Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Louis Sahagun

South El Monte Discovery Center project rejected for California State Parks grant

California State Parks authorities have rejected a request for a $7-million grant needed to begin construction on a controversial $22-million, 14,000-square-foot Discovery Center at the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary in South El Monte.

"We did not fund that project, " said Sedrick Mitchell, deputy director of California State Parks Office of Grants and Local Services. "You had to be a strong program to get funded, and we believe we did fund the best that the state has to offer."

The grant was sought by the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority, which sees the proposed interpretive center as a gateway to a 17-mile stretch of parks and greenways connecting 10 cities along the Rio Hondo and the San Gabriel River.

The center's was among 307 grant requests totaling almost $1 billion that were competing for about $93 million in available grant money, Mitchell said.

PHOTOS: Whittier Narrows over the years

Opponents decry the size of the center, which would replace dozens of mature trees -- as well as foraging grounds for migrating raptors and critical habitat for the Bell's vireo, an endangered songbird -- with state-of-the-art interactive exhibits and displays including a 7,000-square-foot model of the San Gabriel River with running water.

"Not getting this $7 million blows a big hole in their budget," said Jim Odling, a spokesman for the grassroots group Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, which opposes the project.

In a statement on Friday, Belinda Faustinos, executive officer of the discovery center authority’s parent agency, the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, said the project may no longer be able to meet its construction timeline.

She said the project would "seek other funding avenues." Among them is the California Community Foundation, a charitable organization that handed out nearly $5 million in priority grants to 43 nonprofits serving low-income, underserved communities. It has also contributed $100,000 to help victims of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11.

On Friday, California Community Foundation spokesman Raul Garza confirmed that the organization "has received a request for financial support for the discovery center, and it is under consideration."

The discovery center project was launched in 2001 with plans for a modest interpretive center. Since then, the plans have has mushroomed in size, and several environmental groups have either broken public ties with the center's stakeholders' committee or chosen to remain neutral.

Faustinos, who plans to retire in May, has said her decision to step down from the position was not related to a state Department of Finance audit that said the conservancy and its joint powers entity, the Watershed Conservation Authority, had not exercised adequate oversight of bond funds.

In November, members of the Gabrielino Band of Mission Indians denounced plans to build the center on a site they regard as ancestral lands.

In January, opponents urged the state Nature Education Facilities Program, which oversees grants for such facilities under Proposition 84, to reject the authority's grant application, alleging omissions and misrepresentations.

-- Louis Sahagun

For the record, 5:20 p.m. April 15: A previous version of this post misspelled Sedrick Mitchell's first name as Cedric. It also referred to him as the director of the California State Parks Office of Grants and Local Services. Mitchell is the deputy director. 

Photo: A butterfly lands at the Whittier Narrows sanctuary in South El Monte. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

The elderberry longhorn beetle: a new endangered species battle?

Longhorn beetle A coalition of Central California farm bureaus, flood-control agencies and reclamation districts on Friday filed a lawsuit to force the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist an inch-long beetle that has saddled them with severe land-use restrictions and levee maintenance costs.

The lawsuit points out that the USFWS in 2006 found that the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle was no longer “threatened.” But the federal agency still has not removed it from the list of species fully protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“It’s time to free the beetle and the taxpayer,” said Damien Schiff, senior attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Sacramento on behalf of organizations including the Sacramento Valley Landowners Assn. and the Solano County Farm Bureau.

Pacific Legal Foundation's previous high-profile cases included litigation that forced removal of the bald eagle from the Endangered Species Act because the bird had fully recovered.

Desmocerus californicus dimorphus, which was listed as a threatened species in 1980, spends most of its life in the larval stage inside the stems of its common host plant, elderberry, which frequently grows along the region’s rivers and agricultural levee systems.

Federal guidelines require property owners to avoid harming the beetles by, among other things, building 100-foot buffer zones around bushes near construction and operations sites. Signs must be erected every 50 feet along the edges of such sites, with this warning: “This area is habitat of the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, a threatened species, and must not be disturbed.”

“The issue here,” Schiff said, “is whether we are going to waste federal funds on a species that has already recovered and is threatening human health and safety –- and the regional economy –- by getting in the way of development and levee control maintenance.”

USFWS officials were unavailable for comment.


California farmers, ecologists square off over drinking water pollution

Freeway air pollution linked to brain damage in mice

Rare earths: Time for the U.S. to boost production?

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Valley elderberry longhorn beetle  Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Freeway air pollution linked to brain damage in mice

FREEWAY It is well known that air pollution from cars and trucks on Southern California freeways -- a combination of soot, pavement dust and other toxic substances -- can cause respiratory disease, heart attacks, cancer and premature death.

Now, exposure to pollution particles roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair has been linked to brain damage in mice, including signs associated with memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a USC study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

In a statement, senior author Caleb Finch, an expert on the effects of inflammation and holder of USC's ARCO/William F. Kieschnick Chair in the Neurobiology of Aging, said “You can’t see them, but they are inhaled and have an effect on brain neurons that raises the possibility of long-term brain health consequences of freeway air.”

The study relied on a unique technology developed at USC for collecting particulates in a liquid suspension and recreating air laden with freeway particulate matter in the laboratory, which enabled scientists to conduct controlled experiments on cultured brain cells and live animals.

Exposure lasted a total of 150 hours, spread over 10 weeks, in three sessions per week lasting five hours each.

How can we protect the millions of people who live alongside freeways from this type of toxicity?

In an interview, lead author Todd Morgan, a research professor in gerontology at USC, said, “Our data would suggest that freeway pollution could have a profound effect on the development of neurons and brain health in children and young kids, especially those who attend schools built alongside freeways.”

“So limiting one’s exposure -- especially children’s exposure -- to freeway pollution is essential to control asthma, cardiovascular conditions and cognitive development,” Morgan said.

The study was prompted by earlier research by a separate group in Mexico that noted significant differences in brain samples collected from children and young-adult accident victims in smog-laden Mexico City compared with those in Veracruz, which has cleaner air.

The brain tissue collected in Mexico City showed more extensive inflammation, oxidized DNA and other pathological markers of Alzheimer’s disease, Morgan said.

“As a society, we need to figure out ways to minimize the level of the very, very nasty particulates we are dumping into the air we breathe,” Morgan said. “It’s having terrible consequences.”

Freeway air pollution: court upholds monitoring rules

Los Angeles officials to vote on pollution trading

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: The 405 Freeway. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times   

Freeway air pollution: appeals court upholds monitoring rules

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's caps on motor vehicle emissions. Environmental groups had argued that the regulations failed to address air pollution faced by the 1.5 million people who live next to Southern California freeways.

The San Francisco-based court ruled that the EPA's approval of limits on the amount of motor vehicle emissions allowed in the region were adequate, and California could therefore move ahead with transportation plans and projects.

A lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2008 had demanded a comprehensive monitoring of air quality along freeways, including the 710, where traffic averages 12,180 vehicles per hour -– more than 25% of them diesel trucks.

Of particular concern were measurements taken by South Coast Air Quality Management District monitors that were far from heavily traveled roadways where cancer risks from diesel particulates are greatest.

Federal policy forbids local air regulators, including the AQMD, from using measurements near a known large pollution source, such as the truck-clogged freeway that serves the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, to calculate regional air pollution amounts.

On Wednesday, coalition leaders vowed to continue working for better air quality monitoring near major highways, and cleaner transportation technologies.

"The purpose of the lawsuit was to make sure money is spent to benefit local communities while improving air quality for all Angelenos. Unfortunately the court didn't see it that way," said Jesse Marquez, executive director of the Coalition for a Safe Environment. "Instead of expanding our highways to accommodate more dirty trucks, we should invest in clean, efficient cargo transportation such as Maglev and electric trains."

-- Louis Sahagun

Mountain gorilla deaths linked to respiratory disease in humans

GORILLA Humans have always posed the biggest threat to mountain gorillas, which for decades were poached for trophies and for sale on the world’s wild animal market. One gorilla died in Rwanda in 1992 after stepping on a landmine.

Now, a virus that causes respiratory disease in humans has been linked to the deaths of wild mountain gorillas, according to a study conducted by researchers in Africa and two U.S. universities.

The finding, which for the first time confirms that life-threatening diseases can be transmitted by humans to these critically endangered animals, is of particular concern because the parks where Gorilla beringei beringei is protected in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are surrounded by the densest populations in Africa, the researchers said.

In addition, those nations count on gorilla tourism -- which brings thousands of people from around the world -- to help earn much-needed hard currency to fund local economies and the national parks that shelter the animals.

The researchers are from the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project; UC Davis; the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University; and the Rwanda Development Board. Their study was published online Monday by the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Veterinarians had already noticed an increase in the frequency and severity of respiratory disease symptoms -- coughing, eye and nose discharge and lethargy -- among the total 786 wild mountain gorillas left in the world.

The study focused on a 2009 outbreak among 12 gorillas that was blamed for the deaths of an adult female and a newborn infant. Tissue samples from the stricken animals revealed the presence of nucleic acid from a virus known to scientists as human metapneumovirus.

In an interview, Kirsten Gilardi, assistant director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, said, “We don’t know how or when the virus came into this gorilla population, but we do know it was most recently described as a human virus.”

“These animals are so closely related to us that it is not all a surprise they are susceptible to human
pathogens,” she added. “There are some measures we can take to better protect mountain gorillas from incursions of human infections. For example, in an open-air environment, if people stay seven yards away or farther from a gorilla, it would be far less dangerous for that animal.”


California's valley elderberry longhorn beetle: an endangered species battle.

Flat-tailed horned lizard won't be listed as an endangered species.

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Mountain gorilla mother and infant. Credit: UC Davis Wildlife Health Center

Ethanol will power NASCAR races in Fontana this weekend

ETHANOL If ever there were a sport with dubious eco-credentials, a NASCAR stock-car race would seem to be it. It's about aerodynamics, high-speed crashes and thundering horsepower in 200 mph laps.

But when the green flag drops at the sport's premier Sprint Cup Series at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana this weekend, it will be emblazoned with a logo that says, "American ethanol" -- and every race car and truck will be fueled by a 15% ethanol blend known as Sunoco Green E15.

NASCAR promoters contend that changing to a renewable fuel demonstrates the sport's commitment to the environment while supporting farm country because most ethanol is made from corn.

More than 100 farmers, ethanol producers and seed and equipment makers will be using NASCAR this year to raise awareness of the benefits of E15, which include more horsepower for the race cars as they whip around the track, said Mike Lynch, managing director of green innovation for NASCAR.

"We debuted the use of this fuel at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20, after a lot of work by engine builders to make sure it would work out well," Lynch said."Our high-compression engines run smoother and cleaner with E15 -- like a batter with a perfect stroke."

The renewable fuel is part of NASCAR's ongoing greener strategy, Lynch said. NASCAR already boasts one of the largest event-recycling programs in sports and one of the the world's largest solar-powered facilities at the Pocono Raceway in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

RELATED: EPA's ethanol decision sparks controversy

               Ethanol lobbyists storm Sacramento

               California ethanol producer files for bankruptcy

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Ethanol-powered race car. Credit: NASCAR

Shell is on track to start new deepwater drilling in Gulf of Mexico

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday announced a step toward approval of the first new deepwater oil and gas exploratory drilling plan in the Gulf of Mexico since the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The plan, submitted by Shell Offshore Inc., details how the company aims to meet more stringent safety requirements in its proposal to drill exploratory wells about 2,950 feet beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, roughly 130 miles off the coast of Louisiana, Salazar said in a statement.

The area was originally leased to the company in 1985. “This exploration plan meets the new standards for environmental review and marks another important step toward safer deepwater exploration,” Salazar said.

Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said his agency found no evidence that Shell’s plans would significantly affect the quality of the “human environment.” As a result, the agency determined that an environmental impact statement was not required and issued a “finding of no significant impact,” a step toward final approval of the plan.

Although Shell’s exploration plan will lead to the first new wells in the gulf since the worst offshore oil disaster in American history, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has already approved a number of permits to resume activity in shallow and deep water. The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 workers and spewed more than 200 million gallons of crude into the gulf.

Facing growing pressure from the courts and Congress to speed up the approval process, the bureau has approved a permit for Houston-based Noble Energy to drill a so-called bypass well in 6,500 feet of water about 70 miles southeast of Venice, La.

The new well would track one started in April 2010 but plugged two months later, when the government established a moratorium on deep-water drilling in response to BP's well blowout. Noble's new drilling would go around the plugs to reach the oil.

--Louis Sahagun

Flat-tailed horned lizard won't be listed as an endangered species

Flat-tailed horned lizard  3 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday announced that a squat lizard with dragon-like head spines does not need protection under the Endangered Species Act because its remaining desert habitat in Southern California and Arizona is large enough to maintain self-sustaining populations.

In its fourth withdrawal of a proposal to list the flat-tailed horned lizard since 1993, the federal wildlife agency determined that threats to the lizard including urban and agricultural development, off-road vehicles, military exercises, sand and gravel mining, alternative energy projects and construction of roads and utility corridors "are not as significant as earlier believed."

In a statement, wildlife service spokeswoman Jane Hendron said that, although urban development and energy projects are expected to continue in portion's of the reptile's range, more than 457,000 acres of habitat currently managed under interagency cooperative agreements "provide for the conservation of the flat-tailed horned lizard."

The lizard -- 3 1/2 inches long and a voracious consumer of harvester ants -- once inhabited wide swaths of the Colorado and Sonoran deserts.

Each of the agency's previous withdrawals was successfully challenged in court by conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Horned Lizard Conservation Society.

In an interview Monday, Center for Biological Diversity legal director John Buse, said, "We are skeptical of the service's rational. We are trying to determine whether to push this matter further."

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: A flat-tailed horned lizard. Credit: Jim Rorabaugh / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

California's endangered arroyo toad gets habitat protection

ArroyoToad_JimRorabaugh_USFWS_FPWC The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has finalized designation of 98,366 acres of critical habitat needed by the endangered arroyo toad to fulfill all of its complex life-cycle stages: flowing water, sandy banks and chaparral.

The USFWS also designated 2,347 acres of critical habitat for the thread-leaved brodiaea, a rare Southern California lily threatened by urban development, off-road vehicles, grazing and plowing for fire clearance.

Specifications for the habitat, which hopscotches from Monterey County to San Diego County, were published Wednesday in the Federal Register, concluding a decade-long legal battle between the USFWS and the Center for Biological Diversity over the fate of the toads, which persist in only 23 small, isolated populations.

“This is very important because there has been a catastrophic reduction in habitat for this toad in California,” said Ilene Anderson, a spokeswoman for the diversity center.

Continue reading »

Trees felled around protesters in Arcadia

A prized grove of 179 coastal oaks and 70 sycamores in Arcadia was reduced to stumps, broken limbs and slash piles by mid-afternoon Wednesday, despite a showdown by four tree-sitters attempting to stop bulldozers from clearing the land to make way for muck dredged from a nearby reservoir.

By 2 p.m., more than 30% of the grove near Santa Anita and Elkin avenues had been cleared. Los Angeles Sheriff's Capt. Joe Fennell explained the tactic: "We move all the trees except the [ones] they are in; we hope that is the case," he said. "Then perhaps they'll come down without us having to extract them."

From the backyard of a home adjacent to the work site, six observers watched as deputies surrounded the base of one of the few massive oaks left standing. Two protesters were perched on a platform about 30 feet above the ground, which was little more than bare dirt.

The county Department of Public Works, which owns the property, is preparing the site for 500,000 cubic yards of muck to be dredged from a nearby reservoir that is a key component of the flood-control system for the San Gabriel Mountain foothill communities. It also helps replenish ground water for the cities of Sierra Madre and Arcadia, according to Public Works.

County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who represents the nearby communities, in December negotiated a 30-day moratorium to study alternatives that might spare the trees. The county concluded that its original plan was the most reasonable option and proceeded Wednesday morning.

Tree-sitters, including John Quigley, a veteran of such protests, entered the site at 4 a.m. and remained in the trees as of mid-afternoon Wednesday.

Continue reading »

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