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The global coronavirus pandemic has inadvertently achieved what state officials have sought to do for decades: It made Californians keep their cars parked. Freeways and highways are clear. And the constant burn of fossil fuels has been markedly diminished.

The statewide stay-at-home order has brought about drastic reductions in air pollution and planet-warming emissions, experts say. The Los Angeles basin, where the term smog was invented, has enjoyed the longest period of good air quality days since 1995, according to a UCLA researcher.

Highway traffic is down by more than half since the start of the pandemic, according to official tallies, and emissions that form smog and soot have been reduced by about the same amount in parts of the state.

For Californians with chronic health conditions, such as asthma and heart disease, the unexpected breath of fresh air is welcome. But to be clear, no one is celebrating. The boon to public health, coming in the midst of a public health crisis, is difficult to measure against the widespread illness and loss of life wrought by the coronavirus.

“There’s no good thing coming out of this. This is not a way we want to see a better environment,” said researcher Jordan Wildish of Earth Economics who created a dashboard tracking worldwide air quality data since the start of the pandemic. “This has been a pretty dramatic and pretty unique event.”

Significant drops in air pollution have been measured across the globe since the start of the pandemic last month, particularly in China, which toggles massive production facilities off and on, impacting worldwide emissions.

But officials caution that any environmental benefit is likely to be temporary. They expect pollution levels to ratchet back up to normal levels once isolation orders are lifted and customary economic activity resumes. Translation: Once this is over, Californians will get back into their cars.

In the meantime, researchers are marveling at the profound change in air quality since mid-March.

Citing data aggregated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor Yifang Zhu said average levels of tiny airborne particles known as PM2.5 dropped from about 16 micrograms per cubic meter to about 12 in the four-county Los Angeles basin after the stay at home orders. She characterized that 25 percent reduction as “significant.”

“We don’t need a pandemic to breathe clear air,” said Zhu. “This should be the air we breathe every day.”

Other measurable pollutants in the area also have plummeted, according to Wildish’s dashboard: Nitrogen dioxide, which can irritate airways and trigger asthma attacks, has decreased 54 percent. It also is a key ingredient of ozone, the main form of smog that blankets much of California.

Other cities with well-documented pollution problems have reported similar improvement. Particulates dropped about 71 percent in Bakersfield in the last 10 days, while nitrogen dioxide dropped 73 percent in Fresno, according to Wildish’s dashboard, which is updated hourly.

California has always operated on a simple calculus: When roads are empty, skies are clearer. According to the state Department of Transportation, “average traffic volumes from the most recent data available (Sunday, April 5) indicate traffic volumes have decreased 51 percent on average when compared to April 2019.”

Transportation is a perennial pollution offender, but experts warn against ascribing too much credit to reduced traffic for the clean air. Weather also is a key factor.

“There’s no doubt there has been some very clean air, but it started before the stay at home orders,” said Philip M. Fine, deputy executive officer of the planning and rules Division for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulates air pollution in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, a region of 15 million residents.

Bands of storms sweeping through the state in the last month have improved air quality dramatically, Fine said, as they always do, with the capacity to cut particulate matter and other pollutants by as much as half.

The coronavirus erupted during breezy and rainy weather, which typically makes for good air quality. “Weather, by far, is the biggest factor in air quality,” he said. Winter usually has the lowest levels of smog, particularly in Southern California.

Still, the role of cars and trucks in fouling the air is undeniable: About 80 percent of smog in California’s atmosphere comes from mobile sources, and of that, the bulk of the pollutants can be attributed to heavy duty trucks, ships and planes.

Fine said that emissions from those sectors have dropped off by one-fifth, tracing the same downward trajectory as the state’s economic activity.

The nexus between poor air quality and poor public health is well known, said Ed Avol, a professor at the University of Southern California, who studies the impacts of air pollution in at-risk populations.

“We know that vehicle exhaust is associated with increased asthma and increased respiratory problems. It affects how well kids’ lungs grow and how they develop,” he said.

In recent weeks, health officials have surmised that people with certain respiratory illnesses and other conditions linked to prolonged exposure to poor air quality are at higher risk to coronavirus.

“Air pollution impacts a body’s ability to defend itself,” Avol said. “In areas where there is more pollution, the virus has a head start. If you are exposed to it, can your body fight it off as well?”

That relationship was underscored this week as researchers at Harvard University published a study showing a statistical link between coronavirus deaths and patients with long-term exposure to pollution, especially fine particles.

Using COVID-19 death reports obtained from more than 3,000 counties across the country, the Harvard researchers overlaid local air quality data and health factors to determine pollution’s role in the patients’ deaths. They reported that in counties with high levels of fine particulates, the increase in the death rate among people who died from the virus was 20 times higher than the rate attributed to the particles for all causes of death.

“A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate,” the authors wrote. The findings “suggest that long-term exposure to air pollution increases vulnerability to experiencing the most severe COVID-19 outcomes.”

A University of California, Berkeley, group has assembled maps that show by county the highest levels of airborne particles and the rates of coronavirus cases. The highest risks were found in Kern and Kings counties in the San Joaquin Valley. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

For 62 years, Teresa Flores lived in a small house across from a railyard in San Bernardino. The smell of diesel fuel permeated the neighborhood, and dust coated cars and driveways. Her neighbors suffered from skin rashes, asthma, cancer and maladies no one could seem to identify.

Flores finally moved to the other side of town. Though she can breathe easier now, she knows there’s no real escape: San Bernardino and Riverside counties have some of the state’s worst air quality, blanketed as they are by the smog that blows eastward from Los Angeles and gets trapped by the San Bernardino Mountains.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District is responsible for regulating much of that pollution, from stationary sources like oil refineries and power plants. With the state Air Resources Board, it also helps inform policy decisions by assessing public health in communities around refineries, factories and railyards.

In early March, the district’s board fired its director of 19 years, Barry Wallerstein, because he opposed loosening state pollution regulations in order to accommodate business interests, according to some board members.

“It’s scary,” Flores says. “I don’t know if the person replacing him has the knowledge of what’s going on in these communities.”

Wallerstein was ousted less than two months after the California Coastal Commission fired its director of five years, Charles Lester. Several commissioners say this was due to his management skills, though others, including Lester, blame it on a power struggle with commissioners lobbied heavily by homebuilders and business developers.

The firings raise questions about the future of California’s environmental regulations, generally considered the nation’s most progressive. Last year, a Republican majority was elected to the Air Quality Management District, and the vote to oust Wallerstein was strictly along party lines. The coastal commission’s vote was less politicized, but Sean Hecht, a UCLA law professor, says, “Many commissioners and board members believe that there is an irreconcilable tension between environmental regulation and jobs.” 

Both agencies wield a lot of power: The Air Quality Management District’s 725-person staff advises a board of 13 politicians and business leaders representing Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. The district helps ensure that Southern California abides by federal Environmental Protection Agency laws, such as the Clean Air Act. Wallerstein made great strides in reducing smog in his tenure: The number of days exceeding federal ozone standards dropped by a third, although some criticized him for not responding strongly enough to the notorious methane leak at Aliso Canyon.

The Coastal Commission’s staff of 163 and its 12 commissioners work to uphold the Coastal Act of 1972, which protects public beaches and habitats along 1,100 miles of coastline. While Lester approved most proposed developments, he also implemented sea-level rise adaptation planning for local governments and fought to ensure public beach access for low-income communities.

Industry stakeholders often meet with members of both agencies, a fact that has always caused tension. Most recently, in December, the district’s board ignored recommendations and EPA rules to adopt a weaker smog-reduction rule backed by the oil industry. According to Joe Lyou, a Los Angeles board member registered as an independent, the Western States Petroleum Association “basically dictated” the decision from behind the scenes. Wallerstein was one of the most vocal objectors. Less than three months later, however, he was fired, and the board reaffirmed its smog decision.

Now, the question is who will run the agencies and in what direction they will steer them. The Coastal Commission is still seeking a director, but in early April, the Air Quality Management District hired Wayne Nastri, a former EPA administrator under George W. Bush. Nastri was president of a consulting firm, E4 Strategic Solutions, which represented energy companies involved in district decisions. The appointment isn’t surprising, Hecht says: “The current board wouldn’t be selecting someone if they didn’t have a sense they would be more of a hands-off regulator than Wallerstein was.”

Meanwhile, environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice have sued the district over the smog rulings, and state lawmakers are pushing legislation that calls for greater agency transparency. Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone of California’s 29th District sponsored a bill requiring coastal commissioners to identify the names as well as the requests of the developers they meet with, and Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, has proposed adding public health and environmental justice experts to the district.

Grassroots efforts to improve air quality and coastal access also continue. Flores works with the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice to mobilize engagement in the low-income communities most affected by the district’s decisions.

“The laws are not followed through,” Flores says. “They’re always talking about things improving, but when you live in the middle of everything, you see it firsthand. We’re watching (politicians) closely.”

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Residents of Thermal scored a major victory in their 16-year fight for clean air when Riverside County was awarded the funding to pave the roads of 31 trailer parks in the unincorporated communities of Eastern Coachella Valley.

The $4.1 million project is scheduled to begin as early as next summer, and should be completed within two years.

“When cars pass by, they lift a lot of dust, and it affects everyone that lives here,” said Margarita Gamez, a resident who has been active in the grassroots effort since 1997.

In 2008, Pueblo Unido, a community-development corporation, joined the fight for improved environmental conditions in the region’s trailer parks, which are typically situated in areas that lack potable water, sewer systems and basic infrastructure.

Trailer-park residents were the backbone of the organizing effort, and the idea to push for paved roads came from them, said Sergio Carranza, executive director and founder of Pueblo Unido.

“I’m just facilitating the project,” he added

Carranza said that dust and fine-particulate pollution from the unpaved roads are linked to the prevalence of asthma and respiratory problems among the many families who live in the trailer parks. The paved roads will also improve accessibility for residents and alleviate another major problem in these communities: flooding caused by heavy rains.

A Long-Awaited Opportunity

Pueblo Unido saw hope for funding when the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) began accepting proposals for environmentally friendly projects, funded by AB 1318 emission-mitigation fees from the Sentinel Energy Project. Meetings were held in number of Riverside County locations to gather community input—but many in the eastern Coachella Valley felt left out of the conversation.

“There were only public hearings being made in the western Coachella Valley,” said Carranza. “We (Pueblo Unido) made sure that the eastern Coachella Valley was taken care of, too.”

Pueblo Unido received backing for their roads proposal from Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, who introduced AB 1318 in 2009, and Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who co-authored the bill when he was a state senator. As a result, county officials and held meetings in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“We had a lot of public hearings all over the valley on how this money should be spent. One of the witnesses was a young boy from the eastern Coachella Valley. He had to walk to school every day of his life. He felt that the air quality affected him greatly. (His story) impacted me and other members that are working on this project,” said Benoit, who is a member of the SCAQMD governing board.

SCAQMD, the manager of the mitigation-fee funds, entered into a contract with Riverside County to pave approximately 8.3 miles of unpaved roads within 31 mobile home parks containing 483 mobile-home units.

According to Darin Schemmer, communications director for Benoit, “The actual construction may begin as early as summer 2014. The remaining steps the Riverside County Transportation Department needs to take include completing the design and CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) environmental document, (and) preparing, advertising, bidding and awarding a construction contract.”

The county, in turn, has contracted with Pueblo Unido to continue to be the liaison to the community that came together to make their needs heard.

“I advocated strongly that AQMD must provide technical assistance to grantees, and ultimately, we convinced them to do so. Another thing we did was encourage smaller, community-based grantees, to the extent possible, to partner with agencies that had the resources and capacity to present a strong application,” said Perez. “Such was the case of Pueblo Unido in partnering with Riverside County for the successful paving project.”

"Trail" Would Connect East, West Valley

More than $17 million of the $53 million mitigation fee fund total was awarded to CV Link, a proposed 52-mile multipurpose trail from Palm Springs to Mecca. Tourism leaders aggressively pushed for these funds on the grounds that the entire Coachella Valley would benefit.

Not everyone in the eastern Coachella Valley believes that would be the case.

“The road from Palm Springs to Mecca doesn’t benefit us. It only benefits wealthier communities,” said Gamez, who believes the trail is being geared toward tourists.

Perez, however, said he sees the environmental benefits of both the trail project and the paving project at the trailer parks.

“One of the things we have emphasized from the beginning is the need for an equitable distribution of grant-funding, so that many worthwhile projects and grantees would be able to use their ingenuity and community know-how to address local air quality concerns,” he said.

With the paving project now in place, Carranza said Pueblo Unido would continue listening to and organizing residents of these rural communities, in their quest for a better living environment. Future projects include a water-purification system and the opening of a learning center.

Alejandra Alarcon is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. Brenda Rincon is Coachella Unincorporated’s professional adviser. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit

Published in Local Issues

Initial steps toward building an alternative-transportation corridor for valley residents are being taken—without specifics on a potentially costly variable.

The Coachella Valley Association of Governments, the organization spearheading efforts to construct the Whitewater River Parkway, has secured grants from various sources worth as much as $49.4 million, according to Mike Shoberg, CVAG transportation program manager.

An exact accounting isn't possible, Shoberg said, because the Desert Healthcare District has pledged "up to $10 million." The tally includes a $17.4 million contribution from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which was charged with doling out $53 million in pollution-mitigation fees stemming from the construction of the Sentinel power plant near Desert Hot Springs.

The project, also known as the Parkway 1e11, is envisioned as a 52-mile paved path for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers of small, low-speed electric vehicles. It would wind its way through nine cities, from Desert Hot Springs and Palm Springs in the west, to Coachella in the east.

Last year, CVAG issued a preliminary report on the parkway, with critics attacking several aspects of its proposed benefits as overly optimistic. The report found no insurmountable obstacles to the parkway's construction.

Since then, engineers have been prepping master plans and analyzing the parkway's potential course.

"We're in the design phase right now, basically," Shoberg said.

The biggest question mark hanging over the project, which CVAG estimates will cost approximately $77 million, is how easily and at what price rights of way can be negotiated with the many landowners impacted by its construction. Indeed, last year's preliminary report noted the "complicated land ownership, lease and easement arrangements" posed by the parkway's path, and budgeted some $8.48 million for land acquisitions.

"I've not had the opportunity to review CVAG's estimated cost analysis on this particular component, but, yes, theoretically it could cost more, and only very rarely will it cost less," wrote Gretchen Gutierrez, chief executive officer of the Desert Valley Builders Association, in an email. "The variable is the number of landowners (her emphasis) that would be willing to sell/donate or by some other means have CVAG acquire the necessary parcels so that it is a continuous land mass along the trail plan."

Any landowners who are unable to be located or are holdouts would likely inflate costs, according to Gutierrez.

"If that number of landowners is large, and I suspect it may be given the size and acreage of the overall trail, then, yes, there will be extensive negotiations involved during the entire process of development," she wrote.

CVAG Executive Director Tom Kirk wouldn't comment on land-acquisition specifics, saying they're not in that phase of the plan yet—and probably won't be until well into next year.

"Engineers are doing an extensive review of every square inch to understand ownership issues," Kirk said.

But Kirk did address another issue relating to rights of way: The fact that the trail would cut into tribal lands, adding another layer of complexity to negotiations.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, these lands are held in trust by the federal government, and any agreement on rights of way must be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The department's website advises those wishing to obtain rights of way for transportation projects to allow sufficient time for requests to work their way through bureaucracy.

"Negotiations for right of way over tribal lands have become increasingly complex and often include issues not directly related to the acquisition process itself," the department's website reads. "As a result, some state departments of transportation have encountered increased difficulty in completing the acquisition of right-of-way easements over Native American lands in a timely manner."

According to Kirk, the problems posed by acquiring tribal land were more of "a time-related complication" than a "cost-related" one.

But surely time is money—especially when it comes to transportation projects.

"Time is money—that said, the project is a 52-mile project, and we're not going to construct it in one day," he added. "It'll be done in phases."

Kirk said a small percentage of the parkway would cross tribal lands, and that most—if not all—of that land belongs to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, a CVAG member.

"We've enjoyed a long and positive relationship with them," he said.

A representative of the Agua Caliente tribe, who was away in Washington, D.C., didn't respond to a request for comment.

One more issue with potential monetary implications also relates to safety. At least one critic has asserted that the parkway's course would expose golfing communities—some of which have fairways extending into the Whitewater riverbed—to theft. Kirk said he didn't expect the path to force closed communities to open up.

"There are legitimate concerns about public safety," he said, "and we'll have to address that during the design process."

Kirk said parkway users’ watchful eyes would discourage crime, adding that it was more likely for someone to drive into a community for the purposes of stealing than to scale a wall.

"Putting a 55-inch HDTV into your knapsack and riding away with it on a path is not as practical as driving away with it," he said.

Last year's CVAG report stated that "enforcement of parkway rules will be important for user safety," which Kirk emphasized was oriented more toward enforcing traffic violations than other public-safety concerns.

"Rangers would likely be required to police the over 50 miles or proposed parkway," the report continued.

That may add to the woes of the federal Bureau of Land Management—the agency law-enforcement rangers work for—which has already been stretched thin from budget cuts.

"There are never enough rangers to cover approximately 11 million acres of public land in the Southern California desert," wrote Stephen Razo, director of external affairs for the BLM California Desert District, in an email. Still, Razo added, law enforcement is given a "high priority" when it comes to staffing.

For his part, Kirk again emphasized the importance of eagle-eyed residents packing cell phones.

"I sure hope, frankly, that's not necessary," he said about ranger patrols. "Most trails don't have dedicated rangers—they rely more on a thousand people out there with phones. The more eyes you have in the community, the better."

Published in Local Issues

Duroville is synonymous with abject poverty, disgusting messes, noxious fumes, electrical fires, feral dogs and sewage ponds. In the backyard of the glitzy Coachella Valley, our fellow humans were allowed to live in conditions like those in the slums of what we call Third World countries.

The park was due to be shut down in 2003 for health and safety violations. And in 2007. And again in 2009. On tribal land near Thermal, Duroville belongs to a man named Harvey Duro Sr., a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians.

At one time, almost 4,000 people lived there. The majority of residents are migrant farm workers, picking vegetables and fruit in the nearby agricultural fields. Most of them moved into a new government-subsidized housing development called Mountain View Estates, just a few miles away, at various stages during 2012. There, they can turn on the tap and see clear water, rather than the brown liquid that would leak out in Duroville.

They have air conditioning. The toilets don’t back up. Wires aren’t hanging out in the open, and raw sewage isn’t forming puddles on the streets.

Yet there are still families living at Duroville, hoping to be re-housed. They may be moved by May 2013.

After the majority of families had left, so, too, did the regular services that residents had been paying for. For weeks, the trash was not picked up.

That is where Rudy Gutierrez, a South Coast Air Quality Management District liaison officer for the east Coachella Valley, came in. Together with the Economic Development Agency (EDA), the office of Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, and Burrtec, he organized a community cleanup on Saturday, March 30, to help the remaining residents by hauling off any bulk items they wished to get rid of.

Cleaning up Duroville is a massive undertaking, and this was a great start. There will be more cleanups in the future.

Approximately 120 volunteers came, mostly youth, from all over Coachella Valley. There was a girls' softball team, Kaos from La Quinta, composed of mostly sixth-graders. The boys’ boxing and basketball team from Mecca, the Boys and Girls Club and a variety of high school teams from all over the valley were also there. Some of the school teams were receiving a stipend for their volunteering, to benefit their teams.

I joined the teams and the respective adults, and together, we went around Duroville. We asked residents whether they would like to have any items removed. Burrtec’s large dump trucks would follow us around, and we would gather and place items in the bin. In some cases, the families were there to direct us to what they wanted us to take. In other cases, they had already placed items in their yards. Dust and dirt whirled all around as we picked up items ranging from fridges to tables, chairs to broken toys, broken bicycles to pieces of metal. The kids were motivated to help, but we were all very safety-conscious. The relief was evident on the residents’ faces, the thank-yous loud and clear.

The coach of the girls’ softball team said something very poignant when we spoke about participating in the cleanup. He brought the girls out here to do something as a team, outside of softball, and to let them see how others live. He wanted the young athletes to learn to be appreciative of what one has.

Indeed, it is sobering. No one should have to live like that. No one.

The end of Duroville is nigh. The remaining families are anxious to know when they will be moved, and where they will end up. Most of the residents will end up in homes currently being finished in the Mountain View Estates. Others are unsure what the future will bring. Not all residents will qualify to live in Mountain View and thus are looking for alternatives.

After helping with the cleanup, I can’t imagine anywhere that would not be a step up from Duroville.

Published in Local Issues