We had a lot of rain in February. Not long after the storms passed I took some photos of the LA River along the Glendale Narrows. While it was nothing like the raging torrent it had been a few days before, the runoff from the rains was still flowing freely. It was a great day to take a walk along the river.
Back in February I was at a City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing. I’d come to talk about one of the items on the agenda, but while I was waiting for that to come up, I noticed a group of people sitting together holding signs that said “NO on 7”. These people wanted to voice their opposition to a new distribution center that had been proposed for their community. Logistics REIT giant Prologis was seeking permission to build a 341,000 sq. ft. warehouse with 36 truck loading positions and parking for up to 71 trailers that would operate 24/7. Amazingly, the site they had in mind was right across the street from a residential neighborhood in the Harbor Gateway area.
A long list of speakers got up to talk. First there were the applicants and their reps, all of whom boasted about what a great project this was. There were also a number of union members who came forward to tell the Commissioners that the distribution center would create lots of jobs. And staff from Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s office showed up to speak in support of the project.
But the people who actually live in the community were dead set against it, talking about impacts from diesel truck exhaust, and noise from a distribution center that was going to operate 24/7. They explained to the Commissioners that the site was just across the street from apartments and houses. They pointed out that a healthcare facility, a convalescent home and a public park were all within a few hundred feet of the proposed distribution center. The CPC listened to all this, and then voted to approve the project. While Commissioners Vahid Khorsand and Veronica Padilla-Campos voted against, everyone else gave the distribution center a thumps up, and it passed easily. The final tally was 6-2.
Even though I’d never heard of the project before that morning, it was pretty easy to see that the approval process was a joke. The applicant wants to build a 300,000+ sq.ft. warehouse right across the street from a residential neighborhood. The warehouse will generate hundreds of diesel truck trips every day, and will operate all night long. This is a project that will have major impacts on the surrounding community, but instead of doing a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the Department of City Planning (DCP) allowed the applicant to slide it through with a much less rigorous Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND). In other words, the DCP is saying that even though there could be negative impacts, don’t worry about it, because we can mitigate them to the point where they won’t be a problem.
It’s a familiar game. The City of LA plays it all the time. The DCP lets the applicant run the environmental review process without providing any meaningful oversight. DCP staff will offer some suggestions, the CPC will set some conditions, but the project that gets approved generally gives the developers pretty much everything they were asking for. These days most of the Commissioners on the CPC seem to believe their job is to approve projects. No matter what’s being proposed, the routine is pretty much the same. They listen to testimony, ask DCP staff a few questions, spend a little time haggling over conditions, and then give it a green light. Occasionally, as with this distribution center, one or two of the Commissioners will dissent, but almost without exception the majority gives the proposed project a thumbs-up and the developers and their reps walk out smiling.
But the people who live in the neighborhood aren’t smiling. And they’re not taking this lying down. I contacted one of the residents, Rosalie Preston, to ask if the community was planning to fight the project. She sent me a copy of the appeal they’d submitted. Preston points out that the community is already considered disadvantaged by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) because of its proximity to the 110. The freeway carries hundreds of diesel trucks through the area every day, causing CalEPA to rank it in the highest percentile for pollution burden.
I really hope the appeal will be granted, because the community has already spent way too much time opposing this awful project. But if the appeal is denied and this goes to court, I’ll be laughing my head off on the day the judge hands the City of LA another embarrassing defeat. The City has lost a number of high-profile cases related to development and planning. This will just be one more demonstration of how badly broken the approval process is.
But let’s take look at the appeal, and see why the community has a problem with the CPC’s decision to approve the project….
An EIR, Not an MND
There’s really no question about this. According to State law, an EIR is required if “substantial evidence in the record supports a fair argument that the project may result in significant adverse impacts.” The Prologis Distribution Center will bring hundreds of diesel trucks in and out of this residential community, all through the day and all through the night. Prologis argues that they can mitigate air quality and noise impacts to the point where they’re not significant. It’s not surprising to hear developers make idiotic claims like this, but it’s depressing that the City is happy to take their word for it. The fact that the DCP allowed Prologis to get away with an MND shows just how little they care about how new development impacts LA’s communities.
Diesel trucks emit a range of harmful substances, and the claim that hundreds of trucks will travel through this community every day without having significant impacts on the health of the residents is absurd. Among the components of diesel exhaust are particulate emissions. The California Air Resources Board (ARB) regulates two classes of particulate emissions.
PM2.5: Up to 2.5 microns in size.
PM10: Up to 10 microns in size.
The ARB web site offers this information….
“The ARB is concerned about Californians’ exposures to PM2.5- and PM10-sized particles because of the potential harmful health effects that can result. PM 2.5 and PM10 particles easily penetrate into the airways and lungs where they may produce harmful health effects such as the worsening of heart and lung diseases. The risk of these health effects is greatest in the elderly and the very young. Exposure to elevated concentrations of PM is also associated with increased hospital and doctor visits and increased numbers of premature deaths.”
The consultants who wrote the MND claim that the PM levels residents will be exposed to fall within the limits set by ARB, but the appeal calls this into question. To predict the emissions that will be generated by a proposed project, environmental consultants use a program developed by the State known as CalEEMod. The appellants looked at the numbers used by the authors of the MND for these estimates, and then compared them to the numbers actually given in the MND. “When we reviewed the Project’s CalEEMod output files, we found that several of the values inputted into the model were not consistent with information disclosed in the IS/MND.” The appellants believe that the numbers used by Prologis’ consultants represent only about half of the truck trips the project would generate. This means the actual levels of PM pollution would be double, and the health impacts to the community much more severe than Prologis has stated.
It’s known that former industrial uses on the site left toxic chemicals in the soil, including tetrachloroethylene (a likely carcinogen), trichloroethene (a known carcinogen), total petroleum hydrocarbons and heavy metals. A Phase I Environmental Site Assessment was done in 2016. It concluded that the site was rife with contaminants and recommended additional investigation. Anybody with common sense should understand that there’s no way to talk about mitigating the impacts until all the information is available.
The appeal covers a lot of other issues, but it all boils down to the fact that Prologis isn’t being honest about the impacts that will be caused by the project. And as usual, the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission are letting the developer get away with it. There’s certainly an argument to be made regarding the jobs the project will create, and the increase in economic activity throughout the area. But even if the CPC believes the economic benefits outweigh the health concerns, they’re still required by law to fully assess the impacts and to make every reasonable effort to protect the health of the community. They haven’t done that. By allowing Prologis to use an MND instead of an EIR, they’ve let the developer off the hook and let the community down.
But that’s nothing new. Anybody who’s been following development in LA over the years knows about the cozy relationship that business interests have with City Hall, and by extension, with the DCP. Developers and real estate investors know it’s just a matter of working the machine, and if they play the game right, pretty much anything they ask for will be approved.
City Hall is supposed to protect us. Instead they’re selling us out. The people opposing this project are just the latest victims of the City’s disrespect for State-mandated environmental review. By allowing Prologis to slide through this process without properly assessing the project’s impacts, the DCP is putting residents’ health at risk.
That’s not acceptable. Unfortunately, once again the CPC has ignored the law, and once again residents have been forced to pursue an appeal and possibly a law suit just to protect their community. Once again the City of LA has put the interests of developers over the rights of citizens.
On Tuesday night protesters gathered in front of Glendale City Hall to oppose spending $500 million on rebuilding the Grayson Power Plant. Glendale Water and Power (GWP) has put forward a plan to replace obsolete generating units with newer ones, increasing the plant’s output significantly. The process is called repowering, and the GWP says it’s necessary to provide a reliable supply of electricity for the city.
But there are many who feel that upping Grayson’s output is a bad idea, since it means a big increase in the plant’s fossil fuel consumption. Debate over Glendale’s plan has been intense, with environmentalists claiming that the GWP has failed to explore clean energy alternatives. They point out that repowering Grayson would mean significant increases in CO2, ozone and particulate emissions.
The Grayson plan was on the City Council’s agenda that night, and council members would be deciding whether or not to approve the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The rally broke up as the meeting was starting. I went home and watched the proceedings on my laptop. It was long night. I wanted to hang on until the Council voted, but at 10:00 pm they were still taking public comment, and I finally gave up.
The tone of the meeting was civil, but tense. Evan Gillespie spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, and he questioned some of the claims made by GWP. The utility had initially said that Grayson needed to produce 250 megawatts or there was a danger of power shortages, but then later said they might be able to do with less. He also was skeptical of the claim that the cost of the current plan wouldn’t mean raising rates down he road.
Angela Johnson Meszaros, a staff attorney with Earth Justice, stated that the EIR had serious problems. The EIR says that the project’s emissions woudn’t be significant because of offsets provided by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). How does this work? Polluters can bank credits for emissions they don’t produce, which in turn can be traded to polluters who produce more than they should. But wouldn’t Grayson still be pumping a lot of dirt into the sky over Glendale? You bet, and Johnson Meszaros pointed this out. The idea that emissions offsets will somehow even things out across the LA area sounds good in theory, but if you live anywhere near the power plant you’ll still be breathing a lot of dirty air. She also said that the biggest problem with the EIR was that it didn’t present enough viable alternatives, especially with respect to clean energy.
Like I said, I bailed before the end of the meeting, but this morning I sent a message to the folks at Stop Grayson Expansion. They responded with the news that the Council voted 4 to 1 to put a hold on things for 90 days and issue a Request for Information (RFI). This means they’re going to look for alternative solutions for Glendale’s energy needs, including clean energy options. Stop Grayson had been hoping for an independent study of possible alternatives, but they believe that if the RFI is prepared carefully it could be a step in the right direction.
Bottom line, we need to get away from fossil fuels. This isn’t going to happen right away, but it’s never going to happen if we don’t push aggressively for alternatives. Thanks to all those who showed up at the rally on Tuesday, and thanks to all the groups who worked so hard to change the discussion about Grayson. This isn’t over yet, but things are looking a whole lot better.
The City has a problem. The Urban Forestry Division (UFD) has scores of trees sitting in boxes in storage that it can’t plant. Why is this? In large part it’s because when developers remove trees to build projects, they agree to replace them by purchasing new ones for the City to plant elsewhere. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, the UFD has no staff to do the planting. And worse, when trees are stuck in boxes for long periods of time, their health declines, sometimes to the point where they’re not viable any more.
Actually, the City has an even bigger problem than this. We’re losing a huge chunk of our urban forest. Years of dry weather has already impacted the health of thousands of trees in the LA area, but now there’s a worse threat. A beetle called the shot hole borer has come to the region. It nests in trees and in the process often kills them. The die-off has already begun, and if it continues at its current pace we can expect to lose millions of trees throughout Southern California over the next several years. This isn’t just a matter of erasing pretty landscapes. As a result of this massive reduction of our urban forest, there will be impacts to our water resources, our air will be dirtier, and our cities will grow hotter than they are already.
So you’d think we’d be doing everything we can to protect the trees we’ve got. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Aside from the natural threats to our trees, development is taking a toll on the urban forest. City Hall is pushing hard to boost construction of housing and hotels, as well as office and commercial space. Which brings us back to the first point. Developers generally want to squeeze as much square footage as they can out of a project. Often they ask the City to reduce required setbacks, or even let them build right out to the property line. In many cases they also ask the City to reduce the requirements for open space. The Department of City Planning (DCP) is usually pretty generous in granting developers’ wishes, especially if it’s a housing project that includes some affordable units.
To give you an idea of how bad things have gotten, let’s talk about the City’s Protected Tree Ordinance (PTO). Some species are considered so important that we should afford them special protection. A while back the City Council approved the PTO in order to prevent their removal except under extraordinary circumstances. So how’s that working out? Not so good. In November of last year Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin introduced a motion to strengthen the ordinance. Here’s a quote.
”Unfortunately, trees are not being adequately protected and departments are not working well together to protect them. Trees are being cut before development permits are applied for, trees are not being protected during construction activities, and building permits are routinely issued without the Department of Building and Safety being aware of the presence of protected trees on the affected properties, all resulting in an accumulating net loss of trees, tree canopy and the accompanying ecosystem services across the City.”
This is serious. We need trees. Our water resources are increasingly stressed. LA’s air quality ranks among the worst in the nation. And temperatures in the city continue to rise. A robust urban forest would help us deal with all of those problems, but instead of enhancing our tree canopy we’re cutting it down.
The reason I’m bringing all this up is that there’s a proposal before the City right now to allow developers to fulfill the requirement for replacing trees simply by paying a fee. For new projects that remove trees, the City would calculate the required number of replacements (usually at a ratio between 2 to 1 and 4 to 1), and then bill the developer for in-lieu fees of $2,612 per tree. This amount would cover the cost of procurement, planting and providing water for three years.
At first glance, this might look like a good deal. The UFD doesn’t have staff to plant the replacement trees it’s been receiving, and storing them for long periods of time impacts the trees’ health. There apparently has been talk of restoring some of the UDF’s funding in the City’s next budget, which could lead to the hiring of personnel to plant trees. But that’s definitely a roll of the dice, since LA is struggling with a structural deficit, and for years now its budgets have been held together with scotch tape and bubble gum. Many City departments suffered staff cuts during the recession, and they’re all lobbying to restore those positions. So without any certainty over staffing for the UFD, the in-lieu fee probably seems pretty attractive, since the cost of planting and watering is built in. The City is outsourcing a lot of work already, and it could just hire a contractor to do the job.
But really, there are a number of problems with just charging an in lieu-fee….
First, it makes it even easier for the DCP to allow developers to do away with trees. If, in theory, all the trees that are removed will be replaced at a 2 to 1 ratio or better, and if the money collected includes planting and watering, then why would they hesitate to reduce setbacks and open space? Let the developers do whatever they want! Problem solved. But in reality, we have no guarantee that this system will work as promised. Think about it. Supposedly the current system of requiring developers to replace trees was going to solve the problem. And what actually happened? We have a lot of trees sitting in City-owned storage areas. Some have been sitting in boxes so long that they’re no longer viable. And at the same time developers have been cutting down trees and putting hardscape in their place.
But the City would certainly spend the money they collect. Right? Not necessarily. You may recall that back in 2015 City Controller Ron Galperin did an audit of fees collected from developers. He found $54 million that had been sitting in City-controlled accounts for at least three years. This money had been collected, but it hadn’t been spent. Unfortunately, City Hall isn’t always great about following through.
Second, while charging the in-lieu fees may lead to a better replacement rate in the future, there’s no guarantee that the City will do anything about the trees the UFD currently has in stock. If the budget for the next fiscal year doesn’t include funds for additional staff, these trees could easily sit in storage until they die. It’s been suggested that non-profits could step in to do the planting. If that’s a possibility, why hasn’t it already happened?
Third, and most important, this is not a solution, it’s a quick fix. In order to find a solution, you have to first identify the problem, and the City hasn’t done that. It’s proposing in-lieu fees as a way of replacing trees that are cut down for development, but that’s really just one aspect of the situation.
The real problem is that we’re facing a potentially devastating loss of our urban forest.
If we fail to maintain our urban forest, our air quality will suffer, our water quality will be diminished, and LA will continue to grow hotter than it already is.
LA needs a comprehensive, holistic approach to managing our urban forest. We must do a complete inventory of the city’s tree canopy, and also an inventory of space available for planting trees. We then need to use this data to develop a unified policy based on actual science that will address all aspects of the problem. Rather than coming up with quick fixes to deal with tree loss caused by new development or sidewalk repair or insect infestation, we need an integrated approach that brings all these things together.
In other words, we need to gather the data, look at the science, and then develop an actual plan.
If we don’t do this, our urban forest will continue to decline, and we will suffer the consequences.
If you want to take a look at the proposed ordinance, here’s the link.
If you want to contact your City Council rep about this issue, be sure to include this council file number in the subject line.
And to make sure your comments are included in the file, don’t forget to copy the City Clerk.
Finally, if you want to voice your comments in person, this issue will be considered by the Community Forest Advisory Committee (CFAC) later this week.
Thursday, March 1, 1:00 pm
City Hall, 200 N. Spring St, Room 361
[USE MAIN ST. ENTRANCE.]
For more information, follow the link below.
You probably already know that manufacturers use fossil fuel to make plastic. And you’ve probably already heard the horror stories about how plastic waste is trashing the environment. Even if you recycle the plastic you use, remember: It’s not biodegradable. It doesn’t go away.
So there’s only one answer to this problem. We have to use less plastic.
Can you cut the amount of plastic you use by 20%? Can you go even further? You may already be taking reusable bags when you go shopping. You may already be looking for products that use less packaging. And there’s one more step you may want to take, if you haven’t already….
STOP BUYING BOTTLED WATER.
Drinking bottled water is one of the most wasteful things we do as a nation. In addition to producing tons of plastic waste, trucking it around and keeping it cold burn a ridiculous amount of energy. And with rare exceptions, the water you get from your tap is just as healthy as anything you get out of a bottle. If you want to know more, check out this article from National Geographic.
So how about it? Can you use 20% less plastic?
Sure you can.
If you’ve been following the news, you know that the Environmental Protection Agency is dead. Founded in 1970 to protect the environment and human health, the EPA has played a major role in making our air clearer and our water cleaner for over four decades.
But that’s over now. Since the appointment of a climate change denier as the agency’s administrator, the EPA has gutted protections for wetlands, slashed spending on research, and fought to delay enforcement of methane regulations. And this is only the beginning.
So if you believe climate change is real and that we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels, you can’t look to the federal government any more.
Now it’s up to you.
If you own a car, you could start by driving 20% less. If all Americans who believe climate change is real took this simple step, it would send a powerful message to the oil companies and the White House. Ask your boss to let you telecommute on Fridays. Or take transit one day a week. Or talk to your co-workers about carpooling. And there are other things you could do, too. Think about the trips you take when you go out to shop, have fun, or hang with friends. If you really put your mind to it, you might be able to reduce your driving by more than 20%.
And make no mistake. It is down to you. The federal government is no longer protecting the environment. It’s now leading an assault on the environment.
If you don’t take action, who will?
It’s clear that the White House doesn’t care about science. In spite of the fact that the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that climate change is real and that it’s caused by human activity, the current administration has dropped out of the Paris Agreement and is aggressively trying to roll back regulations designed to reduce CO2 emissions.
But just because our government is going in exactly the wrong direction doesn’t mean we have to go along. Millions of Americans understand that we have to reverse the effects of climate change. If Washington isn’t going to act, then we have to act ourselves.
Can you reduce your carbon footprint by 20%? We mostly think of CO2 emissions related to transportation and industry, but there are plenty of other things that contribute to our carbon footprint, from plastic bottles to the appliances we have in our home.
Check out this list from the National Geographic. It offers 14 ways you can reduce your carbon footprint. Take a look and see how you can help. Don’t wait for Washington to change course. Make a commitment to take action yourself.
Fight the darkness. Be the light.