Hot Weather Means Unhealthy Air, Even With Shutdown

Earlier this month we celebrated Southern California’s great air quality — with many caveats — but now, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, it’s “Very Unhealthy” in some spots, even though we still have widespread shutdowns.

As you can see, as of midafternoon on April 29, people living in Rancho Cucamonga experienced “Very Unhealthy” (purple) air, whereas people in Santa Clarita and Corona had “Unhealthy” (red) air, followed by air that was “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” (orange) in San Bernardino and Ontario.

Much of Los Angeles and Santa Monica was “Moderate” (yellow), while those in Long Beach seem blessed with the best air, at the moment.

Screenshot of the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s hourly Air Quality Index, taken at 3:30 p.m. on April 29, 2020. (South Coast Air Quality Management District)

One of the biggest factors that’s changed between last month and now is the weather, a reliable determiner of bad air in L.A.

“When we have these warm heat spells in April or May, it’s not unusual to see some higher ozone levels,” said Philip Fine, deputy executive officer at South Coast AQMD for the Planning and Rules Division.

As it heats up we’re starting to get a clearer picture of our pollution problem.

That’s because the heat bakes emissions from planes, ships, construction sites, and cars that are all still operating, and turns them into smog. That’s why air quality tends to be worse during the hottest parts of the day.

It’s too early to tell exactly how widespread of an impact the shutdown is having on all sources of emissions (there are many). Fine estimates that there’s been a downtick of roughly 20% to 30% of traffic across the region.

It’s an interesting real-life emissions experiment that seems to make clear, if we want consistently clean air, that we’re going to need to go much further than a few electric cars and trucks on the road.

“We’ll be studying this probably for years to come,” said Fine.

Air quality should improve if emissions fall or we have a windy day that clears everything out.

Worse Air Quality In Phoenix Communities Of Color Could Mean Higher COVID-19 Risk

As coronavirus spreads across the country, it’s hitting certain demographic groups disproportionately hard, and air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest.

COVID-19 is riskiest for people who have underlying health conditions such as asthma. And the list of conditions that can make the respiratory virus more deadly closely overlaps with the kinds of conditions made worse by exposure to air pollution.

And in the Phoenix area, air quality is very poor.

“Maricopa County is actually one of the most contaminated counties in the country,” said Laura Dent, executive director of Chispa, a Latino-focused environmental organization.

Chispa has focused efforts on air pollution in the Valley for years, but Dent is especially concerned right now.

“In some of these harder-hit areas, the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis will be even more exacerbated,” Dent said.

A new study from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows exposure to air pollution worsens outcomes for COVID-19. An increase of just one-millionth of a gram of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air increases the chance of death from the virus by 15%.

All of Maricopa County experiences air pollution. But busier streets and topography that causes pollution to settle contribute to even dirtier air in south and west Phoenix. And residents of those heavily polluted neighborhoods are primarily Latino or African American.

Air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Paul Atkinson/KJZZ)

“Latinos and communities of color, in Arizona, but across the country are disproportionately impacted by respiratory issues related to contamination and pollution and there’s so much history that leads to that,” Dent said.

Decades of discriminatory housing practices, for example, meant people of color in Phoenix were very limited in which parts of the city they could live.

Darshan Karwat is an aerospace engineer at ASU. His research gives a score to Phoenix neighborhoods based on access to services and environmental factors.

“Research has shown over decades that when communities are burdened with one thing, they’re probably burdened with a lot of different things,” Karwat said.

Karwat’s research shows correlations between neighborhoods’ poverty levels, percentage of minority residents, and pollution levels. And those correlations appear to have health implications. High-poverty Phoenix neighborhoods see more asthma hospitalizations.

Dr. Joanna Andujar is a pediatrician with Mountain Park Health’s clinic in West Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood. She sees those effects firsthand.

“When the air quality gets worse we do see more kids coming in with an exacerbation of asthma,” Andujar said.

As coronavirus spreads, its impact on different communities has been similarly uneven. Across the country, African Americans are dying of COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. In Arizona, some Native American reservations have been especially hard-hit.

“COVID-19 is a lens through which we see even better what has happened as a result of the lack of being concerned about health disparities,” said Olga Davis, a professor at ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communications. Davis has researched public health issues among Phoenix African Americans.

Race and location data on Arizona coronavirus cases is still incomplete. But Davis fears lower income communities of color may eventually prove to be disproportionately affected in the Phoenix area too. She said, unfortunately, these outcomes are predictable.

“I’m very sad that it is still a reality after so much has been done so much has been written,” Davis said.

Dozens of factors, from educational opportunities to access to healthy food, create public health disparities across demographic groups. Air pollution is only one component, but it’s something Karwat said has the potential to improve.

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. (Photo courtesy of Storyblocks)

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. Karwat sees that as a rare opportunity for air quality research along with ASU colleague Jennifer Vanos.

“If we can measure it, then we can manage it better, then we can potentially fix it and see, could we get back to cleaner air? What policies made the biggest changes?” Vanos said.

Vanos and Karwat are applying for grant funding, hoping to be able to place dozens of air quality monitors around the city while air is cleaner than usual. Then, as social-distancing orders are gradually lifted, they’d be able to track which policy changes make the biggest impact on which neighborhoods—information that could be helpful for addressing disparities in Phoenix pollution levels in the future.

For now, those economic and environmental inequalities remain Dent said coronavirus is making them alarmingly clear.

“All of these challenges come together to hurt and impact populations in a really different way,” Dent said.

She hopes that frame is part of the way we seek policy solutions, when coronavirus is behind us.

Traffic, Emissions Reduced As Arizonans Stay Home

Arizonans staying home amid the pandemic are making a measurable impact on road congestion and air quality. Weekday vehicle traffic volume is down by a third since early March, according to the Maricopa Association of Governments.

Average weekday traffic volume on Valley roads has declined since early March. (Photo courtesy Maricopa Association of Governments)

More Valley workers are telecommuting than ever before, and if some workers continue to do their jobs from home after social distancing orders are lifted, Eric Anderson, executive director of the Maricopa Association of Governments, is optimistic that could create long-term benefits.

“Even a 5% reduction in travel, if people are going to be telecommuting more in the future, could have a big, dramatic impact on how our future transportation system performs,” Anderson said.

Data from analytics company INRIX shows Valley travel speeds are up and travel delays are down. And with fewer cars on the road, satellite measurements show nitrogen dioxide in Phoenix’s atmosphere is more than 10% lower than at the same time last year.

To talk more about this is Eric Anderson, executive director of MAG.

Comparing the same period of March 2019 to March 2020, findings show a reduction of 10.5% in nitrogen dioxide emissions. (Photo courtesy Maricopa Association of Governments)

Higher Air Pollution Is Linked To A Higher COVID-19 Death Rate, A New Study Finds

Long-term exposure to high levels of air pollution increases the risk of death related to COVID-19, according to a new study from Harvard University.

That’s especially concerning in Southern California, where Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties regularly rank among the worst in the nation for long-term particulate matter pollution, or PM2.5.

And, as is true in other parts of the nation, the effects of that pollution disproportionately harm Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and low-income communities — which underscores early data showing black Americans are dying at higher rates from COVID-19 complications.

The Harvard study gathered data from roughly 3,000 U.S. counties, which account for 90% of confirmed COVID-19 deaths nationwide, as of April 4. Researchers factored in population size, the number of hospital beds, the number of individuals tested, weather, plus some “socioeconomic and behavioral variables” like smoking.

That data was checked against county-level data on long-term exposure to PM2.5, which is generally measured by microgram per cubic meter of air.

According to the findings, an increase of just one microgram per cubic meter of air was associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

L.A. County is dark red, indicating high particulate matter

“The results of this paper suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes,” the authors wrote.

The study has been submitted to The New England Journal of Medicine for review.

What is particulate matter?

The Environmental Protection Agency describes PM2.5 as “fine inhalable particles, with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller.” Most PM2.5 comes from emissions generated by cars and trucks, power plants, and industrial sites.

Exposure to particulate matter has been linked to harmful health conditions including asthma, decreased lung function and complications for people with heart or lung disease. Many of those same conditions put people who contract COVID-19 at a higher risk of falling severely ill, according to the CDC.

“There is a large overlap between the diseases that are affected by fine particulate matter and diseases that lead to death if you get COVID-19,” said Dr. Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the study’s senior author.

Dominici said the findings can serve as a guide for public health officials to strengthen distancing efforts, direct resources and prepare for more serious COVID-19 cases in regions with worse PM2.5 pollution.

Air pollution in southern California

Southern California skies may be remarkably clear right now, but our infamous air pollution is well documented.

The American Lung Association releases an annual “State of the Air” report, ranking U.S. counties and metropolitan areas with the worst air pollution. The Los Angeles-Long Beach metro area placed fifth in its most recent report for highest annual levels of PM2.5. Fresno and Bakersfield were ranked first and second, respectively.

Measuring by county, San Bernardino and Riverside counties placed sixth and eighth, respectively, for the U.S. counties with the highest year-round PM2.5 pollution. L.A. County ranked 15th. Thirteen of the 20 worst counties for PM2.5 levels were in California.

Dominici singled out L.A., Orange and Fresno counties as “among the most polluted counties in the United States” based on her team’s research.

“For California counties that are most polluted, what it means is that… unfortunately, we’re expecting higher risk of death [from] COVID,” she told LAist today. “You are dealing with a population that is already susceptible to adverse health effects of COVID, because their lungs have been already exposed to many years of fine particulate matter.”

San Bernardino and Riverside counties also lead the nation in ozone pollution levels, better known as smog. L.A. County is ranked third for a SoCal hat trick.

Harvard’s study did not examine ozone levels for possible links to COVID-19 mortality, but Dominici said her team plans to study that soon. She said she also wants to look further into the impact coronavirus is having on African Americans.

Harvard’s study is online and available to the public.

(Infographic by Riley Anderson)

‘Many Lives at Risk’: What Pollution Rollbacks Could Mean for California and Arizona

LOS ANGELES – At the turn of the 20th century, Southern California’s oil industry was booming, with refineries belching black smoke. It got so bad that one day in 1903, Los Angeles residents woke up to skies so dark they thought was a solar eclipse.

It wasn’t an out-of-this-world event. It was smog.

And Southern California’s air quality has been the subject of headlines ever since.

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Today, the right to regulate air pollution has become the subject of another political fight between California officials and federal regulators in Washington. In late September, President Donald Trump announced that his administration will revoke California’s nearly 50-year authority to set its own vehicle standards for tailpipe emissions. California and 22 other states have filed suit. Arizona implemented California’s emission standards in 2008 but revoked them in 2012, and did not join in the lawsuit.

The recent conflict comes after Volkswagen, Ford, BMW and Honda struck a deal with California to reduce emissions and increase fuel efficiency.

Clean air advocates say air quality will be severely harmed if the White House succeeds in ending the waiver California was granted by the newly minted Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

“Many people’s lives, many people’s health is going to be at risk because of the freezing of the emissions waiver, which is a direct attack on California’s authority,” said Chris Chavez, the deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, a California-based environmentalist nonprofit group. “California has committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by certain dates and certain benchmark levels, and that is going to be far more difficult without those clean car standards.”

-Video by Kyla Wilcher/Cronkite News

Experts say there are simpler ways to help fix climate change, particularly using less energy from fossil fuels. Suzanne Paulson, director at UCLA’s Center for Clean Air, said although much has been done, the waiver was a safety net for California skies.

“There are always further steps that can be taken to clean up the air more. Historically, one of the dominant sources was cars and trucks on the roadways,” Paulson said. “Partly through the waiver, we have set California-specific emissions controls that have served to clean up the air tremendously.”

Arizona struggles with poor air quality, too, according to a recent ranking from the American Fitness Index. All 10 of the worst cities for air quality in America are either in Southern California or the Phoenix area.

Chavez said he thinks many other states “are watching with concern because ultimately this will become a major legal test of states being able to act independently of the federal government to respond to local needs.”

California’s independent streak on regulation began in 1947, when Los Angeles became the first city in the country to implement local air pollution regulators. They were deemed necessary because After World War II ended, the West Coast’s aerospace industryand other manufacturing plants boomed, which resulted in much more air pollution.

Congress passed the federal Clean Air Act in 1970 to protect public health and public welfare and to regulate emissions of hazardous air pollutants for all 50 states. That same year, California was granted a waiver by the EPA, allowing it to set emissions standards more stringent than federal standards.

By 1984, the state began requiring every vehicle on the road to pass what became known as a smog check, to keep high-polluting cars off the road. Automakers responded by building vehicles specifically for California buyers, and over the years, 13 states adopted the higher standards. They will be affected by the waiver’s revocation, too.

But those standards were under attack again this week, when the Sacramento Bee reported a letter sent from the EPA to California’s chief air quality regulator threatened “to cut federal transportation funding from the state as punishment for not submitting timely pollution-control plans.”

The letter – which also said California has “the worst air quality” in the country – came in response to California having “backlogged and unapprovable” reports that did not meet the EPA’s demands for proof of compliance with the Clean Air Act.

“We’ve done all of the stuff that’s easy many years ago, we’ve done lots of stuff that’s hard as well,” said Paulson of UCLA. “Finding additional controls that will bring us to meet air quality standards is a huge challenge even without this additional tool taken away from our tool kit.”

In a press conference last week, Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, spoke about why the rollbacks pose threats for the state and the West Coast.

“Standards are necessary to protect the public health and welfare,” Nichols said. “We actually need these extra-clean cars in order to meet the health standards that are set by the federal government.”

What isn’t clear is whether the lawsuit – which also was joined by Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C. – will outlast the administration it targets.

“We are still looking at a few years down the line for everything to be settled, in the best-case scenario,” Chavez said, referring to the 2020 election. “If President Trump gets re-elected, that will be a tougher issue. It could get (dragged) out well into his second term.”

Long Beach’s Coast is Polluted. This Pile of Gnarly Rocks is Part of the Reason.

LONG BEACH, Calif. – There’s a 2-mile rock wall off the coast of Long Beach that’s been one of the most important — and controversial — pieces of infrastructure in Southern California for the past 70 years.

The barrier is a breakwater, and it was designed primarily to stop treacherous ocean waves from regularly flooding the city’s coastline and destroying property.

It transformed the area from a sleepy beach suburb — and surfer’s paradise — to a bustling port city.

But the barrier also led to widespread trash and pollution along the beaches, fueling an ongoing debate about the environmental costs of development.

Detail of the Long Beach breakwater. Photographed on April 26, 2019 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by James Bernal/LAist)

For decades, environmentalists, homeowners, and city officials have sparred over what to do with the breakwater. But that fight is now coming to a head.

In 2016, the city of Long Beach and the Army Corps of Engineers — the agency that has jurisdiction over the breakwater — commissioned a study to determine whether it would be feasible to modify the breakwater in some way.

That study wrapped up late last year, and came up with six different options (you can read about all of them here).

Essentially, they boil down to three approaches: leave the breakwater as it is, create deep notches to allow some waves through, or plant marine vegetation to help clean up the water.

Both the city and the Army Corps of Engineers are expected to select the option they prefer sometime this summer, though officials presented an update on June 25th.

But whatever both sides choose, it will have to strike a balance between protecting property and revitalizing the local ecosystem.

“We have to be guided by the science of it,” Mayor Robert Garcia told us in April, “Not just by what we want, or what we think is best.”

The Original Surf City

Early 20th century postcards show large waves and an active beach culture in Long Beach. That mostly died after the construction of breakwater. (Courtesy Curt Teich & Company, Chicago)

Judging from historical data and archival photographs, waves that once reached Long Beach could swell up to six feet high, comparable to some areas farther down the coast in Orange County.

That made it a choice spot for the first generation of surfers on the West Coast.

“Before Huntington Beach was Surf City, Long Beach was Surf City,” said Craig Hendricks with the Historical Society of Long Beach. “The city’s nickname was ‘Queen of the Beaches.'”

But that swell came at a cost. Neighborhoods built close to the shoreline, especially the downtown area, were subject to flooding from storm surges.

Once the breakwater went up, the waves virtually vanished. The occasional big set can that sneak through, but you’d be hard-pressed to find waves any higher than 2 to 3 feet.

A few surfers paddled out last October to take advantage of a rare window of swell generated by the remnants of Hurricane Sergio.

Video courtesy

Nevertheless, stopping wave action allowed development to continue in seaside communities like the Alamitos Peninsula, and the breakwater continues to protect billions of dollars worth of private and city property from the ocean’s destructive power.

But environmentalists argue that it does that job a little too well.

More Harm Than Good?

A pile of debris raked up by Long Beach city maintenance crews at Granada Beach, April 2019. (Photo by Lita Martinez/LAist)

While groups like the Surfrider Foundation have fought for years to bring down the breakwater and return Long Beach to its former glory, they also argue that it’s contributing to the city’s ongoing pollution and trash problem.

Most of it comes directly from the LA River, which funnels tons of debris downstream. And because the breakwater cuts off natural ocean circulation, much of that refuge ends up lingering close by.

Trash-collecting booms have been in place at the mouth of the river since the 1990s, but according to the latest city budget, maintenance crews raked up over 2,100 tons of trash from the city’s beaches in 2017 alone.

And that’s just the stuff you can see.

Turbid water flows from the LA River into Long Beach. (Photo courtesy Sergey Gussev/Flickr)

While many areas of Long Beach regularly receive A or B grades for water quality from the environmental watch group Heal the Bay, that’s because those tests only look for fecal indicator bacteria and other harmful organic substances.

But those grades become D’s or F’s when it rains, or when there’s a sewage spill somewhere upriver.

State water officials have also found traces of pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals in sediment in the city’s inner harbor area.

An Unlikely Marine Habitat

Sandy Trautwein of the Aquarium of the Pacific collects urchins from the base of the Long Beach breakwater. (Photo courtesy JJ Soski/Aquarium of the Pacific)

Despite its detrimental effects on the environment, the breakwater has gradually become a fixture in the local ecosystem.

Because the seafloor in the San Pedro Bay is mostly a featureless, sandy bottom, the breakwater acts like an artificial reef, attracting several local species of marine animals.

The structure gives this wildlife a place to feed, breed, and rest, and is now home to a variety of seabirds, fish, and invertebrate species.

“Many of these animals wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the breakwater,” said Sandy Trautwein, vice president of husbandry at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Juvenile gorgonians growing at the base of the Long Beach breakwater. (Photo courtesy JJ Soski/Aquarium of the Pacific)

The abundance of life here makes it a popular spot for local fishermen and freedivers during spiny lobster season.

The breakwater is also a prime spot for marine vegetation.

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Aquarium staff make frequent trips to the structure to collect kelp and algae, which they use to feed many of their exhibit animals – including the broodstock of their white abalone restoration project.

It now seems this vegetation could be key to restoring the local ecosystem, giving the breakwater a new role in the process.

A Little Kelp Goes a Long Way

JJ Soski shows off a feather boa kelp sample they brought up to the surface after scuba diving along the Long Beach breakwater. (Photo by James Bernal/LAist)

One option in the breakwater plan calls for planting kelp and eelgrass beds, along with installing artificial reefs for oysters and other bivalves.

Biologists consider these organisms “ecosystem engineers” because of the way they can modify or maintain the surrounding environment.

And in this case, they act as a sort of underwater clean-up crew.

Kelp, for instance, is a primary food source and habitat for many fish and invertebrate species, but it also acts as a carbon sink. In other words, it can absorb and recycle dissolved carbon dioxide, which causes ocean acidification.

Eelgrass has similar properties, and it’s also proven useful for stabilizing shorelines and clarifying water.

A round ray swims through a patch of eelgrass at a shoreline restoration site in Newport Beach, Calif. (Photo courtesy Orange County Coastkeeper )

Oysters are especially good at scrubbing out impurities.

“They’re filter feeders, which means they feed through taking in water,” said Katie Nichols with Orange County Coastkeeper, an environmental group that conducts similar restoration plans. “They can filter several gallons in a matter of hours.”

Timelapse Video courtesy Oyster Recovery

But there’s a hitch.

Restoration vs. Enhancement

Before the breakwater was built, the East San Pedro Bay wasn’t a hot spot for many species of marine life. Bottom-dwellers and pelagic fish like mackerel may have been the only animals that lived here full-time.

And it’s that detail that’s made some environmentalists skeptical about the kelp and reef restoration options.

“The only thing that used to be here [in Long Beach]….was a sandy beach with waves,” said Seamus Innes with the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “So we fully support restoration of what was here – which was that.”

In other words, patches of kelp, eelgrass, and oyster beds, didn’t occur here naturally, so technically, it might be a stretch to call it “restoration.”

“It’s not necessarily restoration to put in a Disneyland-type, non-native habitat,” said Orange County Coastkeeper senior staff attorney Colin Kelly, who is also a member of the Long Beach Marine Advisory Board.

Kelp floating by the Long Beach breakwater. (Photo by James Bernal/LAist

Surfrider argues that it’s actually an enhancement of the breakwater — something the Army Corps of Engineers is not allowed to do (they’re only allowed to do repairs and restoration) — and told us that if this scenario comes to pass they might consider legal action.

Whatever the city and Army Corps decide could have a profound impact on L.A. County’s second largest city as it strives to become greener, sustainable, and more resilient to the effects of climate change.

This story also aired on KPCC. You can hear those segments by clicking the links below:
Part 1: More Than Just a Pile of Rocks
Part 2: Protection vs. Pollution
Part 3: The Decision That Could Radically Clean Up Long Beach

Poop on Public Lands Prompts Feds to Clamp Down on Dispersed Camping

MOAB, Utah — About 40 miles north from the tourist hordes in town and set against a backdrop of tan clay and red mesas, the vista looked primed for a nature magazine cover shoot: early afternoon, the desert bloom in full force, awash with purple and yellow flowers. Quiet.

But it wouldn’t stay that way for long. As the day wore on, the empty desert area known as Klondike Bluffs became crowded with retrofitted vans and mountain bike-toting Subarus, all hunting for the picture-perfect place to camp — for free — for the weekend.

James Gustine and his wife, Jamie, were relaxing in a pair of folding chairs as their children played atop a nearby mesa. They counted themselves lucky because they snagged a spot that morning before the crowds arrived.

“Camping in Moab is just brutal,” Gustine, of Durango, Colo., said. “Just getting a spot can be full-on competition. It didn’t used to be this way.”

A decade ago, the public lands surrounding the town of Moab were known as a quiet spring break destination for mountain bikers and climbers in the region — the kind of place where a visitor could roll in on a Saturday and not see many people.

But last year, more than 2.9 million people visited the public lands stretching from Moab to Bears Ears National Monument south of here. Across the region, low gas prices, a population rise in the West and a strong U.S. economy appear to be driving more people to visit outdoor meccas like Moab, Jackson Hole, and Fruita, Colo. This is causing problems for the federal government because many of those visitors practice dispersed camping.

Human feces doesn’t decompose as quickly in arid country as it does in wetter environments, such as forests. (Art by Renee Bright/KUER)

Dispersed camping is a long-held tradition of the American West — going out to remote places and putting down stakes. No toilets, no electrical hook-ups, and no running water. Gustine and his family love it.

“It’s free. We get away from the crowds. The dog can run around,” he said. “Just a little more space really.”

According to the Bureau of Land Management, more than 90% of the Moab field district is open to dispersed camping. But many of those spaces are in more remote, off-road locales where the terrain demands a good pair of hiking boots to arrive at a camping destination. That means the less remote areas — closer to popular hiking and biking trails — are becoming crowded. On the weekend the Gustines were camping, they were surrounded by black, live-in vans and trailer campers.

“It takes away from the experience,” Gustine said. “I don’t come out here to be around huge crowds. That’s not the reason I’m out here.”

Growing crowds aren’t the only issue causing headaches, though.

About a half-mile away from where the Gustines are camping, Lisa Bryant, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, was stooped over some dirty paper towels half-buried in the sand. She hoped they had simply escaped from someone’s picnic.

“But the way they are wadded up and stuffed into the dirt, I’m not going to pick it up,” she said.

Bryant believed those paper towels were used as toilet paper. Improperly buried waste has become a big problem as more dispersed campers come to public lands, especially in the desert.

Lisa Bryant, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, cleans up some improperly buried toilet tissue in a dispersed camping area near Moab, Utah. (Photo by Nate Hegyi/KUER)

Human feces doesn’t decompose as quickly in arid country as it does in wetter environments, such as forests. If cat holes are too shallow or a dispersed camper doesn’t carry their waste out, it can contaminate nearby water supplies and lead to unsanitary conditions. Plus, it’s gross.

“You don’t want to be camping near this,” Bryant said. “You don’t want to be experiencing this as part of your public lands, right? That’s not cool.”

People are doing other ignorant things, such as illegally driving off the road to find quiet spots to camp. Bryant pointed at a tire rut that had crushed some plants.

“This is just resource damage,” she said. “The soils are compacted now. It’s harder for the plants to get in and grow.”

From Free To Fee — Impending Restrictions On Dispersed Camping

Trampled vegetation, improperly buried human waste and growing crowds have all spurred the Bureau of Land Management to propose restricting some dispersed camping areas near popular trails in the region and introduce managed camping sites instead.

In Moab, for example, the agency has long-range plans to build five new, $20 per-night campgrounds complete with fire rings and pit toilets. Proper campgrounds have helped confine crowds in national parks and other recreation areas, and the money generated from fees is often used for campground maintenance and bathroom cleaning.

But Mike Souza, a retired plumber from California who has vacationed in Moab for 30 years, wasn’t a fan of the idea. He and his two old, red cattle dogs were relaxing in the shade of his camper trailer. The desert is becoming more crowded, he acknowledged, but he believed that clamping down on dispersed camping wasn’t the answer.

“I feel like when they close something down I say, ‘Well, why?’ I pay taxes to be able to use this,” he said.

Creating designated campsites and fee campgrounds will just drive more people to other dispersed camping areas, Souza believes, leading to the same problems there. Instead, people need to learn better camping etiquette.

“They’re not being educated in this way,” he said. “They don’t realize that this could be taken away. They think it’s theirs. They don’t know it’s a privilege. And that’s the problem.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Can the Government be Sued for Climate Change? Appeals Court Hears Arguments

PHOENIX – Federal judges are weighing whether the U.S. can be held legally responsible for failing to protect future generations from climate change. That’s at the heart of Juliana v. United States, in which 21 young people from around the country claim they have a constitutional right to be protected from man-made climate change.

In an unusual pretrial appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit convened June 5, 2019, in Portland, Oregon, and grilled lawyers for both sides. The judges have not said when they will rule.

The lawsuit, which was filed in 2015, claims that for more than 50 years, the U.S. has known about carbon dioxide pollution from burning fossil fuels, and that pollution “was causing global warming and dangerous climate change, and that continuing to burn fossil fuels would destabilize the climate system on which present and future generations of our nation depend for their well-being and survival.”

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Groups that have filed briefs in support of the suit include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Thoracic Society, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association and the League of Women Voters.

The suit calls for several changes, including declaring unconstitutional a section in the Energy Policy Act that allows for “fewer restrictions on certain natural gas imports and exports.” The defendants also want a plan in place to “phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2 so as to stabilize the climate system and protect the vital resources on which Plaintiffs now and will depend.”

Julia Olson, executive director of Our Children’s Trust and chief council representing the youth, told the judges the case should be allowed to go forward because the government has deprived the young plaintiffs of their Fifth Amendment rights to “life, personal security and family autonomy.”

Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Clark argued that the suit should not go to trial because it was a direct attack on the separation of powers and a “direct assault on constitutional design.” The government, he said, contends there is no “fundamental constitutional right to a ‘stable climate system.’”

Judges Mary H. Murguia and Andrew D. Hurwitz of the 9th Circuit and District Judge Josephine L. Staton of the District of Central California presided over Tuesday’s hourlong hearing.

The plaintiffs’ argument

Hurwitz questioned Olson on whether a failure to act by the government was tantamount to a state-created danger.

Olson maintained that although the Fifth Amendment did not allow her clients to “claim for pure inaction,” the government was complicit in climate change by allowing fossil fuels to be extracted from public lands, which she claimed are the source of almost 25% of U.S. emissions.

Hurwitz also challenged Olson on her claim that although “the court does need to say there is a constitutional right at stake” the court “doesn’t need to find it because it is in the Constitution and the Fifth Amendment.”

“You’re arguing for us to break new ground,” Hurwitz said. “You shouldn’t say this is an ordinary suit and all we have to do is follow A, B and C and we get there. You’re asking us to do a lot of new stuff.”

In her closing remarks, Olson compared climate change legislation to the questions of racial and sex discrimination that defined constitutional law in the 20th century.

“When our great grandchildren look back on the 21st century, they will see that government-sanctioned climate change was the constitutional issue of the century,” Olson said.

The Defendant’s Argument

Hurwitz challenged Clark with a hypothetical, asking whether the courts would have no standing in a case in which the federal government declined to act against raiders from Canada cross the border to kill children in the Pacific Northwest.

“If the executive branch decided not to act, the plaintiffs would now have no option but to die?” the judge asked.

Clark warned there would be profound effects on the whole legal system if the suit succeeded.

“You can take the right that they are trying to seek and fashion a whole bunch of new rights,” Clark said, providing his own hypothetical wherein people dying of heart disease could sue the government for not encouraging exercise enough.

One Arizonan’s Push for Justice

One of the young plaintiffs is Jaime Lynn Butler, 18, the daughter of state Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai. According to Butler’s profile on Our Children’s Trust’s website, she has been working to protect the Earth since she was 4.

Butler grew up on the Navajo Reservation and “sees firsthand the cultural and spiritual impacts of climate change, as participating in sacred Navajo ceremonies on the reservation is an important part of Jaime’s life, and climate impacts are starting to harm the ability for Jamie and her tribe to participate in their traditional ceremonies,” according to the site.

“My favorite thing in life that all kids should have is a creek, or a lake, and a forest and lots of pets,” Butler said in a video by Our Children’s Trust. “That’s what I hope every kid could have.”

Butler began her environmental activism in elementary school, first writing a letter to then-President Barack Obama about the Arctic Refuge in 2011, according to the video. Butler kept writing and, after six letters, received a reply from him urging her to stay involved with her efforts.

“I hope that the Earth is the same way it is now, instead of being hotter,” she said at the close of the video. “That’s what I hope for the kids when I am older.”

The Legal Path Ahead

Kirsten Engel, a law professor at the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona, described the plaintiffs’ argument as a “very broad constitutional argument” that climate change is interfering with their liberty.

The young people also “have an argument based on something called the public trust doctrine,” she said, “which is basically that the federal government, as well as the states, have sovereign rights over some of our natural resources that are open to the public.”

The plaintiffs contend the government has “essentially taken these away and harmed them,” Engel said.

The federal government, she said, is “really just trying to get this lawsuit out of the courts,” by challenging the plaintiffs’ constitutional requirements to demonstrate “the requisite degree of immediate harm.”

“It’s usually pretty an exacting test, ” Engel added. “You have to show that you are being currently, immediately and concretely harmed by the defendant, and that the defendant has basically the power to remediate your harm.”

Juliana v. United States is part of a long history of environmental law in the courts. Before the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, Engel said, fossil-fuel companies, automakers and other polluters were sued for “creating a nuisance.”

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That changed, she said, with the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972, which made Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency responsible for protecting the environment and essentially preempted action on polluters within the courts, whether the environment was protected or not.

In other “enormous environmental threats,” such as the depletion of the ozone layer, Engel said, the government did act by amending the Clean Air Act to phase out chlorofluorocarbons. In the case of climate change, the scale is much larger.

“You could argue it’s an unprecedented problem,” Engel said. “And it’s unprecedented that our political branches are not acting on it.”

If the lawsuit moves forward, Engel, who is also a Democratic state representative from Tucson, said the youth will have their day in court, which will allow them to present evidence.

“I have to say, I’d just love to see that,” she said. “I think we could learn a lot from that, as we hear from the experts that they’re bringing in.”

On the other hand, if the court decides to “shut this down entirely,” Engel predicts “less sweeping efforts in the courts” from environmental activists, with more of a focus on challenging Obama-era environmental protections rolled back by the Trump administration.

“And probably a lot more action from state and local governments,” she added.

While Colorado is Ready For More Renewable Energy, the Grid Isn’t — For Now

DENVER – By 2030, Colorado plans to cut the emission of climate-warming pollution by 50 percent. By 2050, it will be 90 percent.

That means more of the state’s energy will have to come from renewable energy, up to 100 percent by 2040, according to a vision laid out by Gov. Jared Polis.

One big hurdle stands in their way: The system of wires that stretches from power plants to energy users. The grid was never designed to handle the more fluctuating energy renewables provide and energy providers worry that all that new clean energy could test its limits.

“We’re going to need to have a lot of changes in the system to make a very high penetration renewable system work,” said Richard Sedano, president and CEO of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit focused on the clean energy transition.

That’s because much of the national grid is old, some of it by more than 100 years, and splintered into local and regional sections that don’t connect. Early morning solar energy generated in New York can’t efficiently move west to coffee machines and laptops in Colorado or California.

One National Renewable Energy Lab study imagines a possible fix: high voltage direct current transmission lines that quickly move renewable energy to parts of the country that need it. Right now, just a few such “express train” lines exist in the country. Permitting constraints and cost are two big limitations. The NREL study estimates it would take $70 billion to build such lines. Ambitious climate legislation like the Green New Deal could direct funding for that kind of project, but Congress has steered clear of that kind of investment.

“Generally we don’t get the kind of direction that will motivate these kinds of big picture developments,” Sedano said. With the energy market in flux, private investors aren’t paying for that kind of large-scale investment yet.

That has left any grid improvements to states, cities and local energy providers.

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In Colorado, about a dozen cities and counties have committed to 100 percent renewable energy and the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, plans to generate 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050. That’s forcing the utility to begin to improve its section of the grid.

Xcel is building a system it calls Advanced Grid, which will allow for more customers to attach solar panels onto their homes and provide power to the utility’s system. It will also allow for the two-way flow of information between customers and the company so that appliances could one day take signals from the grid about when to draw power — saving customers money.

Improving the grid may also open up new opportunities. Drake Bartlett, a senior trading analyst with the company, said Xcel will explore ways to share power with markets outside of Colorado. Right now the power it generates in Colorado remains in the state.

“As we move towards a carbon-free grid, we have ideas of where it’s going to come from, how we’re going to get there,” he said. “But there are other parts of it that we don’t know.”

That uncertainty extends to what grid infrastructure improvements will be needed. Inadequate updates to the country’s electric grid now could cost customers later. Worst case scenario, they could lead to brown or blackouts, according to Juan Torres associate lab director for the Energy Systems Integration Facility at the National Renewable Energy Lab.

Colorado Energy Production Estimates 2016 Chart

Without federal guidance, each state has to find its own way.

“You have to work within the constraints of the culture and what the people in the region, what their appetite is,” said Torres. California, which has a carbon-free goal for 2045, is importing some renewables from out of state. Overseeing future grid improvements will be the job of the California Independent System Operator.

The state has already invested billions in updating transmission lines to allow easier exchange of energy into Nevada and Arizona and facilitated quick regional sales of energy using a system called Western Energy Imbalance Market.

Neil Millar, executive director of infrastructure development at CAISO, said it will take a “broad suite” of solutions to update the grid and make a 100 percent carbon-free future a reality.

“Reinforcing those different corridors, and getting the appropriate market structure in place so that people can make the best use of the assets they do have is really playing an important role,” Millar said.

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For Hawaii, which declared a 100 percent renewable goal in 2015, trading wind and solar with other states is not possible due to its island status. Hawaiian Electric Company Senior Vice President of Planning & Technology Colton Ching said the utility is focused on large-scale solar and rooftop solar installations.

Hawaiian Electric estimates it needs to triple the amount of rooftop solar from where it currently stands now to meet its goal. That means getting the grid ready for energy to flow to and from homes, not just to homes as it has in the past.

“We need to get ahead of our own curve and make those circuits ready for two-way power flow in advance of those systems being added,” Ching said.

Boulder resident Jerry Palmer powers up his electric car. His utility, Xcel Energy, is making enhancements to the grid to allow for two way flow of information via the electric grid. (Photo by Grace Hood/CPR News)

Some parts of the system are already ready: On any given day half of Hawaiian Electric’s circuits already push power back onto the grid. But even there, the system will need to be beefed up.

“We’re going to need to enhance the ability of those circuits that already doing two-way power flow so they can do more reverse power flow,” he said.

Ultimately, customers will be the ones who pay for grid updates. That means utilities and states will have to take into account their preferences, attitudes and beliefs. The most challenging of this group will be people like Boulder resident Jerry Palmer, who hopes to one day cut electric company Xcel Energy completely out of the picture.

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Standing in front of solar panels as his electric car charges in his garage, Palmer discussed future plans to add a battery storage system from Tesla.

“I could actually go off the grid, and generate and store that energy right in my own garage,” Palmer said.

Right now that’s an aspirational goal. But if more customers prioritize independence that could create a bigger challenge for utilities in the future: Convincing customers not to leave the grid.

How a Sea Turtle Led an Arizona Company to Make Paper Straws

GILBERT, Ariz. – The push to ban single-use plastics is paying off for a Gilbert company.

When two Intel engineers founded Footprint five years ago, they focused on designing and making paper bowls, trays, cups and packaging. And then a YouTube video caught fire.

Recorded in 2015 by Christine Figgener, a marine conservation biologist, it shows her colleague pulling a plastic straw out of a sea turtle’s nose. (Video contains graphic content and strong language.)

“Unfortunately, I have to say, this is not a super uncommon sight,” Figgener said.

As her video racked up views, Jeff Bassett, senior vice president of marketing at Footprint, said companies asked them to come up with an alternative. So, they started making paper straws last fall and just announced a deal with Wegmans, an upscale grocery chain on the east coast. Bassett said they’ll be used in store delis and sold on shelves at 99 locations.

“Our ultimate goal is to be able to produce 27 million paper straws a day,” Bassett said.

He said Footprint has four production facilities, more than 800 employees and one ocean ambassador — Christine Figgener from the YouTube video. She said Footprint convinced her they had a good product.

Gilbert-based Footprint began making paper straws in 2018. (Photo courtesy Footprint)

“It started to become this thing that a lot of companies claimed to be biodegradable or all this kind of greenwashing vocabulary and it’s not true,” she said. “Here [at Footprint], it is the case, it’s not even a plastic, it’s fiber-based. It’s truly degradable. So, you know, you could throw it on your own compost, you could actually leave it in the marine environment. And, it’s third-party certified, so that’s kind of what I was looking for.”

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Last year, Nature, the International Journal of Science, published a study of ocean debris between California and Hawaii that found 90 percent made up of large pieces of plastics. Figgener said people should remember every river leads to the ocean.

“So that means you might have disposed of your plastic, you know, responsibly, it went onto the landfill,” she said. “But then, the next storm, the next hurricane, the next flood might have just transported it into the river and from there it went into the ocean.”

Next year, Starbucks says it will eliminate plastic straws at its stores worldwide. The change has been challenging for McDonalds. Some customers in the UK and Ireland have called on the fast food giant to stop its roll out of paper straws claiming they “dissolve” in drinks.

Footprint says its straws are engineered to last over days of use and still break down completely within 90 days.

“We actually delivered all the paper straws for the Scottsdale Culinary Festival that was about a month or a month and a half ago,” Bassett said. ”And the straws were very well received at that event. We actually had people there taking surveys on them.”