Bush Rolls Back, California Rolls On
In 1984, the chemical leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India killed and sickened thousands of people. Fearing a similar disaster in the US, Congress passed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) in 1986. Among other requirements, the law forces industrial facilities that handle toxic chemicals to publicly report their chemical waste and emissions. This provision is known as the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), and stands as one of the most powerful right-to-know laws in the country.
The TRI forces individual facilities to report the release, disposal, incineration, treatment, or recycling of 650 chemical compounds, among them some of the most hazardous to human health and the environment, such as benzenes and phthalates. While the TRI does not impose limits, the reporting requirements have effectively induced manufacturers to voluntarily reduce their pollution.
Last year, the EPA under the Bush administration proposed big changes to the TRI. Annual reporting would be replaced with biennial reporting, and facilities needn’t report their waste and emissions in “off” years. And compared to requirements today, companies could produce ten times the amount of pollution (from 500 to 5,000 pounds per year) before reporting would be required. This May, the House of Representatives voted for the Toxic Right-To-Know amendment in an attempt to prevent the EPA from dismantling the TRI. Most Republicans voted against the amendment, which was sponsored by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Hilda Solis (D-CA), but enough crossed party lines for it to pass. Whether it will pass in the Senate or be vetoed by Bush is uncertain.
The Environmental Working Group has identified 101 California facilities that could stop reporting their use or release of toxic chemicals under the Bush plan. Among those plants exempted from detailed reporting would be 17 facilities in Alameda County, 20 in Contra Costa County, and 10 in Santa Clara County.
In response to this imminent rollback of the public’s right to know, California State Senator Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo/San Francisco) has sponsored Senate Bill 1478, which would establish a California database of toxic releases similar to the current law. If Bush succeeds in weakening the federal standards for reporting, SB 1478 will ensure that the state’s chemical reporting standards remain strong. Speier’s bill has passed out of the Senate and is now in the Assembly.
Babies and Bug Spray
The Healthy Schools Act of 2000 compelled public schools to notify parents of upcoming pesticide applications on campus and to post notices in areas where pesticides were applied. It also offered school staffers training in least-toxic Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Six years later, the advocacy group Environment California has trained its sights on another realm where children spend a substantial amount of time: daycare facilities. The group sponsored AB 2865, the Healthy Day Cares Bill, which closely mirrors the provisions of the Healthy Schools Act. It requires private licensed daycare facilities to notify parents about pesticide applications, post signs after application, and give daycare providers IPM information and training.
A recent US Environmental Protection Agency study revealed that levels of pesticides found in dust were significantly higher in daycare settings than in residential homes. Children’s exposure to pesticides has been linked to persistent asthma and increased risk of childhood leukemia.
The Healthy Day Cares Bill has passed out of the Assembly and is now headed for the Senate.
In 2002, California was the first state to pass a law that set greenhouse gas limits: AB 1493 mandated the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from noncommercial vehicles such as cars and light-duty trucks starting with 2009 models. This year, Speaker of the California State Assembly Fabian Nunez reintroduced AB 32, which sets binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources such as power plants, oil refineries, and landfills. The bill also directs the California Air Resources Board to institute an emissions reporting and tracking system to monitor compliance with the limits.
Under AB 32, global warming pollution would be reduced by 145 million tons by 2020, cutting forecasted emissions for that year by 25 percent. Predictably, the California Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill, fearing that it will discourage economic growth, increase the cost of business in the state, and jeopardize the availability of an adequate energy supply. Because developing nations such as India and China will continue to expand their fossil-fuel dependent economies, they argue, a California-only cap on emissions will do very little to reduce global greenhouse gases.
Supporters of the bill counter that California is the tenth largest carbon dioxide pollution in the world, and someone must take the lead. And advocates point out that there is an economic upside: regulating greenhouse gas emissions shields the state from fluctuations in the price of oil, speeds up innovation, and lowers the pollutants that also cause smog, soot, and toxic air pollution. AB 32 passed out of the Assembly and is now in the Senate.
On June 15, California signed an agreement with Sweden to advance the use of renewable fuels, with a particular emphasis on “biogas” for motor vehicles. Biogas—also called digester gas, swamp gas, or landfill gas—refers to the combination of methane and other gases produced by the fermentation of organic matter such as manure, wastewater sludge, or biodegradable feedstock.
Sweden’s energy goals are ambitious: the country aims to end its dependency on fossil fuels by 2020. California hopes to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. State legislators saw mutual opportunity: California can benefit from Sweden’s biogas expertise while Sweden can benefit from the sale of products and research to California markets. Thousands of cars and buses in Sweden are currently powered by biogas, while California has millions of tons of biomass that could be converted if we only had the know-how.
Mixed Messages on Smog
A fourth of the pesticides used in California every year are fumigants, used to kill pests and pathogens in cotton, carrot, almond, and strawberry crops. The fumigants are injected into the soil, and lead to the formation of ground-level smog and health problems in agricultural communities. (See page 5 for a related story.)
Two years ago, a lawsuit was brought against the state by the Community and Children’s Advocates Against Pesticide Poisoning, El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart, and three other citizens’ groups from the San Joaquin Valley and Ventura County. In April of this year, US District Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled that California was violating the Clean Air Act and that it must significantly reduce volatile organic compound emissions from fumigants and other pesticides in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere by 2008.
The state Department of Pesticide Regulation is appealing the judge’s decision, claiming that the Clean Air Act was not violated. Yet, the same week in June that the state filed its appeal, the department unveiled a new initiative to curb volatile organic compounds from fumigants and institute regulations by 2008.
The state admits that the new initiative was launched in part to address the court case, and a spokesperson from the Department of Pesticide Regulation claims that the initiative will meet or exceed the standards laid out in the judge’s order.
Monsanto vs. Counties
A Monsanto-sponsored bill, introduced in early 2005 by Shafter Democratic Senator Dean Florez, has been resurrected in the state’s agriculture committee. As amended in June by Florez and numerous coauthors, the bill prohibits counties from banning or otherwise regulating nursery starts or seeds. It says that “provisions of law relating to nursery stock and seed are of statewide concern” and it reserves to the state the power to label, sell, store, or register such stock. It does not mention genetic modification, but SB 1056 was geared to challenge bans on GMOs passed in Mendocino, Marin, and Trinity counties, the cities of Arcata and Point Arena, and the ten-year moratorium just enacted in Santa Cruz County. In the latest round of amendments to the bill, these bans would stand, as provisions will not apply to ordinances enacted before July 1, 2006. Observers predict that the bill will be debated as hotly as a Sacramento summer once it reaches the Assembly.
Hetchy and Scratchy
Ever since the Tuolumne River was dammed 83 years ago, the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park has been under water. The reservoir created by the dam has stored water for 2.4 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Draining the glacial valley and restoring its dramatic grandeur has endured as an environmentalist’s dream, albeit an unlikely one.
A feasibility study commissioned by the Schwarzenegger administration reviewed options for reclaiming the Hetch Hetchy Valley and storing San Francisco’s water in other locations. The reservoir is one of nine in the same system, so the alternatives are likely to involve expanding others or storing water underground. The study is preliminary, but it keeps the option of a drained Hetch Hetchy on the table.