by rail until the oil and rail industries get their act together and figure out how to do it safely.

These two brothers, Aji and Adonis, put it best when they recently performed the song “Exploding Trains” outside Seattle’s City Hall, before that city passed its resolution opposing crude oil trains. When older brother Aji learned about the exploding trains, he decided to write the song to bring attention to the dangers of oil trains and burning fossil fuels, exhibiting wisdom well beyond his years and some real musical talent.

This article was originally published at Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Epic 500 Year Drought Exacerbated and Exaggerated by Water Officials


Water officials’ and scientists’ claims that the Golden State is in the grips of an epic 500 year drought is not supported by the facts. Government documents show back in January that this year’s drought was not the worst in 500 years.

“We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years,” said B. Lynn Ingram, Paleoclimatologist, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. That story was released on January 30. Although an effort was made to reach Ingram to ascertain the scientific data to support her contention, she has yet to respond.

Contact was also made with NOAA’s World Data Center for Paleoclimatology, Boulder, Colorado to ascertain quantifiable data to validate Ingram’s assertion. Based upon a discussion with personnel assigned to the Center for Paleoclimatology, there is not enough data to say with certainty that this is the worst drought in 500 years.

Data obtained from the California Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) Public Information Office indicate that, at best, the state may be experiencing the fourth driest water year in recorded history. (A water-year is measured by the Sacramento River Unimpaired runoff dating back to 1906 and, by definition, begins on October 1 and ends on September 30 of the following year; currently, we are in water year 2014.) DWR officials depend heavily on Sacramento River watershed runoff to meet State Water Project demands.

In DWR’s February 1 report, Bulletin 120, DWR officials’ forecasted water year 2014 for the Sacramento River Unimpaired Runoff at 6.1 million acre-feet (MAF). One-acre foot of water contains 325,851 gallons of water. Critics point out that when DWR’s forecast was made, we were only 16 weeks into the water year. However, DWR’s March 1, 2014 report showed that this water year forecast at 6.2 MAF, stating it as the fourth driest on record. The March rains will require water officials to go back to the drawing board, casting doubts on the motives and severity of this drought.

Contrary to Ingram’s and water officials forecast, public records show that the driest recorded water year occurred in 1977 (5.1 million acre-feet (MAF), followed by 1924 (5.7 MAF), and 1931 (6.1 MAF); data extrapolated from a 2010 DWR report.

According to the record, the worst set of extended drought events occurred during the 1929-1934, 1976-1977 and 1987-1992 periods, respectfully, according to DWR’s Figure 1, Comparison of Previous Droughts. The 1976-77 and 1987-1992 droughts occurred post SWP construction, as indicated in Figure 1, .

Figure 1

Government Projects Operate on Flawed Computer Models

The facts contained in the public record do not support government officials and scientists assertion that the Golden State is currently in the grips of an epic 500 years drought. Their comments are prefaced on tree rings and limited Paleoclimatological information and computer-generated models.

The question is how accurate are models water officials’ use for management and operation of the State Water Project (SWP). Ironically, it is common knowledge that “All models are wrong, some are useful,” according to an article published by Professor Jay Lund, UCD, quoting statistician George Box.

Dependence on tree-ring records have intrinsic shortcomings, including divergence problems and proxies applied in the models. Furthermore, the models failed to identify California’s worse drought of record in recent history (post SWP), which occurred in the 1976-1977 water years.

“Every day this drought goes on we are going to have to tighten the screws on what people are doing,” said Gov. Jerry Brown, who was also governor during the last major drought here.

Although California has experienced its share of notable droughts since 1906, officials could not provide a drought contingency plan, when requested last month. Instead they are holding public workshops to get the peoples’ input on what to do about the drought.

Officials made it clear that there is no universal definition of when a drought begins or ends. Drought is a gradual phenomenon, according to DWR.

Figure 2

Figure 1 and Figure 2 failed to list the driest individual water years, 1977 (5.1 million acre-feet (MAF), 1924 (5.7 MAF), 1931 (6.1 MAF). however, the recent series of storms experienced in March may require it to amend that forecast. Figure 4 does not include the 1987-92 droughts, which was comparable to the six-year drought event that occurred during the 1929-1934 six-year droughts, as shown in Figure 1.

Sacramento River Unimpaired Runoff

Values in Figure 2 represent the estimated unimpaired flow for the Sacramento Valley floor and the minor streams from the Stony Creek drainage area to the Cache Creek drainage area, from the Cache Creek drainage area to the mouth of the Sacramento River, and from the Feather River drainage area to the American River drainage area.

Figure 3

Monthly Average Runoff of Sacramento River

Figure 3 provides the average runoff for the Sacramento River system, which illustrates that March, April, and May as three of the five highest months that runoff occurred historically. All the numbers are in millions of acre-feet of water.

Figure 4 indicates the water year in precipitation, when comparing the severity of historical drought. Critics point out that this is where DWR officials began to compare apples with oranges, as it is common knowledge in the water world that water years are measured in acre-feet.

Cloud of Doubt Rising as to the Severity of the Drought

In the first year of the 1976-77 droughts, DWR officials delivered 600,000 acre-feet of water, stored at the SWP’s Oroville reservoir, to agricultural contractors in Kern County for $2.95 delivered, even though it was warned that was not a prudent management decision.

During the 1987-92 droughts, DWR delivered record-breaking amounts of water to its contractors in Central and Southern California in the first four years, playing the odds that the drought would not continue. DWR officials water management and delivery practices exacerbated the severity of the droughts.

DWR officials responded to the most recent dry conditions by exporting and delivering significant amounts of water to SWP contractors; i.e., in 2010 it delivered 2.44 MAF, in 2011 it delivered 3.55MAF, and in 2012 it delivered 2.84 MAF.

In light of all the recorded data, questions are being raised as to the motive behind the governor’s, water officials’ and Ingram’s claim that this is the worst drought in 500 years.

Critics claim that it is all promoting more water development and bilking the public out of hundreds of millions of dollars for drought relief giveaway grants. The majority of those funds are borrowed money that is given to some of the biggest water districts and landowners in the state. Back during the 2007-2009 “drought” DWR held grant giveaway meetings at the Irvine Ranch Water District’s Duck Club.

Figure 4

Drought Proclamation Opens Floodgate Releasing $870 Million in Public Funds

DWR personnel’s claim that this is the third dry year in a row includes water years 2012, 2013, and 2014, yet it was not until mid-January that California Governor Jerry Brown issued a Proclamation, declaring the drought as a State of Emergency.

Corporate media ran with the “500-year drought” story, heightening public fears and uncertainties, claiming that the drought will devastate California’s $44.7 billion agricultural industry and result in massive farm-related job losses, higher unemployment rates, a rise in food prices, and a relaxation of water quality standards and environmental protections.

The situation apparently was so bad that President Obama flew into Fresno on Air Force One and observed the devastation personally, and immediately pledged $183 million from existing federal funds for drought relief programs in California.

Meanwhile, Gov. Brown’s Administration opened the floodgates and is doling out $687 million in drought relief grants using borrowed money that will ultimately cost state taxpayers in excess of $1 billion in new debt to offset the devastation.

The largest share of the drought relief package – $549 million – comes from accelerated spending of General Obligation (G.O.) bond money voters previously approved in two ballot propositions.

“This legislation [appropriating drought relief funds] marks a crucial step – but Californians must continue to take every action possible to conserve water,” Brown, a Democrat, said in a statement.

As of late, government officials are holding hearings laying out plans for a new $4 billion reservoir, when the Golden State is already inundated with $74.6 billion in G.O. bond debt, of which $19.6 billion was expended on water and drought-related giveaway grants.

According to state treasurer Bill Lockyer, it cost $2 for every dollar borrowed using G.O. bonds. The money to repay the bonds comes from the state’s heretofore deficit-ridden General Fund.

Ironically, California agriculture experienced a nearly three percent increase in the sales value of its products in 2012. The state’s 80,500 farms and ranches received a record $44.7 billion for their output in 2012, up from $43.3 billion in 2011 and $37.9 billion in 2010, according to the latest published government reports.

Almond acreage during the period of 2009 through 2012 increased from 720,000 to 780,000 acres, averaging 20,000 acres a decade. Between 1995 and 2010, almond acreage expanded from 440,000 to 870,000 acres, increasing cash receipts to growers from $800 million to more than $4 billion.

Using a conservative average of 3.4 acre-feet of water per acre to grow almonds indicates that the demand on California’s developed water supply and groundwater would have increased by about 1.36 million acre-feet of water.

The amount of water required to irrigate just the 870,000 acres of almonds planted would require an estimated 2.9 MAF of water that is about 800,000 acre-feet more than the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California provides annually to 18 million urban water users in its service area.

Essentially, DWR and SWP agricultural contractors gambled on the odds that even if the drought continued, they would get the unsuspecting public to bail them out by issuing G.O. bonds.

Because DWR has not produced all of the pertinent information, it is difficult to account for the extent and gravity of this drought. Currently, Planetary Solutionaries (PS) is conducting a forensic accounting of the “management” of the SWP going back to the worst drought experienced since the SWP became operable. PS’ findings will be continued in Part two of this series.

Patrick Porgans completed 75-fact finding volumes on water- and drought-related issues in the Western United States. As a Forensic Accountant, he conducted 15 volumes that assessed every major aspect of the California State Water Project (SWP). Those reports were the subject of legislative hearings that brought to light the intrinsic shortcomings of the Project and the $10s of billions of dollars in cost overruns that have been paid for by the taxpayers that the law requires be repaid by SWP contractors. This article was originally published at the Planetary Solutionaries blog.

Search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 Reveals Garbage Pollution Problem in the Ocean


Natural Resources Defense Council

In the desperate search for clues about the fate of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, information about a global environmental issue has unexpectedly come to light. Multiple times in the past week, search and rescue teams have been disappointed when debris spotted from the air or satellite has turned out to be “ordinary garbage.”

This revelation highlights the fact that so much trash has been dumped or spilled into the world’s oceans that they now resemble plastic soup. Like so many environmental problems, the build-up of pollution in the ocean is a gradual catastrophe that doesn’t often make headlines. But according to one recent estimate, twenty million tons of plastic waste enters the marine environment every year, accumulating in the five major swirling currents, called gyres, but also referred to as “garbage patches”.

Decades of coastal cleanup and research have revealed that single use plastic – like plastic bottles, bags and wrappers – are among the items most frequently found polluting the oceans. And as described by Jason Bittel, in OnEarth, this pollution isn’t just a blight in our waters and to economies that depend on healthy clean ocean: It’s also a serious threat to marine life. Sea turtles are known to eat and choke on plastic bags, mistaking them for jelly fish. Albatross feed colorful plastic pieces to their young causing them to starve to death, as documented by Chris Jordan in his tragic short film “Midway”.

Plastic pollution in the ocean won’t biodegrade for centuries, if ever. Instead, it breaks down into fragments that can attract cancer-causing pollutants like PCBs and the pesticide DDT. A recent study shows that when fish eat these toxic-laden pieces of plastics, the chemicals are transmitted from their stomach to their bodies, which has frightening implications all the way up the food chain and also poses a potential health risk for people.

Once plastic gets into the environment, it is extremely difficult and expensive to remove. The best solutions to the

problem of marine plastic pollution are the ones that can help us stop it from reaching the ocean in the first place:

  • We should require producers of single-use plastics to take more responsibility for their products, innovating new reusable options and ensuring that their products are recyclable and can actually be recycled where they are sold.
  • Laws to ban or place a fees on single-use plastic items can help to address the increasing volume of plastics ending up in the ocean. Throughout the U.S. and around the world in places like Australia, China, Ireland, Italy, Rwanda, Philippines, and Wales, laws have been enacted to tax or control single-use plastics.
  • Individual consumers can reduce the amount of packaging they consume, choose reusable options, recyclable, recycled content, or compostable packaging.
  • Government, business, and institutional vendors should also choose reusable, renewable, recycled-content, and recyclable alternatives whenever possible.

To tackle the environmental tragedy caused by the massive-scale use and discard of plastic waste, we must go to the heart of the problem. We must reduce the amount of waste we produce – starting with single-use disposable plastics – and we need help from companies in both preventing this pollution and cleaning it up. As with any tragedy, we must identify what has gone wrong to turn our oceans into a garbage dump, and we must ask those who are responsible to make things right. Learn more about NRDC’s work to help solve this problem, here.

This article was originally published at Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Restore the Delta Calls for Investigation into Water Mismanagement


As supporters of corporate agribusiness interests carried signs proclaiming “Food and People Before Fish” at a Congressional field hearing in Fresno, Restore the Delta (RTD) today called on the federal government to provide drought relief to Delta farmers and business owners and to investigate the mismanagement of water resources in California.

Apparently, the public relations folks who crafted the signs didn’t understand the irony of the fact that salmon and other fish that depend on the Sacramento River and the Bay Delta Estuary provide food for millions of people in the state of California – and support thousands of jobs in a multi-billion dollar industry.

Nor did they understand the irony of the fact that the same corporate agribusiness interests that are supporting legislation to eviscerate protections for Central Valley Chinook salmon and Delta smelt are supporting a peripheral tunnel plan that will take large tracts of Delta farmland, some of the most fertile on the planet, out of agricultural production in order to keep irrigating toxic, drainage impaired lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Aren’t Delta and Sacramento Valley farmers who will suffer from the construction of the twin tunnels food producers also?

RTD Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla told a Congressional field hearing “we are on the verge of losing Delta farms and our salmon and other fisheries. Where is the drought aid for Delta businesses being harmed: marinas that won’t have business; cattle farmers who won’t have water for their cattle; recreation businesses that won’t have visitors?”

Barrigan-Parrilla criticized the Committee for its exclusive focus on south-of-Delta water exporters. “There’s not enough water to keep salt out of the Delta and deliver water to Firebaugh at the present time. The south-of-Delta growers who rely on water exports don’t have water this year because they over-used Delta water last year, exceeding the amount that the State said was safe. Now, they want the rest of us to pay for their miscalculation.”

Barrigan-Parrilla told the House Natural Resources Committee that their framing the issue as a “3-inch fish over people” is “inaccurate, and harmful to solving California’s challenges.”

“This committee is blinded by its desire to serve a few huge industrial agribusinesses. The decline of our fisheries is a red-alert warning that water mismanagement threatens all of us: farmers, fishermen and urban residents,” said Barrigan-Parrilla. “Taking more water out of the Delta is not going to solve our problems. It’s the drought, not the Delta, that’s affecting the water supply this year.”

“Unfortunately, at the Hearing on Immediate and Long-Term Relief for Drought-Impacted San Joaquin Valley, no discussion is focused on the needs of Delta farming and fishing communities, coastal fishing communities, or the health of the SF Bay-Delta estuary. No discussion is intended to focus on gross mismanagement by the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation that has helped bring us to the precipice during this water crisis,” said Barrigan-Parrilla.

“There is no focus on how upstream reservoirs at the beginning of 2013 were over 100% of historical average storage, and how by the beginning of 2014 they were at dangerously low levels,” she asked. “This Committee should investigate how the State has promised 5 times more in water rights than there is water available in the system during years of average rainfall. This Committee should investigate how water officials have failed to plan for drought management, even though droughts occur 40% of the time in California.”

She also asked the Committee should examine how, even in 2013, the Westlands Water District continued to plant almond trees, bringing their total almond acreage to 79,000 acres, despite knowing they are only guaranteed surplus water in the system.

“This Committee should investigate how drainage-impaired, toxic lands are being fallowed this year because those lands would require three times the amount of water used to leach salt, in order to begin leaching boron in the soil which worsens with drought,” said Barrigan-Parrilla. “This Committee should confront whether these drainage impaired lands should be removed from production to free up water, a finite resource, for better uses.” (West side SJ Valley ag contributes only .3% to the state’s GDP.)

“There are calls to turn on the pumps today, even though we are looking at zero outflow this summer, and without outflow, the water exporters will begin pumping salt water from the Delta. There is plenty of talk about how the Delta tunnels, part of the mis-named Bay Delta Conservation Plan, will bring growers water reliability. But, if the tunnels were already constructed they would be dry today, they would not protect fisheries, and the Delta region would be transformed into an industrial eyesore. We cannot build our way out of droughts.”

RTD called on the Natural Resources Committee to hold field hearings in the Delta to learn about the Delta’s $5.2 billion agricultural economy on California’s largest strip of prime farmland — which could be harmed by salt water intrusion this summer. The drought is creating havoc for Delta and coastal fisheries.

“The Federal Government has already spent $2.89 billion on BDCP planning and the Federal budget contains another $327,000,000 in BDCP funding for 2015 – which will not bring any drought relief to California. Such funds would be better spent on projects that promote regional self-sufficiency. Recycling, groundwater cleanup, conservation and storm water capture would make millions of acre-feet of new water for the state, and break dependence on the Delta,” Barrigan-Parrilla concluded.

Restore the Delta is a 15,000-member grassroots organization committed to making the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta fishable, swimmable, drinkable, and farmable to benefit all of California. Restore the Delta works to improve water quality so that fisheries and farming can thrive together again in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

This article was originally published at Indybay.

Paid Sick Days a Win-Win for California


California Labor Federation

Every time I start to feel under the weather, I’m reminded of the wise words of a former supervisor. During cold and flu season she would always remind us that if we’re not feeling well or even just a little “off,” we should stay home. She’d sweetly say, “We don’t need a hero, guys. If you’re sick, please don’t come into the office. Stay home. Rest up.”

She had been around long enough to know that it took just one person trying to work with a cold to pass it around, and before long the whole staff would be down for the count. While she genuinely cared about our health and wellbeing, any smart supervisor understands that if the entire staff is ill, productivity goes down the tubes.

Fortunately for us, we had a few crucial things working in our favor. In addition to having paid sick leave negotiated into our staff’s collectively bargained contract, our office was located in San Francisco, the only city in California to have passed a law guaranteeing all workers paid sick leave. Also, most of our work could be conducted remotely which meant if we were feeling just a little under the weather, we could still work from home without risking getting our colleagues sick as well.

For many California workers, none of these benefits exist, but hopefully with passage of the new bill AB 1522, introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-80), that will soon change. AB 1522 would guarantee paid time off for every California worker to recover from illness, care for a sick family member or bond with a new baby. The new bill would also protect workers claiming this benefit from employer retaliation.

Here’s some food for thought:

  • Approximately 7 million California workers have no options when they or a loved one is ill. A lack of protection puts our working families between a rock and a hard place: lose desperately need wages by staying home to get better or go to work sick, frequently extending the length of an illness while putting colleagues and often the public at risk of catching the illness.
  • An astounding 78% of those denied earned sick leave of any kind are those low-wage, service sector workers who deal most directly with the public.
  • Working women make up nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, and nearly half of all working mothers report they must miss work when a child is sick.
  • It is estimated that those without any earned sick leave who miss three and a half days of work equates to losing wages equivalent to an entire family’s monthly grocery budget.

A poll conducted in 2011 found that San Francisco employers who have been implementing paid sick leave since 2007, not only found the new policy easy to implement, an astounding two-thirds of the city’s employers reported being “supportive” of the law and a whopping one-third reported being “VERY supportive.” That’s not all. The majority of businesses reported having seen a myriad of benefits, including lower employee turn-over rates, higher staff morale and motivation, overall higher productivity and little to no increased cost of implementation.

In an interview about paid sick leave, Assemblymember Gonzalez told U-T San Diego about the importance of passing AB 1522, saying the answer has implications far beyond paychecks.

Assemblymember Gonzalez said:

We’re sending kids to school sick? What’s the cost of that? We have to look at this as a more community and societal-based program where we are all chipping in. You have to make a choice. Do I go to work sick and get paid or do I stay home?

Too many workers, such as those in restaurants, day cares for children, and homes for the elderly, are forced to come in, running the risk of spreading infections, some potentially deadly. Moreover, those who are parents often send their sick child to school because they cannot afford the time off. That ends up infecting classmates and teachers.

Overall, AB 1522 is a fair deal for California workers, families and employers. If passed, sick leave would kick in after 90 days of work, allowing employees to earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked and giving employers the ability to cap available leave at three days per year. Sick leave could be used to care for a sick family member or as leave to allow domestic violence and sexual assault victims time to recover. The bill allows flexibility for workers and employers covered by collective bargaining agreements, and AB 1522 includes anti-retaliation language to protect workers claiming the benefit. That’s one heck of a win-win for California.

This article was originally published at Labor’s Edge, the blog of the California Labor Federation.