We are finding Jeffrey St. Clair's reflections on the history of the US environmental movement interesting and instructive. St. Clair combines exhaustive knowledge of his subject with a fine, lucid writing style.
The San Joaquin Valley, located between two great environmental glamour zones -- the Pacific Coast and the Sierra Nevada -- has been a privileged position from which to observe the corruptive forces St. Clair describes and ferocious political opposition to any environmental law and regulation. In the Valley, "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) has another meaning: there shall be no Endangered Species Act, no Clean Water or Clear Air acts, no California Environmental Quality Act, and local land-use authorities come up with new theories on how to squelch the laws governing public process like the state Public Records Act and the Brown Act, every time they hire a new legal gunslinger from out of town. Yet, one cannot help but observe that if environmental law and regulation had been followed in the Valley, perhaps six out of the 10 worse unemployment metro areas in the nation would not be located between Stockton and Bakersfield and the Mortgage Bankers Association would not be predicting Rust Bowl-level decay in our neighborhoods and questioning if any recovery is really possible here. Meanwhile, the leaders continue to talk about growth, by which they mean housing growth, population growth, but not job growth, because our leaders are creatures of finance, insurance and real estate special interests entirely. How are we to believe their their policies are any less deluded now than they were during the housing boom that busted?
Badlands Journal editorial board
A Concise History of the Rise and Fall of the Enviro Establishment (Part Two)
How Green Became the Color of Money
By JEFFREY ST. CLAIR
By the end of Reagan’s second term, the big environmental organizations were well-pickled in the political brine of Washington, with freshness and passion drained out.
Early in the 1988 campaign of George H. W. Bush, the Texas transplant attempted to distance himself from the environmental ethos of Reagan, who had said that if you saw one redwood tree you had seen them all. Bush’s strategy of revision was due mainly to the political instincts of Lee Atwater, who closely scrutinized polling data showing that support for green causes cut across class lines: over 70 percent of the voters wanted more governmental action to protect environmental quality.
Thus, Bush proudly claimed that he intended to be the “environmental president.” He went after Michael Dukakis, the governor of Massachusetts and the Democratic nominee, over the dismal condition of Boston Harbor. Bush pledged to support the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, including new provisions aimed at controlling acid rain, and to take firm action to curb global warming. He actively promoted a plan for “no net loss of wetlands.”
Soon after his decisive election, Bush followed up these promises by appointing William Reilly, the first professional environmentalist to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Reilly had been executive director of the Conservation Foundation, a staid environmental outfit founded by Laurence Rockefeller in 1948 to advance nature-friendly partnerships between government and industry.
“I don’t care about the regulations, I want results,” became Reilly’s pragmatic mantra at EPA. In practice this meant that Reilly preferred consent decrees to punitive fines and criminal litigation, and voluntary compliance by toxic industries instead of mandatory standards for emissions. Reilly was also entranced by the notion that economic incentives could replace compulsory regulations for achieving improvements in air and water quality.
Reilly’s primary mission at EPA was to convince his former cohort of environmental executives to get on board the Bush administration’s corporate-friendly overhaul of the Clean Air Act. For help, Reilly turned to Bush’s favorite environmental group: the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a more svelte and modish version of Reilly’s old Conservation Fund, stocked with lawyers, lobbyists and scientists.
Nurtured on generous infusions of corporate grants and donations, EDF (now called Environmental Defense) matured into one of the most influential environmental groups in Washington. Their operations were directed by Fred Krupp for the brawny sum of $125,000 a year. Krupp was known in some circles as the Michael Milken of the green movement, an allusion to the EDF supremo’s tireless promotion of the “pollution trading credits” scheme, which allows industrial enterprises to sell their right to spew toxins to other companies through the Chicago Board of Trade.
Waggish environmentalists dubbed Krupp’s pollution credits “cancer bonds.” For his part, Krupp didn’t have much use for environmental activism, which he saw as tarnishing the reputation of “serious” environmental groups. Krupp liked to proclaim that “what the environmental movement needs is more scientists and engineers and economists.” He preferred to work with such allies of the earth as McDonalds and General Motors, companies which are cordial to the idea that market mechanisms and technology can resolve nearly every environmental dilemma.
It was precisely these kinds of voluntary and market-oriented approaches which had attracted Reilly and Bush to Krupp in the first place. The whole scheme was laid out in a milestone white paper on so-called free-market environmentalism called “Project 88,” which EDF helped to write for Senators John Heinz, the ketchup heir from Pennsylvania, and Tim Wirth, the Democrat from Colorado. This document argued that environmental regulations were financial onerous and often counter-productive. Hurt business, stifle economic growth, Heinz, Wirth and Krupp asserted, and you deflate corporate interest in protecting environmental quality. Such notions derive from the belief that environmentalism is a luxury concern toward which Americans turn their attention only in times of booming prosperity. The rhetoric of this fake construct is that the best way to protect wildlands, air quality and endangered species is to keep big business running in overdrive.
That such ideas took root in an era that saw a steady accretion of environmental catastrophes—from Three Mile Island and Love Canal to Times Beach, Bhopal and Chernobyl; from the listing of the northern spotted owl as a threatened species and the decimation of commercial fish stocks on both coasts to the wreck of the Exxon Valdez—shows how thoroughly accustomed the mainstream greens had become to the enervated political climate of Washington, D. C. Groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and Environmental Defense Fund had lent credence to the notion that environmental quality was a secondary value, that the right to safe drinking water, clean air and functioning ecosystems could be compromised and mediated.
“Project ‘88” became a biblical text for Reilly, and many of its key provisions later resurfaced in the renovated Clean Air Act. Heinz was killed in a plane crash in 1991 and a heft chunk of his large estate went to create the Heinz Foundation, which continues to funnel millions of dollars into green groups that show an understanding deference to the sensitivities of corporations.
* * *
The anti-regulatory fervor of the Reagan era continued to thrived unabated in the Bush administration. One particularly anti-environmental voice was Bush’s budget director, Richard Darman, who recklessly slashed spending for national park land acquisitions and hazardous waste cleanups. “Americans did not fight and win the wars of the 20th century to make the world safe for green vegetables,” Darman thundered in a notorious lecture at Harvard University. In lighter language Darman’s boss, George Bush, lashed out at broccoli, on the grounds that he had been force-fed the vegetable as a child.
Meanwhile, over in the vice president’s office, Dan Quayle was running the White House Council on Competitiveness, a relay station for the complaints of corporate America about the profit-stifling nature of environmental rules. The Competitiveness Council was staffed by a young lawyer from Indiana called David McIntosh, subsequently elected to Congress in 1994, whose primary function was to scrutinize all new federal regulations with an eye toward how much each might impair the operations of big business. “We’re here to listen to the concerns of industry,” McInosh confessed. “The environmentalists have got the EPA as an audience for their complaints.”
A typical example of the Council’s chivalrous defense of picked upon corporations is the case of the Louisiana black bear, an especially rare species that inhabits the backwoods swamps and bayous of the Mississippi Delta. On learning that the US Fish and Wildlife Service might list the imperiled bear as a threatened species, Louisiana-Pacific, Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific asked Dan Quayle’s anti-regulatory shop to intervene, arguing that the protection of the bear would prove a financial hardship to these multi-billion dollar transnational companies. The Council leapt into action. The listing of the bear was delayed for more than two years, while the timber barons clearcut some of the last remnants of the bear’s habitat.
Over at the Department of the Interior, now under the control of Manuel Lujan, the pro-development demeanor of the agency was only moderately less aggressive than during the frenzied years of Watt and his gang. Lujan was a former right-wing congressman from New Mexico with deep ties to the ranching and mining industries. He pushed relentless to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, continued Watt’s drive to accelerate exploratory drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf, and furiously resisted attempts to charge market prices for cattle grazing on public lands, which during Lujan’s tenure amounted to $200 million a year in subsidies to such impoverished public land ranchers as Hewlett-Packard and agribusiness magnate J. R. Simplot.
Under instructions from Bush, Lujan ordered the Bureau of Land Management to fast track the purchase of the Goldstrike Mine by Barrick Resources, a Toronto-based company controlled by financier Peter Munk. The way thus lubricated, Barrick acquired the 1,800 acre gold mine near Elko, Nevada, for the princely sum of $9,500. By the time the mine is shuttered, the Goldstrike will yield an estimated $10 billion in gold. In 1995, in consideration for his favors, George Bush was invited to join Barrick’s board of advisers.
Lujan became the first Interior Secretary to mount a head-on challenge to the Endangered Species Act. Lujan desperately sought to permit timber companies in Oregon to clearcut ancient forest inhabited by the Northern Spotted Owl, which had been listed as a threatened species over the Bush administration’s objections. The Interior Secretary furiously fought the court-ordered listing of the owl, fuming: “If we’ve got a species, I don’t see why we have to save a sub-species like the Northern Spotted Owl. Maybe these sub-species aren’t meant to survive. Maybe they just can’t adapt to their new surroundings.”
In a desperate effort to override the Endangered Species Act’s prohibition against logging the owl’s old-grown habitat, Lujan invoked the so-called God Squad, a death panel of Bush administration appointees which could vote to “sanction” activities leading to the extinction of protected species. Lujan’s God Squad approved the clearcuts, but its action was later overturned by a federal court.
* * *
Lujan didn’t ride into these fraught battles alone. He had plenty of help from the Democratic side of the aisle. Lujan’s most powerful ally was the Washington Democrat Tom Foley, who hailed from the Inland Empire in the eastern part of the state. While serving as Speaker of the House in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Foley was the principal architect of the anti-environmental policies streaming out of the Congress for more than a decade. First as chair of the powerful House Agriculture Committee and later as one of the most autocratic speakers in the history of the House, Foley shamelessly shilled for the timber, mining, aluminum and defense industries, which stocked his campaign war chest with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Foley’s legacy of destruction is written across the landscape of the Northwest: radioactive contamination at the Hanford Nuclear Site; destroyed wildlands in Idaho and Montana; numerous endangered species put in extreme jeopardy, headlined by the Northern Spotted Owl, hundreds of stocks of Pacific salmon and the grizzly bear.
As speaker of the House, Foley assigned key committee chairs to pliable members and dictated the legislative agenda of the House, determining which bills received votes and which languished despite broad popular support.
One of Foley’s biggest and most reliable campaign donors was the Plum Creek Timber Company, a limited partnership which owned 2.1 million acres of timber and was the second largest exporter of raw logs to Japan, China and Korea. Foley voraciously defended Plum Creek’s interests from attacks launched within his own party caucus by Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio and Rep. Pat Williams from Montana, who wanted to stem the flow of log exports and save 20,000 millworker jobs in the Pacific Northwest. Foley threatened to sanction the impudent congressmen and retaliated by refusing to the bring legislation they had sponsored to the floor.
* * *
As the Bush administration staggered to a close, many high-profile environmental issues, from the fates of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, remained gridlocked. But a quiet, vital change had taken place. The core ideas of conservation and protection, that a strong federal regulatory system represented the best way to protect the American environment, was being steadily refuted by the leaders of the environmental movement itself.
Many of the old environmental heroes had moved on to strange new positions. William Ruckleshaus assumed the post of CEO at Browning-Ferris Industries, the nation’s largest solid waste company, and was invited to sit on the boards of timber giant Weyerhaeuser and Monsanto, the agro-chemical company. Lee Thomas, one of Ruckleshaus’ successors at EPA, found an especially remunerative position as an executive in the Atlanta headquarters of convicted federal income tax cheat Georgia-Pacific. Gaylord Nelson, father of Earth Day, joined the board of the Wilderness Society. Donald Ross and Dennis Hayes abandoned the environmental movement for more lucrative positions in corporate philanthropy. The promiscuous Bob Packwood traveled the backroads of rural Oregon trying to salvage his disgraced career by calling for the repeal of the Endangered Species Act. Corporate criminal Louisiana-Pacific (which pleaded guilty to 16 felonies and misdemeanors involving timber fraud) served as a proud sponsor of the 25th anniversary celebration of Earth Day.
To be continued.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book GreenScare: the New War on Environmentalism by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank.
Recession's toll: 1 in 5 houses empty in some Modesto neighborhoods...J.N. Sbranti
They are the most visible face of recession in Stanislaus County.
And there are a lot of them.
Recently released vacancy statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show how prevalent empty homes have become. In some Modesto neighborhoods, nearly one in five housing units were vacant from 2005 through 2009.
In Patterson, Newman and Hickman, about one in eight homes were empty.
"It mainly has to do with the economy," said Deborah Dawson, whose northwest Modesto neighborhood — known as Highway Village — had the county's highest vacancy rate, 19.5 percent. "If you can't work, you can't pay your mortgage. So most people either get foreclosed on or they end up just leaving because they have no choice."
Some abandoned houses become eyesores and community headaches.
"It was a mess," John McLaughlin said about the empty home next to his onStrivens Avenue in Highway Village.
The former owners had refinanced the 608-square-foot, two-bedroom house for more than $150,000 in 2007. But its value plummeted, they vacated, and the 62-year-old home resold last fall for $44,000.
"It's going to be a rental property now," said McLaughlin, noting how the new owners fixed it up. "I'm glad they bought it because it had become a problem."
McLaughlin wasn't surprised the Census Bureau found nearly one in five homes empty in his neighborhood. Since he bought there a decade ago, he has watched house values soar, then crash.
"Some people sold out when the market was high," McLaughlin said. Others refinanced their houses, pulling out equity during the boom years. "A lot of people decided to get the cash. They didn't think there would be an end to it."
Many folks — there and elsewhere in Stanislaus — have moved out the past several years, sticking lenders with unpaid mortgages.
Take, for example, the three-bedroom Highway Village home at 2605 Sparks Way. It sold in 2005 for $303,000, although it has just 1,064 square feet and was built in 1957. A bank ended up acquiring the house last September for $65,000. It remains empty, as a buyer is sought via an online auction.
There are so many unoccupied homes in that neighborhood and others that mail services are affected.
"The postal routes are getting a lot longer because of all the vacancies," said postal worker Terry Holt, who was delivering mail on foot Tuesday in Highway Village. Holt said widespread vacancies mean less mail, less money for the Postal Service and less work for postal workers. That's why routes are getting longer.
The Census Bureau tracks vacancies as part of its American Community Survey. Five years of survey data was released last month on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.
Some neighborhoods don't seem to have a vacancy problem. Southeast Modesto's Dry Creek development, for instance, had less than 1.5 percent of its homes empty, according to the Census Bureau.
Besides providing data for neighborhoods, the American Community Survey also offers demographic details about towns of all sizes.
Among the local communities it identified as having relatively low vacancy rates were Escalon and Ripon, both at 3.7 percent, and Salida at 4.8 percent.
Valley cities among worst for jobs
Federal report includes six San Joaquin Valley metro areas...MARIJKE ROWLAND firstname.lastname@example.org and ROBERT RODRIGUEZ email@example.com
The San Joaquin Valley continues to be at the heart of the nation's unemployment problem.
A report released this week by the U.S. Labor Department shows that the Valley accounts for six of the 10 metropolitan areas with the worst unemployment rates in the country.
The Valley cities stretch from Stockton to Visalia- Porterville and include Modesto, Merced, Fresno and Hanford-Corcoran.
Two other California metro areas also made the bottom 10: No. 1, El Centro in Imperial County and No. 2, Yuba City in Sutter County.
"It's one of those perfect storm situations," said UC Merced economics professor Shawn Kantor. "So it will take a very long time for this area to recover."
The metro area jobless rates across the Valley range from 18.6 percent in Merced to 16.4 percent in the Hanford-Corcoran area, well above both the California and U.S. unemployment rates of 12.4 and 9.8 percent, respectively.
The Labor Department report looks at 372 of the nation's largest metro areas in November.
Economists said it is important to note that the San Joaquin Valley started the recession with a historically higher unemployment rate than other parts of the country. The region has been consistently above the state and national averages, even during sunnier economic times.
During the Valley's boom growth years of the early to mid-2000s, the annual unemployment rate in Stanislaus County hovered between 8 and 9 percent.
"This particular area has chronically had high unemployment relative to the state and the country, which all ties to low educational attainment and poverty," Kantor said. "The circularity of the socioeconomic conditions make it difficult for this area to succeed economically. And then it got hit with the housing and government bubbles bursting."
No fallback industry
The Valley was among the regions affected worst when the housing and construction bubble burst nationally. But unlike other hard-hit areas like south Florida and Las Vegas, the Valley had fewer other industries to fall back on.
Stanislaus County's construction, mining and logging work force was 14,300 in November 2005, when the area's housing prices were near their peak. In November 2010, the construction work force had shrunk to 6,700, according to data from the California Employment Development Department.
Fresno resident Edward Gutierrez knows exactly how badly the construction industry was affected.
The former electrician has been out of work for more than two years.
"Things were really good, and there was a lot of work, but starting around 2008 everything came to a halt," said the 33-year-old. "I've done a few side jobs, but nothing steady."
Gutierrez stops by the Fresno Workforce Connection office at least once a week for any job leads. He has applied for everything from dishwashing jobs to electrician's assistant.
When the bottom dropped out of the housing and construction industries, the region fell even farther.
"For several years in the early 2000s and up to 2006, our economy was expanding unnaturally as a result of the building boom," said Bill Bassitt, chief executive officer of the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance. "When that crashed, that put us in a really bad situation."
The Valley's agriculture-based economy has been a positive and negative. It has remained relatively strong throughout the recession, but
it hasn't provided the growth needed to make up for shortfalls in other industries.
Those factors are compounded by low educational attainment and younger work force in the region.
"Even though agriculture is healthy and we can expect further growth, it doesn't have the job-generation capacity to mop up all this displaced construction labor," said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Business owners cautious
Steve Geil, president of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp., said he isn't surprised that the Valley's jobless rate continues to climb. He said the state's uncertain budget picture exacerbates the problem.
Geil said some business owners remain cautious about the future and are putting their expansion plans or hiring on hold.
"The businesses I visit from day to day are doing well, but they just don't have the faith that what may be coming down from government is going to be good for them," Geil said. "They don't want to hire someone only to have to turn around and let them go."
Fields like transportation, logistics and health care could be growth industries for the Valley, but economists said there are no quick fixes for the region's chronic unemployment.
Michael said the Business Forecasting Center projects the jobless rates will rise to about 19 percent in Valley counties through the winter.
UC Merced's Kantor said larger demographic and developmental issues need to be tackled to permanently lift the area's unemployment rates out of the national basement.
"There is just not much immediately on the horizon that will provide a huge stimulus to the Central Valley," he said. "Given the nature of our economy, until we solve those chronic problems that affect our educational attainment, income and job opportunity -- which could be decades -- this particular area will have a hard time matching up to the rest of the state and other regions of the country when it comes to employment."
Los Angeles Times
San Joaquin Valley's Chowchilla defaults on a bond
Reflecting the struggles many cities face, the town fails to make a payment on the bond issued in flusher times to renovate City Hall. But an official says reserves will be drawn down to cover the payment...Lee Romney
The San Joaquin Valley town of Chowchilla — known for its dairy farms and prisons — has defaulted on a municipal revenue bond, underscoring the tight times and drastic choices faced by struggling California cities.
The city, which has a skeletal manufacturing base, failed to make its January payment on a bond issued in much flusher times to renovate the ample City Hall, which houses a government that has seen a 45% cut in its workforce since mid-2009.
But Assistant City Administrator Wayne Padilla said Thursday that he had negotiated with the bond trustee to draw down on bond reserves Friday and make the January payment, the last one due for this fiscal year.
The default comes as the city of Bell in Los Angeles County teeters on the edge of insolvency because of inflated salaries and alleged fraud and other cities struggle with unfunded pension obligations and ballooning healthcare costs.
Chowchilla, which has been hit hard by plummeting home prices, an unemployment rate near 18% and commercial vacancies, has cobbled together one-time plans to plug this year's $1-million budget shortfall.
But more solutions are in order if the city hopes to avert an eventual repossession of its seat of government, which includes 5,000 square feet of commercial space that now sits empty.
"The question remains, 'What do we do about the debt next year?' " said Padilla, who is also the city's finance director. "The decision hasn't been made one way or another whether we're going to be able to make the debt payments."
Chowchilla, cleaved by California Highway 99 and known for its annual Western Stampede, expected $4.1 million in revenue this fiscal year, but faced $5.2 million in budgeted expenses. It failed to make its January bond payment after drawing down on reserves to make a payment last summer, he said.
Other cities are also feeling the pinch. The Bay Area's Vallejo took the most extreme route when it filed for bankruptcy in 2008 after it became clear that the city's police and fire labor contracts sucked up much of its general fund.
Tom Dresslar, spokesman for California Treasurer Bill Lockyer, said he hoped Chowchilla "will be an isolated case.... There's no imminent threat of widespread municipal defaults in California."
But he called it "another black eye" for the state.
"Our concern is when a city defaults on its bond payments, if nothing else, the reputation will stain," he said. "It bleeds onto other local issuers and the state.... It's an event that California does not need. We've got enough problems operating in the market."
Municipal bond analysts agreed Thursday but stressed that a wave of other cities — particularly those with investment ratings that must go to market regularly to borrow cash — are not likely to follow suit. Chowchilla had no underlying investment grade, though the bond insurer was rated.
"It's a remote location without major industry, without a major investment grade rating," said Chris Ihlefeld, co-portfolio manager with New Mexico-based Thornburg Investment Management, which manages a limited-term California fund. "If you were going to anticipate a default anywhere, a city like Chowchilla doesn't surprise me at all."
Ihlefeld added that events like these create opportunities.
"There's a general perception among municipal bond buyers, 'Let's avoid any and all things California,' and that's just not the truth," he said. "Most of California is actually doing fine. Even if there is a measure of weakness, which we've all been dealing with, there is a huge gulf between a municipality experiencing some weakness and the probability of a municipal default happening."
David Mora, West Coast manager for the International City-County Management Assn., called the default "a last resort option. We'll probably see a few more as the finances of all local government really comes under considerable pressure," he said. But "bonds generally have the first call on city revenue."
Padilla took over as Chowchilla's finance director in 2009 to discover that the city was already in default on some Mello-Roos bonds, which are issued by certain voter-designated cities, counties and special districts to finance major improvements and services. Money that was dedicated to the bond payments had gone into the general fund instead, leading city leaders to mistakenly believe they had a million-dollar surplus.
It disappeared overnight, as Padilla set the other bond matter right. The city also suffered from the whiplash that has visited many communities. Bay Area and other urban refugees flowed in during the housing boom, plopping down cash for second homes and retirement living near the Pheasant Run Golf Club.
But the economy caught up with the town of 19,000 residents, nearly 8,000 of whom are prisoners. In addition to farms, there are two car dealerships, a small shopping center and an insulation and brake manufacturer, making for a thin sales tax base.
These days, Padilla is not alone in doing two jobs. The acting city administrator doubles as the police chief. And the town's public information officer heads what's left of the gutted parks and recreation department.
Still, Padilla said, he considers Chowchilla fortunate. Employees who remained after the job cuts agreed to furloughs, and the police agreed to give up leave time guaranteed in their contract.
"Unlike a Vallejo or some other cities, we didn't have protracted negotiations," he said.
And in a series of City Hall meetings to puzzle through the crisis, he said, many residents have seemed open to the possibility that "one or two tax measures" could be placed on the ballot to get through tough times.
Chowchilla Chamber of Commerce member Lee Brock said he believes Chowchilla is no worse off than a lot of places. Sure, the fancy City Hall was finished "at the worst time," considering that houses that were selling for $475,000 are now sitting empty at $200,000.
But his Brock Locksmithing has weathered the storm, meeting a frenzy of demand from lenders.
"I'm optimistic," said Brock, 66, who was on his way out the door Thursday to re-key another foreclosed house for another bank. "But I think it's going to take a little while."
Water contaminant level high in some Valley towns, tests find
Validity of data, possibility of health hazard from chromium 6 argued...GARTH STAPLEY
A likely cancerous drinking water contaminant featured in the movie "Erin Brokovich" showed up in relatively high levels in hundreds of tests throughout Stanislaus County and neighboring communities.
Some public officials say the data may be unreliable and have little meaning until the government sets a new standard, a process just getting under way.
Drinking water advocates blame pressure from industrial polluters for putting the review seven years behind schedule.
Hexavalent chromium, also known as chromium 6, causes cancer in laboratory animals and was listed as a likely carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September. But federal and state regulators have not addressed meaningful limits in public tap water.
Hexavalent chromium was a common industrial chemical until about 20 years ago. It is still used in plastic and dye manufacturing. Naturally eroding soil and rock also can produce the contaminant.
Two weeks ago, a national environmental group reported finding the contaminant in 31 of 35 cities across the United States, 25 with readings higher than a benchmark that could become California's standard.
Nearly all of those readings, however, are far less than those detected in samplings from wells in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties.
A well at Los Banos' Morning Star Packing Co., for example, produced a 2005 hexavalent chromium level 600 times higher than a statewide maximum proposed in August 2009 and 1,800 times higher than the public health goal being studied.
Hexavalent chromium levels were particularly alarming in communities on the Valley's west side and in Merced County.
But Ken August, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said, "The data are problematic at best." Most tests are several years old and some suggest lab error, he said.
Dr. John Walker, Stanislaus County's public health officer, said Tuesday: "To my knowledge, I am not aware that chromium 6 levels (here) are a significant human health hazard."
Hexavalent chromium rocketed to public consciousness in the 2000 film "Erin Brokovich" starring Julia Roberts. Accused of tainting groundwater near Hinkley for three decades, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. paid $333 million in damages and pledged to clean it up.
California and other states engaged in safe tap water campaigns, resulting in data compiled by the Department of Public Health and cited in this report. California legislators in 2001 demanded a new state standard for hexavalent chromium by 2004. But the effort stalled, and department officials acknowledge the testing represents "one point in time," August said Tuesday.
Clean Water Action program manager Andria Ventura blamed "unconscionable delay tactics by polluters, some water providers" and former Gov. Schwarz-enegger's administration.
The 2009 proposal -- never adopted -- of 0.06 parts per billion of hexavalent chromium was replaced last week with a more stringent 0.02 parts per billion for purposes of studying what's called a public health goal. A public comment period on that number opened this week and closes Jan. 31.
If adopted by state Environmental Protection Agency officials, the Department of Public Health would consider setting a legal standard, taking into account costs of treating water.
Valley chromium concentration...Garth Stapley
The average of 161 tests in Merced County was 11.07 parts per billion, compared with a 4.42 parts-per-billion average in 270 Stanislaus County samples and a 3.94 parts-per-billion average in 375 San Joaquin County samples. Tests were recorded from 1997 through 2008.
The Northern San Joaquin Valley average was 5.53 parts per billion.
All levels are much higher than a nationwide estimated average of 0.18 parts per billion published in December's study released by the Environmental Working Group, said to be the first publicly available nationwide analysis of hexavalent chromium.
The study's poster child for chromium-tainted water was Norman, Okla., where tests found 12.9 parts per billion — a little higher than Merced County's average. But the study's next highest concentration — 2 parts per billion, detected in Honolulu — pales in comparison with most readings in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Almost all of Stanislaus County's double-digit hexavalent chromium readings came from Patterson, Newman and Grayson, all West Side communities. Turlock produced several tests with high concentrations in the range of 7 to 9 parts per billion.
Los Angeles Times
Housing bust creates new kind of declining city
A study says cities where home prices have fallen the most — including Riverside, San Bernardino and Fresno — could suffer long-term deterioration similar to that of the Rust Belt...Alejandro Lazo
In the Inland Empire and other former home-building hot spots, the housing bust has created a new kind of declining city, different from the nation's traditional rusting centers of industry, that could languish for years.
Although the causes of the decline in these metropolitan areas are distinct from the loss of employment from shrinking manufacturing and industry in some of the nation's old industrial powerhouses, these areas could experience fates similar to places such as Cleveland and Detroit, with neighborhoods experiencing high rates of vacancies for a very long time, according to a study to be released Thursday.
"Some neighborhoods are going to suffer tremendously or are never going to come back or come back very, very slowly," said James R. Follain, senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and author of the study published by the Research Institute for Housing America, a division of the Mortgage Bankers Assn.
Potential candidates for long-term decline named by the study are the areas hit hardest by the drop in home prices in recent years. They include several inland California metropolitan areas that grew rapidly during the boom, including Stockton, Modesto, Fresno, Riverside and San Bernardino. Las Vegas and Miami also made the list.
A traditional city in decline is one that has suffered a sustained population drop, leaving behind empty houses, apartment buildings, offices and storefronts. Cleveland and Detroit, for instance, suffered from the erosion of manufacturing and the loss of residents, who left in search of jobs.
Instead of eroding a particular industry, however, the housing bust left a glut of homes because of overbuilding and the foreclosure crisis. Follain argues that the future of these cities is threatened in similar ways to that of Rust Belt cities.
"Long-vacant neighborhoods are going to develop, and we can imagine what can happen," he said, including potentially higher crime and lower property taxes.
In California, some coastal cities already are seeing a housing market recovery. But inland areas that were built on optimistic assumptions of continued population growth and ever-climbing home values are facing a much more difficult recovery.
Celia Chen, a housing economist with Moody's Economy.com, predicts that a full recovery in parts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Florida won't occur until 2030.
"The housing boom elevated home prices in a number of areas far, far above what can be supported by the economic fundamentals, and so prices have fallen significantly, and they will remain below their previous peaks easily for a decade, or even two decades," Chen said.
Some experts contend that foreclosures, which have pierced neighborhoods of all income levels throughout the country, are quickly turning developments on the outskirts of metropolitan areas into the nation's newest slums. Complicating any recovery for these beaten-down areas is the difficulty in predicting which neighborhoods will fare worst. That uncertainty could lead to increasing skepticism by buyers and lenders looking to make loans on homes in these areas.
"If you are looking at this from the perspective of a home buyer or a lender, it is one thing to say you are in a market where home prices may drop 10% or 20%." said Michael Fratantoni, vice president of research and economics with the mortgage bankers group. "That is different from the idea that 80% to 90% of the value could evaporate. That changes the whole nature of the business."
Still, the future of these regions remains a point of contention. Economist John Husing argues that the inland regions of California don't have a long-term problem.
"What has driven the Inland Empire economy is, for the last 30 years, simply the fact that the rest of Southern California is completely out of dirt," Husing said. "Right now the price differential between coastal counties and inland counties is $100,000. People will ultimately
respond to that."
The development of industrial facilities to handle cargo from Southern California's ports will also continue inland because they require lots of space, said Husing, principal of Economics & Politics Inc. in Redlands. Such development, he said, will create jobs for workers who will need housing.