Merced looks for way to bridge $10.2 million budget gap
Two-day workshop examines what can be cut and what is needed...SCOTT JASON
Merced's leaders asked Saturday that government staff look at all city programs to see if any of them can be eliminated or outsourced to help close a $10.2 million budget gap.
The second and final day of a workshop between the City Council and department managers ended without any firm plans on narrowing a financial shortfall that's larger than what was predicted a year ago.
"Are there things we should reduce or eliminate that have outlived their time?" City Manager John Bramble asked.
Council members wanted Bramble's question answered, calling for a review of city programs and services to see if some are no longer relevant or could be contracted out at a cheaper cost.
For example, Councilman Bill Spriggs said, Los Banos hired a firm to sweep its streets instead of keeping it in-house. He acknowledged that there are some services, such as garbage collection, that the city may do cheaper.
Councilman Jim Sanders agreed, adding that the city should take a hard look at defining its core services and creating emergency plans in case the economy continues to rapidly deteriorate.
Just like cities across the state, Merced is grappling with a shrinking budget because of steep declines in sales and property taxes, as well as growth-related revenues. For example, the city expected about 175 single-family homes to be built in the current fiscal year, which started July 1. To date, there have only been three.
It's dealing with a 13 percent decline in general fund revenue, which is the biggest pot of discretionary money and funds mainly police and fire departments.
Departments have been asked to cut 15 percent from their budgets. Police, fire and code enforcement departments must cut 12 percent.
Besides evaluating city services, other options on the table include cutting benefits, instituting furloughs, calling for early retirements, delaying hiring for some top slots, reducing salary cuts and instituting layoffs.
The council managed to close a budget deficit last year by tapping $4.7 million in reserves.
Elected leaders asked the department managers to find out if workers know any ways to save money or if they have preferences in the cost-cutting efforts.
As it was Friday, the main source of contention on the council was reviewing the fees developers pay to build in Merced. Among other things, the money helps fund new roads, stoplights and water and sewer system improvements.
Though the question was whether evaluating them was a top priority for city staff, the discussion quickly fell back to whether it's even a viable idea.
Spriggs said any reductions would be a symbolic move, but building wouldn't start the next day.
Others, such as Councilman Noah Lor, disagreed.
"I think we have to open the door so people come in," he said.
Though building is at a virtual standstill, Sanders said the city can position itself to be ready for the next wave. "We can't give the store away," he said, "but we can maintain competitiveness. California is slipping as a place business likes."
Construction activity falls far more than expected...MARTIN CRUTSINGER,AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON Construction spending plunged more than twice as much as expected in January, led by the largest drop in nonresidential activity in 15 years.
The Commerce Department reported Monday that overall construction spending dropped 3.3 percent in January, the fourth straight monthly decline, with weakness in all major categories of the building industry. Wall Street economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected a 1.5 percent drop in spending.
Residential construction fell 2.9 percent and nonresidential activity dropped 4.3 percent, the biggest decline since January 1994.
Home builders are struggling through the worst housing slump in decades. Builders have cut back sharply, but face a rising glut of unsold homes as record mortgage foreclosures dump more properties on the market.
Until recently, the weakness in home construction had been partially offset by strength in nonresidential building. But with the financial sector facing its worst crisis in seven decades, banks have tightened their loan standards, making it harder to get financing for shopping centers and other commercial projects.
Government building also fell. The 2.3 percent came as states and municipalities were forced to tighten their belts in the face of the severe downturn.
State and local construction dipped 2.3 percent, while federal construction dropped 6.6 percent.
The overall drop in construction pushed total spending on a seasonally adjusted annual rate to $986.2 billion, the slowest pace since June 2004.
The big declines in housing and rising mortgage defaults have contributed to the worst financial crisis in seven decades. Even with a $700 billion financial rescue package, the government has not been able to stabilize conditions.
Banking giant Citigroup Inc. last week had its $45 billion rescue package from the government restructured for a third time. Mortgage company Fannie Mae last week said it needs $15.2 billion in government aid, and housing analysts said that figure likely will grow because the company reported losing $25.2 billion in the fourth quarter and nearly $59 billion last year.
The government seized control of Fannie Mae and its sibling Freddie Mac in September, and last month doubled their lifelines to $200 billion each.
McLean, Va.-based Freddie Mac said Monday that David Moffett will step down as chief executive and leave the company's board of directors by March 13. Moffett, a former vice chairman of US Bancorp, has been CEO since September.
Freddie said its board is working with the Federal Housing Finance Agency to appoint a successor to Moffett, who wants to return to the financial services sector.
Some states picking economy over environment regs...MATT GOURAS, Associated Press Writer
HELENA, Mont. -- The call for economic stimulus is having an unintended side effect in places like Montana, where environmental protections are on the verge of being repealed in the name of jobs.
One bill gets straight to the issue - promising to exempt hundreds of millions in economic stimulus projects from the state's landmark environmental policies. Environmentalists are ramping up lobbying efforts as a wave of measures eroding regulatory rules gain serious traction in the face of a recession and shrinking state coffers.
"It is about jobs," said Sen. Jim Keane, a Democrat from the mining town of Butte. "But I think the issue is much bigger than that. All these projects also generate new taxes and revenue for the state government."
Proponents are hoping to ease the way for everything from new coal plants to electricity transmission lines. They say complex rules killed a utility's recently failed plan to build a coal-fired electricity plant near Great Falls; the utility now plans a smaller natural-gas-fired plant.
Montana is not entirely alone. Some other states facing unprecedented budget shortfalls amid a deepening recession want to make sure that current or planned environmental protections don't get in the way of building projects and economic recovery.
In California, lawmakers relaxed environmental laws for road projects and construction equipment in the name of economic stimulus as part of a recently approved budget package. In Idaho, lawmakers shut down new regulations for septic-tank drain fields because they feared it would hinder Idaho's economy, especially during a recession.
Utah is even considering a company's offer to take nuclear waste in exchange for needed cash. In Kansas, lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would pave the way for coal-fired power plants in the southwest part of the state - though Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has promised a veto.
The move to weaken environmental protections isn't gaining steam everywhere.
In Michigan, for instance, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm is talking about tightening environmental regulation when it comes to coal-fired power plants. Republicans don't have the votes to impose less regulation.
Montana environmentalists are on edge like they haven't been in years because of the louder cry for jobs over environmental protection.
"I do think it makes it harder," said veteran lobbyist Anne Hedges, with the Montana Environmental Information Center. "I think it makes it harder for legislators that are nervous about their constituents being nervous. And they want to tell their constituents they are doing everything they can."
The conservationists are fighting back against the notion there has to be a choice between jobs and environmental regulation, saying new "green" jobs should be the future.
Backers of cutting regulation argue that doing so would make it easier not only to build coal-fired plants, but to build wind farms and the new power lines needed to carry the energy to large cities.
Montana lawmakers are separately going to be looking at ways to spend federal stimulus money on some "green" jobs, such as improving the efficiency of government buildings.
Some of the dozen or so bills that ease environmental permitting and restrict lawsuits and regulation will likely be killed in the coming weeks - but not all of them, Hedges said.
That could leave the issue up to the state's self-proclaimed energy governor, Democrat Brian Schweitzer. He has so far been quiet on the bills - but early on in the session he met with environmentalists and urged them to keep doing battle against the "row of vultures" representing corporate interests.
"The vultures smell blood and they are going to exploit that," Hedges said. "We are going to need the governor's help."
Republican Sen. Greg Barkus of Kalispell, pushing the exemption of stimulus projects from the state environmental law, said he understands environmentalists are worried.
"But they don't need to be, because nobody is out to trash the environment," Barkus said. "But we need to move. This economy is scaring the dickens out of me, and a lot of other people."
Quagga mussels are clogging Hoover Dam, colonizing lakes and rivers...Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
LAKE MEAD, Nev. -- It took some of America's best engineers, thousands of laborers and two years of around-the-clock concrete pouring to build the 726-foot-high Hoover Dam back in the 1930s. It took less time than that for the tiny, brainless quagga mussel to bring operators of this modern wonder of the world to their knees.
While federal lawmakers continue to squabble over how to stop overseas ships from dumping unwanted organisms into the world's largest freshwater system, the Great Lakes' most vexing invasive-species problem has gone national.
And so is the pressure to change the way the lakes' shrinking overseas shipping industry operates. An average of fewer than two ocean ships per day now arrive in the Great Lakes during the nine-month shipping season, yet the industry is still responsible for most of the invasive species introductions into the lakes since the St. Lawrence Seaway opened 50 years ago.
"Some people think we just have a handful of ships coming in and that it's just a Great Lakes problem, but it's not," says Jennifer Nalbone of the conservation group Great Lakes United. "Our invasions are spreading like wildfire across the continent."
Zebra and quagga mussels have been making a particular mess of the Great Lakes ecosystem and economy since they were discovered in the late 1980s. The filter-feeding machines have cost this region billions of dollars by plugging industrial water intake pipes, starving fish populations and spawning noxious algae outbreaks that have trashed some of the Midwest's most prized shoreline.
For nearly two decades the western U.S. was spared this havoc.
The first quagga mussel west of the Continental Divide was discovered on Jan. 6, 2007. It was likely a stowaway hiding on the hull or in the bilge water of a Midwestern pleasure boat pulled across the Great Plains, over the Rockies and down a boat ramp at Lake Mead near Las Vegas, where a marina worker found some suspicious shells clinging to an anchor.
"We didn't think much about it," says Bob Gripentog, general manager of the Las Vegas Boat Harbor & Lake Mead Marina. "There was just one or two. Literally."
When the find was confirmed to be quaggas, biologists knew it meant big trouble for an arid region of the country that would wither without its complex plumbing system of hydroelectric dams, reservoirs, irrigation tunnels, pump stations, canals and aqueducts.
They just didn't know how quickly that trouble would come.
What took decades to unfold in the Great Lakes has played out in a matter of months in Lake Mead. Quaggas can lay eggs six or seven times a year in the warmer water, compared with once or twice a year in the Great Lakes.
If you drained Lake Mead above Hoover Dam, says National Park Service biologist Bryan Moore, it would reveal that brown canyon walls that were mussel-free just two years ago are now black with quaggas at densities of up to 55,000 per square meter.
The pattern for most biological invasions is a population explosion followed by a crash to stable, sustainable levels. Thus far, the mussels show no sign of declining.
Divers report them smothering everything on the lake bottom, from beer cans to a downed B-29 bomber. The rapacious, razor-sharp invaders are bloodying Lake Mead marina workers and are so thick in some places they've even sunk buoys.
And they're spreading into fresh waters.
As of February, zebra and quagga mussels turned up in 33 bodies of water across Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado and Utah.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation researcher Leonard Willett works in the lower intestines of Hoover Dam, in a windowless office converted into a war room to beat back the clustering mussels with chemicals, heat and even bacteria. He says common sense tells him this little speck of a critter shouldn't be a threat to something as grand as this concrete dam, which is thicker than the lengths of two football fields.
Yet Willett is in a nonstop fight against a foe that is clogging the dam's cooling pipes like plaque in the arteries of a heart-diseased patient.
If he loses, the generators will overheat, and a power plant that can supply electricity to half a million homes will shut down.
"You wouldn't think that a little fingernail-sized mollusk could stop or slow down a dam this size, but when you see what these little critters can do, it is amazing," he says. "They can quickly start shutting down even the largest infrastructures."
About a half-hour down the road from Hoover Dam, Ron Zegers, director of the Southern Nevada Water System, pulls up a video on his computer. The grainy images taken by scuba divers reveal mussel colonies beginning to clog the Lake Mead intakes for the two giant pipes that turned Las Vegas from a dusty railroad town into ... Las Vegas.
"Last year we didn't have a problem at all," he says.
This year his agency is looking at spending up to $20 million to build a chemical system to keep the waterworks mussel-free, and that excludes annual operation and maintenance costs that will include sending divers to plunge more than 100 feet below the Lake Mead surface to periodically scrape mussels off the water intakes.
Zegers, who used to live in Illinois, says he is familiar with the problems invasive mussels can cause. But he says it is a different deal out West because of the climate and the way water is used and delivered.
He points to some Las Vegas-area golf courses that rely on untreated water drawn directly from Lake Mead. Because the golf courses are open for business all year, the pipes don't have a chance to dry out and kill invading mussels. That leaves them primed to get plugged. It's a similar story for farmers.
Nobody can put an exact price tag on what all this will cost the West, but in his testimony to Congress last summer, Ric De Leon of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California noted that the annual pipe-clogging cost for mussels in the Great Lakes is about $100 million.
He predicted costs in the West could exceed $250 million annually because of the extensive waterway networks lacing this dry side of the continent. He noted there are about 1,800 public water systems in the West drawing on surface water to serve 47.5 million people.
De Leon doesn't expect the mussels to ever be eradicated from the West. "We just want to try to keep them at a level where they don't interfere with our ability to convey water."
It's not just water-consuming businesses that are going to pay the bill for this unnatural disaster spawned by the relatively tiny Great Lakes overseas shipping industry.
Great Lakes oceangoing ships primarily haul steel and grain, and the whole enterprise is worth $55 million a year in terms of transportation savings, according to a 2005 Joyce Foundation-funded analysis of overseas cargo flows on the Great Lakes. In other words, it would cost the region that much more if overseas ships weren't allowed into the Great Lakes and their cargo were instead hauled by some other mode, such as truck, rail or Mississippi River barge.
In contrast, Lake Mead Marina manager Gripentog predicts the costs to the West's recreational boating industry alone will be immense in the coming years. Mussels are smothering everything under the waterline at his 1,400-boat marina, making simple maintenance on boats and floating docks expensive, time-consuming and dangerous.
"The financial impact is huge, but it trickles through so you don't see it all at once," he says. "You're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars (at this marina) over three or four years. And it's going to get worse."
It's already pretty bad for marina dock worker John Koeller, who figures he cuts himself 10 to 15 times a day because anything he plucks from the water "is like grabbing something that's covered in broken glass."
The worst is when hot weather hits - which is, of course, much of the year - and he can't wear a protective wetsuit while working in the water.
His thumb freshly sliced up from a morning's work on a dock truss, Koeller lifts his T-shirt to reveal arms scored by mussel shell scars. He says there are some days he comes out of the water so bloody "it looks like you've been attacked by a shark."
Bob Walsh, a lanky and laconic spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation, turns to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter after listening to colleague Willett tick off all the troubles mussels have suddenly caused dam operators.
"It would have been nice," he deadpans, "if you had kept them on the other side of the Rockies."
We had the chance.
The first zebra mussel was discovered in the Great Lakes in 1988, and its cousin, the slightly larger quagga, turned up the following year.
But warnings that the mussels could be on their way into the lakes had been sounded for decades before then, including a 1981 Canadian government report detailing the hazards of ocean vessels dumping their ship-steadying ballast water at Great Lakes ports. It zeroed in on zebra mussels - which at the time were plaguing Britain and Russia - as a species uniquely suited for surviving an open sea journey in a ship's ballast tanks.
Nearly three decades later, Congress has yet to force ships to stop dumping this never-ending biological pollution.
The Great Lakes are now home to at least 185 non-native species. A new one is discovered, on average, about every six months, and in recent decades most have arrived as hitchhikers aboard oceangoing vessels.
History shows that once an invasive species becomes established in the Great Lakes, it likely will never be eradicated. That doesn't mean the lakes - or the nation - have already seen everything the outside world can throw at them. The viral fish-killing disease known as VHS, for example, was not detected in the Great Lakes until 2005.
Zebra and quagga mussels are the marquee name today.
Tomorrow it might be the monkey goby, one of the species singled out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a January report that identified 30 organisms that have yet to colonize the lakes but are medium- to high-risk candidates to do so - if more isn't done to protect the lakes.
The primary protection the lakes have at the moment is a requirement that ships exchange their ballast water with mid-ocean saltwater before arriving at the gates of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a step that scientists say goes a long way toward reducing unwanted freshwater species, but not all the way.
A national ballast bill that would require all ships entering U.S. waters to install treatment systems to kill ballast dwellers passed the House last summer. It was supported by many Great Lakes conservationists, but it stalled in the Senate over concerns by some who said it was not tough enough.
Among them was Nina Bell, executive director of the Oregon-based Northwest Environmental Advocates, a group that has chosen to use the courts to push the federal government to treat ballast water like any other industrial pollutant spilling from a pipe.
Bell says many Westerners have yet to awaken to the fact that the Great Lakes ballast problem is now their problem.
"There are very, very few people who consider the Great Lakes invasive species issue to be a national problem," she says. "The people who are running the irrigation systems and the drinking water systems and other infrastructures have their eye on the issue, but everybody else is kind of oblivious."
Great Lakes advocates aren't happy to see the misery spread, but they are hopeful it will alert lawmakers in other regions of the country to the damage being done.
"An invasion into the Great Lakes," says conservationist Nalbone, "is an invasion into the heartland of North America."
Dozens of conservation groups have said they support a moratorium on overseas freighters in the Great Lakes if the ballast problem cannot be solved with a new law.
Left on their own, quagga and zebra mussels expand their range when the microscopic juveniles catch rides on river or lake currents. That means every waterway on the Colorado River downstream from Lake Mead is likely to be infested eventually.
The waters above Lake Mead, however, are also vulnerable because mussels can be carried in the bilge water and hulls of recreational boats.
The Park Service, which figures the mussels have been in Lake Mead since 2005, is trying to protect the rest of the West's waters by requiring boats that have been docked in a slip to be decontaminated with jets of scalding water before departing Lake Mead. A killer hotwash costs about $40 for a small boat and up to $200 for a houseboat.
The rules are targeted directly at guys such as Curtis Clark, a retired oil fields worker originally from Pennsylvania who now travels the West in his pumpkin-colored Ford Ranchero trailing a 26-foot MacGregor sailboat.
"They've got to do something," he says of the new rules as he prepped his boat on the shore of Lake Mead. "Look at the frustrations we have going on here."
Lake Mead biologist Moore says the majority of boaters are cooperative like Clark, but there are still plenty of scofflaws.
"You can't control every boater," he says. "It only takes one guy that doesn't care, and there are a lot of those guys."
That's got states such as Utah taking drastic steps.
Sitting in his Ogden police chief's chair at the bottom of the mountain that hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics downhill, part-time legislator Jon Greiner pulls up a computer map of the U.S. freckled with red dots representing mussel-infested waters. He points to the Great Lakes, where dots meld into swaths of red over what should be blue waters.
"We don't want to look like this," he says.
So Greiner sponsored a bill last year that gives Utah law enforcement workers authority to stop and detain a boat if it might be coming from infested waters. State officials also now have the authority to close entire lakes to boaters to check the mussels' spread.
These are some heavy-duty measures for an anti-regulation state.
"I was floored by how quickly they acted on this issue," says Mark Vinson, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who recently moved to Wisconsin after spending 17 years on the faculty at Utah State University.
Vinson said he worked with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources on a number of other invasive species issues over the years, trying to persuade state lawmakers to spend money and pass laws to slow their spread, and they got nowhere. Then quagga mussels showed up in Lake Mead. "And it was boom," he says, "instant money."
Their motives, he figures, also have to do with money.
"It wasn't just a sporting or recreation or aesthetic issue," he said. "It was industry."
Radical steps are being pondered elsewhere.
Californians are considering poisoning a 175-acre reservoir south of San Francisco recently confirmed to be infested with an isolated colony of zebra mussels.
The hope is to kill the population before it becomes a launching point to spread invasions into area waters. Estimates for the plan range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to $5 million, and there is no guarantee it will work. The biggest body of water to be successfully poisoned for zebra mussels is a 12-acre quarry in Virginia.
Lorri Gray, regional director for the Bureau of Reclamation in Boulder City, Nev., meanwhile, worries about the ecological damage the mussels could do to dozens of native species already suffering from the dam construction projects during the past century.
This is more than an ecological concern. The federal government plans to spend about $1 billion in the coming decades to help these species recover, and zebra and quagga mussels have a history of ravaging native species in the waters they invade. In Lake Michigan, for example, prey fish numbers are less than 10 percent of what they were before the invasive mussels arrived.
Gray also frets for the farmers downstream who could lose the irrigation water.
"The last thing they need is another operation and maintenance cost or burden," she says.
That has her thinking big.
She's thinking it might be a good idea to bring in some sterilized mussel-eating Asian carp.
She's thinking black carp, specifically, which are the biggest of the four species of Asian carp that are loose in the Mississippi River basin and threatening to invade the Great Lakes.
Black carp can grow to nearly 5 feet long and weigh 150 pounds, thanks to human-sized molars in the backs of their throats that make them mussel-crunching machines.
The fish are, however, also an invasive species and are illegal in most cases to transport across state lines.
But Gray is desperate.
"That may be a good thing or a bad thing," she says. "But that's something we're willing to explore."
Lake Mead marina manager Gripentog says he expects the Great Lakes region to consider equally radical measures to keep the next mollusk, virus or fish from making a fresh mess in his backyard.
He says a Great Lakes-specific fleet that could pick up overseas cargo somewhere near the East Coast might do the trick. He says it's no crazier than what Westerners are being forced to do now.
"Transferring cargo between boats, that's probably costly," he says. "But in the long run that's probably cheaper compared to what average people are having to deal with."
Sacramento sewage agency looks at selling wastewater...Matt Weiser
Californians have grown accustomed to digesting odd ideas that routinely flow out of Sacramento, many of them not so palatable.
But are they ready for this one?
Last week, amid a third year of a statewide drought, the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District adopted a strategy to sell treated sewage as drinking water. The buyer would hypothetically partner with the district to recycle wastewater from the capital-area's 1.4 million people into a new municipal water source.
The idea is not so far-fetched. Orange County last year opened the world's largest wastewater recycling plant and is now serving treated effluent as high-quality drinking water to 2.3 million residents.
The technology is simpler and cheaper than desalinating seawater. State regulators are working to adjust policies to encourage more such projects.
What's different about Sacramento's plan is that local leaders want somebody else to buy treated sewage and pay to make it drinkable.
"It's kind of like taking lemons and creating lemonade," said Mike McGowan, a Yolo County supervisor and sanitation district board member.
At the heart of the issue is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The estuary is suffering a puzzling ecosystem collapse that threatens extinction of several fish species.
Suffering along with the fish are 23 million Californians who depend on Delta water supplies, from the Bay Area to San Diego.
These diversions have been curtailed to protect the environment, and may be reduced further this year in response to drought.
One culprit in the Delta's decline is water pollution. Sacramento's treated effluent is the largest single source of urban wastewater in the Delta, though the harmful effects of this source are a matter of dispute.
A key component of the Sacramento waste stream is ammonia, a common byproduct of human urine and feces. Ammonia in Sacramento's wastewater has more than doubled since 1985 because of rapid urbanization, and is now about 125,000 gallons per month.
Recent research suggests ammonia may be disrupting the Delta by limiting blooms of phytoplankton, tiny animals that form the foundation of the aquatic food chain.
The sanitation district questions the scientific findings so far, and has gone on the offensive to forestall modernizing its treatment process. It estimates treatment upgrades could cost as much as $1 billion, requiring household sewer rates to triple to $90 a month.
The idea to instead sell effluent is a creative wrinkle in the district's strategy.
The region's total wastewater discharges amount to a lot of water – about 180,000 acre-feet per year. That's enough to serve nearly 400,000 average households.
"We cannot simply sit back and complain and say this Delta is going to cause us problems, and expect things to go away," said District Manager Stan Dean. "We need to set ourselves up to be part of a broader solution."
Even district critics admit the recycling scheme is a clever approach that could help the Delta. But they also note a potential for negative side-effects.
The most obvious is that a buyer could divert the water out of the Delta watershed, causing another drain on an already stressed ecosystem.
"We would have serious issues with diverting that water out of the watershed," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance and longtime water-quality watchdog. "In all fairness, I want to see their proposals. It's an intriguing concept, in the sense that the important thing is to get the water adequately treated so it doesn't degrade the Delta."
District officials said they are willing to negotiate with any interested party, whether a local water agency or the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis. It could serve the latter, for example, by pumping recycled wastewater into a controversial canal proposed to divert a portion of the Sacramento River around the Delta.
"When you shift your point of view from looking at effluent as a waste product to looking at it as a valuable commodity, that changes your whole thinking on who your potential customers could be," said District Engineer Mary Snyder.
Another key question is whether the district has a legal right to sell the water at all. The district maintains that it does, and state law appears to support that.
Gregory Weber, an expert in water law at McGeorge School of Law, said a provision of the state Water Code holds that a water treatment entity gains an ownership stake in the water it treats.
The diversion issue is a thornier one, he said, which would have to be reviewed to avoid harm to the environment.
"There are potential downstream impacts on fish, wildlife and habitat," Weber said. "Downstream water rights holders who have already been appropriating the discharges may be complaining as well."
In other words, the recycling plan could be perceived as an attempt to take more water out of an estuary where there is none to spare.
McGowan cautioned fellow board members, all of them local elected officials, of a possible political backlash.
"If that's what we're going to do, we're picking a big fight," he said. "But to do nothing will see us complaining in a couple years."
RISING WATER CONCERNS
Developer's plans for green resort hit another obstacle...LAITH AGHA
Developer Ed Ghandour has been trying to make use of — and profit from — the oceanfront property he bought in Sand City nearly 16 years ago.
Last year, Ghandour presented a plan for an eco-resort, which he hoped would satisfy his goals and the concerns of local environmentalists.
His proposal calls for 161 hotel rooms and 180 condominiums built into the dunes on the west side of Highway 1, across from Seaside High School and the Edgewater Shopping Center in Sand City.
The design meets the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum rating for construction, meaning the resort would meet the highest established standards for sustainable development.
The plans include renewable energy sources, living roofs, land allocated for sensitive species and a structural design that hides the entire development from drivers passing by on the highway.
"We are very happy today to be able to say that we have the most environmentally sensitive and green project ever conceived," Ghandour said. His development company, Security National Guaranty, is based in San Francisco.
But questions about the project's impact on the local water supply led the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District's board last week to deny Ghandour's request to access his allotted water from the Seaside Groundwater Basin with help from California American Water.
The board voted 4-3 against Ghandour's water proposal and ordered him to prepare an environmental impact report to address all water-related concerns.
Disappointed in the decision, Ghandour said the board members who voted against his proposal are using the water issue to stop a development they do not want.
The vote "tainted the process of a district's approval," he said, "using the water as a shield for the desires of some board members to stop the project."
Supervisor Dave Potter, a water district board member who voted against Ghandour's request, said the no vote was not an attempt to derail the project. Rather, some board members have concerns about how the proposed eco-resort would affect the water supply on the Peninsula.
"I simply think the environmental impact report needs updating," Potter said. "Just because you have a right to the water doesn't mean you don't need to evaluate the environmental impacts of exercising those rights."
The existing environmental impact report for the project was completed in 1998. Because a lot has changed in the last decade regarding Seaside Basin policy, Potter said, a thorough study is needed to ease the board's concerns.
An addendum produced in December to update the original environmental document "does not address the complexities of the potential impacts," Potter said.
The impact could stretch to the Carmel River, because Cal Am uses water from the river and the basin to supply Peninsula customers, Potter said.
"It's all about water, and nothing is more complicated than water," Potter said. "It seems to me you need to do the fullest of analyses on water issues, and that is what the board decided."
A 2006 court ruling determined that pumping from the Seaside aquifer should be capped at 3,000 acre-feet a year. With more than 5,000 acre-feet currently being pumped every year, the court ordered water-delivery entities Cal Am and the Seaside Municipal Water System to reduce their use by 10 percent every three years until the yearly water withdrawal is no more than 3,000 acre-feet.
The court decision allocated 149 acre-feet per year to Ghandour's property. Because it is a direct user, rather than a water distributor, the property does not need to comply with the use reduction.
Ghandour asked the water district for access to just 90 acre-feet. And instead of using the well on the property, which is near the shoreline and could allow saltwater intrusion if used, he said he wants Cal Am to deliver the water because it would pump the water from further inland, avoiding the intrusion problem.
Despite the setback, Ghandour plans to hold a community meeting from 5 to 8p.m. Wednesday in the Casa Munras Hotel Marbella Room.
Ghandour said the meeting is intended to show "how we designed a sustainable green community, how to address issues, such as resources, erosion and energy, and to let the community ask questions."
Los Angeles Times
Port cargo levels are sinking fast
February imports fall 18.1% in L.A. and Long Beach. Other West Coast harbors see even worse declines...Ronald D. White
The international trade business is foundering faster than ever seen before, with some U.S. seaports watching cargo traffic fall by more than a third.
It's gotten so bad that Los Angeles and Long Beach are slashing cargo rates to keep old customers and lure new business. Oakland's port has laid off 12% of its staff and canceled free tours for the public. The number of ships idled around the world is approaching three times the number that were out of work during the last big ocean trade collapse, in 2002.
"It's phenomenal how much things fell away even since December," said Paul Bingham, managing director of global trade and transportation for IHS Global Insight, the business research firm that monitors North America's biggest ports for the National Retail Federation.
"Assuming the stimulus package works, you end the free fall in the second quarter, when you no longer see this accelerated decline," Bingham said. "If the stimulus does not work, I don't think we know where the bottom is."
There's a huge ripple effect at the docks and roughly 10,000 acres of maritime facilities at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's busiest. The port complex is a trade gateway that employs more than 280,000 workers in Los Angeles County and annually handles $357 billion in goods. The effect is being felt in the loss of high-wage jobs and in spiraling real estate vacancies in inland warehouse and distribution districts, experts said.
In February 2006, during the last boom year at the L.A. and Long Beach ports, there was work for 1,100 to 1,200 union and nonunion laborers on each day shift, and sometimes for more than 1,500, according to daily dispatch summaries. This February, the average slipped to about 660 workers per day shift. On the slowest day last month, demand for workers fell as low as 384. Jobs opened up for 751 people on the slowest day of February 2006.
As severe as the shift has been in Los Angeles and Long Beach, where February imports fell 18.1% compared with the same month in 2008, it's worse in other places, according to the monthly cargo figures collected by IHS Global Insight.
West Coast ports are bearing the brunt, which some experts view as a troubling sign that cargo is being diverted to other trade gateways.
Oakland is expected to be down 22% in February, compared with a year earlier, as U.S. consumers continue to rein in spending and as retailers cut factory orders to avoid building inventories that won't sell.
Diann Castleberry, the Oakland port's director of social responsibility, said free harbor tours had been conducted from May through October for more than a decade, "providing a bird's-eye view of port operations as well as sharing interesting factoids about its rich history with children and adults."
"The decision to suspend the program was a very difficult one, but one that had to be made in light of the current state of the economy and need to balance the port's financial health," Castleberry said in a notice published on the port's website. The port had already eliminated vacant positions, slashed its capital spending by two-thirds and reduced its workforce 12%.
The February downturn is expected to be 29% in Tacoma, Wash., and 39% in Seattle when those ports finish tallying container movements.
Unlike the West Coast ports, which deal almost exclusively in trade to and from Asia, East Coast ports have a more diversified mix of trade with Asia, Europe and Latin and South America. Still, February trade is down at East and Gulf coast ports ranging from 6.8% at New York/New Jersey to 29.5% at Charleston, S.C.
The months ahead look just as bad, setting up what one trade expert said would be a pitched battle among ports to hold on to current customers and lure others looking to consolidate their operations to save money.
Suggesting that the situation was spiraling out of control, the latest issue from the London-based Drewry Container Freight Rate Report said that oceangoing shipping lines could see their revenues drop $68 billion -- nearly one-third -- in 2009.
That kind of news has set off "a war room mentality" at the Port of Los Angeles, Executive Director Geraldine Knatz said.
"We started meeting with customers and holding management sessions on what we could do to share some of the pain with our customers," Knatz said. At risk is the loss of substantial amounts of intermodal cargo bound for other regions of the country, she said, adding that this cargo, which moves via rail and truck, was responsible for many of the best-paying jobs at the port and was the key to funding the ambitious clean air projects the port has launched.
The port has decided to reduce its lease fees 10% on each container that passes through its facility. It's working on a plan to cut those fees 50% for any new business, Knatz said.
S. David Freeman, president of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, said that "telling customers 'we feel your pain' is not enough. They are hurting and they need this help."
The Port of Long Beach is at work on a similar plan to reduce fees. "We are doing it because trade is in as much of a recession or more so than other parts of the economy, and there is a direct correlation to the reduction in jobs on the waterfront," said Jim Hankla, head of Long Beach's Board of Harbor Commissioners.
"Our customers are searching for new ways to get their cargo from origin to destination, and diversion to other ports is what we want to prevent. We have long-standing customer relationships that we want to keep."
Mine waste trips up Alaska gold rush
A plan to dump mine tailings into a lake, taking advantage of a Bush administration regulatory change, is before the Supreme Court. Environmentalists say it could gut the Clean Water Act...Kim Murphy
Reporting from Berners Bay, Alaska — Sitting like a turquoise gem in a bowl of hemlock, Sitka spruce and ice, Berners Bay has long been a jewel of Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
In the spring, swarms of tiny eulachon rush in to spawn, and the bay floods with hundreds of killer whales, humpback whales and sea lions in hot pursuit, along with eagles and seabirds by the thousands. Fishermen flock to its herring, salmon and Dungeness crab. Its chilly, tranquil waters are a favorite destination for kayakers.
Berners Bay also has become one of the epicenters of a new Alaska gold rush. High in the snowy peaks at the top of the bay, miners struck an estimated 1.4 million ounces of gold -- a prize that is looking better every day as investors flee the stock market.
An Idaho-based mining company has pledged to rescue southeast Alaska's crippled timber and fishing economy by opening an industrial-scale mine above the bay. The problem is how to do it.
The company had planned to pile its leftover debris on a wetlands on the other side of the mountain from Berners Bay -- a solution embraced by environmentalists -- but has shifted to a cheaper alternative. Taking advantage of a little-publicized regulatory change adopted under the Bush administration in 2004, Coeur d'Alene Mines has obtained a federal permit to dump 4.5 million tons of tailings directly into a small sub-alpine lake near the mine, just above Berners Bay.
Conservationists say the plan is unprecedented in 30 years of mining under the federal Clean Water Act.
Lower Slate Lake, whose deep indigo waters are home to about 1,000 Dolly Varden char and a small species of fish known as stickleback, will become a repository for 210,000 gallons a day of thick slurry, laced with aluminum, copper, lead and mercury -- enough to kill all the fish and raise the lake's bottom by 50 feet.
The waste would be prevented from seeping down the adjacent creek into Berners Bay by construction of a large dam that, environmental groups warn, would have to last for eternity.
The mine tailings on the lake bottom eventually would be sealed and fish would be restocked, the Environmental Protection Agency says. That, state and federal officials say, means the lake would become a prime recreational resource for fishermen and boaters.
The nearby city of Juneau, Native Alaskan leaders and Gov. Sarah Palin have hailed the project as a godsend for a region desperate for jobs amid logging cutbacks, the closure of two big pulp mills and dwindling fishing opportunities.
But a coalition of environmental groups fears the permit for the Kensington mine, as the project is known, could gut the Clean Water Act and turn lakes and streams across the country into dump sites for polluted mine waste. They have made that argument before the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule this spring.
"The agencies' decision to allow the disposal of millions of tons of chemically processed mine waste into a pristine alpine lake sets a horrible precedent," the Sierra Club, which joined the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council in fighting the permit, said in a statement. "If Coeur d'Alene mines can do it in the heart of the Tongass, mining companies can do it in almost any lake, river or stream."
Yet industry officials say the project reflects a long-standing practice of setting up settling ponds for mine waste -- often in wetlands or small streams.
More important, they say, the plan to dump mine tailings into the remote, 23-acre Lower Slate Lake has been hailed by Alaska, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and many residents as less environmentally damaging than the plan favored by conservation groups: reducing the tailings to a paste and piling them on 100 acres of wetlands near Lynn Canal. A dry tailings disposal plan, then-Solicitor General Gregory Garre told the Supreme Court in January, would create "enormous stacks of tailings, 100 to 200 feet high, thousands of feet wide, that would actually dwarf the Pentagon."
At issue before the high court is whether the mine tailings should be regulated by the EPA as pollutant discharges -- meaning they would have to be fully treated before being released into lakes and streams -- or by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as "fill," which would allow untreated pollutants to be discharged into the lake as long as any water that flows out of the lake and down toward Berners Bay is clean.
Environmental groups argue that by ceding most of its jurisdiction over mining waste to the Army Corps, the EPA is shirking its responsibilities under the 1972 Clean Water Act and its own regulations -- which since 1982 have said that new gold mines of Kensington's type must have "no discharge of process wastewater to navigable waters."
"There has not been a single permit like this ever issued before," said Tom Waldo, who argued the case before the Supreme Court for the environmental law organization Earthjustice.
But Steve Borell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Assn., said mines across the state -- which is dotted with wetlands -- couldn't operate if they couldn't impound tailings in waterways.
"The issue isn't Lower Slate Lake. The issue is whether or not we are going to shut off putting waste rock anywhere."
Alaska has seen a boom in gold discoveries recently.
International Tower Hills Mines Ltd. announced last month that it had discovered 6.8 million ounces of gold, one of the world's biggest deposits, north of Fairbanks.
The proposed Pebble Mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, one of the West's great salmon fisheries, is the site of another newly discovered deposit of at least $80 billion in gold -- and, even more important, copper.
"As a matter of fact, it is a new gold rush," said Rich Hughes of Alaska's Office of Minerals Development. The state, he said, is the second biggest gold producer in the world, behind Nevada, and gaining rapidly.
Mineral production was worth $4 billion to the Alaska economy in 2007, generating 5,500 direct jobs. Revenue has sunk slightly due to falling metals prices, but strong gold prices and the huge new discoveries are helping maintain an industry that might otherwise be in decline.
On Friday, gold was selling for more than $940 per ounce.
Conservation groups fear that a Supreme Court decision restoring the Kensington mine permit -- which the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals revoked last year -- would set a precedent that could allow the Pebble Mine, for example, to deposit massive waste into a nearby lake as well.
On a recent overflight, Berners Bay stretched dappled and gray under luminous clouds of mist. A writhing brown mass of Steller sea lions stretched along a beach, while Lower Slate Lake was an innocuous bowl of snow at the top of an icy ridge. To the south were folds of emerald forest.
"What they concluded was it's cheaper to dump your waste into a lake than do it the way it's been done for the last 30 years, since the Clean Water Act," said Rod Cadmus, an activist with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council who helped negotiate the abandoned compromise for depositing the mine tailings on land. "And if they do it here, they'll do it at other mines."
But spokesman Tony Ebersole of Coeur d'Alene Mines said the lake disposal plan had been rigorously studied and deemed the best for the environment by state agencies and the Corps of Engineers.
"There were 50-some permits issued for this mine. The environmental studies alone cost $20 million, and this was permitted according to the way the process is supposed to work," Ebersole said.
Many residents of Juneau, about 45 miles south of the mine, see the legal fight as a needless delay of a project that could mean the difference between over 200 long-range, well-paying jobs and having to rely on trickle-down revenue from the cruise ship industry.
Randy Wanamaker, a member of the Juneau borough assembly and of the Tlingit and Haida central tribal council, said Native Alaskans had been guaranteed jobs at the mine and already had an important contract to help develop it.
"We are a tribe of 27,000 people, and we have 82% unemployment among our adults. It's that bad. In the capital city of the state, we have within the urban population something like 27% of our people who are unemployed -- that's why the Kensington project is so important to us," Wanamaker said.
He said city and tribal officials were confident that Lower Slate Lake would be restored and would provide better habitat for fish once the mine's operations were complete.
"We are not trading environment for jobs," Wanamaker said. "These are my ancestral homelands. These fishing waters that are around it are important to us. We as a tribal group studied this, we worked with Coeur d'Alene Mines to put into it our concerns about our subsistence lifestyle, and they worked with us."
Deadly UCLA lab fire leaves haunting questions
Federal and state safety agencies investigate after university officials failed to address lapses before a Dec. 29 chemical accident left a research assistant with fatal burns...Kim Christensen
UCLA's Molecular Sciences Building was mostly closed for the holidays on Dec. 29 as research assistant Sheri Sangji worked on an organic chemistry experiment.
Only three months into her job in the lab, the 23-year-old Pomona College graduate was using a plastic syringe to extract from a sealed container a small quantity of t-butyl lithium -- a chemical compound that ignites instantly when exposed to air.
As she withdrew the liquid, the syringe came apart in her hands, spewing flaming chemicals, according to a UCLA accident report. A flash fire set her clothing ablaze and spread second- and third-degree burns over 43% of her body.
Eighteen excruciating days later, Sangji died in a hospital burn unit.
"It is horrifying," said her sister Naveen, 26, a Harvard medical student. "Sheri wasn't out doing something stupid. She was working in a lab at one of the largest universities in the world. She gets these horrific injuries and loses her life to these injuries and we still don't know how it happened or why it wasn't prevented."
Sangji's death was more than a tragic workplace accident. It also raised serious questions about the university's attention to laboratory safety.
"It was totally preventable," said Neal Langerman, a San Diego consultant and former head of the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Health and Safety, whose members were given a detailed account of the incident by a University of California safety official.
"Poor training, poor technique, lack of supervision and improper method. This was just not the right way to transfer these things," Langerman said. "She died, didn't she? It speaks for itself."
Two months earlier, UCLA safety inspectors found more than a dozen deficiencies in the same lab, Molecular Sciences Room 4221, according to internal investigative and inspection reports reviewed by The Times. Among the findings: Employees were not wearing requisite protective lab coats, and flammable liquids and volatile chemicals were stored improperly.
Chemical Safety Officer Michael Wheatley sent the inspection report to the researcher who oversees the lab, professor Patrick Harran, as well as to the head of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department and a top UCLA safety official. The report directed that problems be fixed by Dec. 5.
But the required corrective action was not taken, records show, and on Dec. 29 all that stood between Sangji's torso and the fire that engulfed her was a highly flammable, synthetic sweater that fueled the flames.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health is investigating, as are the Office of the State Fire Marshal, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. A spokeswoman for Cal/OSHA, the lead agency, said she could not comment on the investigation.
UCLA officials say they are cooperating with all of the agencies.
"We consider this a profoundly tragic accident, and the campus community is still reeling from the loss of Sheri as a member of the Bruin family," said Kevin Reed, vice chancellor for legal affairs.
Harran, the organic chemistry professor for whom Sangji worked, said he could not comment on the accident because of the pending investigations. But he said he's heartbroken.
"Words cannot convey my grief or that of those who work in my lab, and our pain cannot possibly compare with the immeasurable anguish felt by Sheri's family," he wrote in an e-mail. "Sheri's death is a tragedy that has left her friends, colleagues and co-workers here in our department devastated."
UCLA has launched a comprehensive review of lab safety protocols and has stepped up inspections and shortened the time allowed to correct serious violations. Chancellor Gene Block also established a campuswide lab safety committee and ordered enhanced accountability measures.
Such efforts are of little comfort to Sangji's family. Her parents, Shaukat Sangji, a small-business owner who lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife, Maimoona, a Montessori schoolteacher, were too distraught to be interviewed, said Naveen, who relayed an e-mail message to The Times from her father.
"They say time will heal, but I know for sure nothing can heal this," he said. "This has completely destroyed our lives forever."
Born and raised in Pakistan, Sheharbano "Sheri" Sangji followed her older sister to Pomona College, a small, top-tier liberal arts school in Claremont, in 2003. Their parents and younger brother moved to Canada.
"Sheri always loved science and fell in love with chemistry," Naveen said, but she also was interested in the rights of women and immigrants, environmental policy and law. She decided to become an attorney, with an eye toward a career that would blend her interests.
"She was brilliant, just so impressive," her sister said.
Daniel O'Leary, Sheri's chemistry professor for nearly three years at Pomona, recalled her as being upbeat, with a good sense of humor, and an independent problem-solver who published two papers as an undergraduate in professionally vetted chemistry journals.
"She was a talented researcher and a very involved student in the chemistry department," said O'Leary, who earned his doctorate at UCLA and now teaches at Bowdoin College in Maine.
Sangji graduated in May and had applied to some of the nation's top law schools.
In October, she took a job in a lab run by Harran, a rising star who joined the UCLA faculty in July as the first Donald J. Cram Chair in Organic Chemistry. In 2007, Harran and colleagues at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center gained notice for their work on a synthetic toxin that shrinks cancerous tumors in mice.
"Sheri was excited about this job . . . and was so happy when she got it," said her friend Jahan Bruce, 24, a special-education teacher. "She wanted to be in the research area and wanted to be in a university setting. All of her friends thought this was perfect for her."
On Dec. 29, Sangji was performing an experiment related to Harran's work on a potential anti-obesity drug, UCLA's Reed said.
She was trying to transfer up to 2 ounces of t-butyl lithium, which was dissolved in pentane, another highly flammable chemical, from one sealed container to another. It was the second time she had performed that procedure in Harran's lab, UCLA officials said.
"The barrel of the syringe was either ejected or pulled out of the syringe, causing liquid to be released," the UCLA accident report stated.
Sangji's rubber gloves caught fire, searing her hands. Her sweater, made of a synthetic material, was so flammable that Langerman, the chemical safety expert, compared it to "solid gasoline." It, too, was quickly engulfed.
The panicked young woman ran away from a nearby emergency shower instead of toward it, records state, costing her precious time.
"She might have been fine" had she quickly made it to the shower, said Russ Phifer, head of the American Chemical Society's safety division, who also reviewed the UC official's account of the accident.
A postdoctoral researcher, who UCLA officials say was just a few feet away, rushed to Sangji's aid and tried to smother the flames with a lab coat. Another ran in from an adjoining room, helped douse the fire, then called 911 and summoned Harran, Reed said.
"He said when he got there Sheri was sitting with her arms outstretched in front of her and someone was throwing water at her from a sink," said Naveen, who spoke with Harran later at the hospital. That account squares with the UCLA accident report.
From the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Sangji was transferred to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks.
It is unknown whether a typical cotton lab coat would have saved her. But even if it caught fire, it could have been removed much more easily than a burning synthetic sweater, safety expert Phifer said.
"I can't imagine why she didn't have protective clothing if she knew she was working with chemicals that dangerous," Sheri's friend Bruce said.
But just how much Sangji knew about the procedure that took her life is an open question.
"The employee may not have been using best work practices while handling the syringe to transfer a pyrophoric liquid," a UCLA accident report concluded. "The employees should be instructed in safer handling techniques."
Harran told a UCLA investigator the day after the fire that a syringe "was the appropriate method" for transferring t-butyl lithium -- and that Sangji had been trained how to do it. But according to the investigator's report, Harran did not know when that training occurred and had no record of it, as required by Cal/OSHA and UCLA lab safety standards.
UCLA's Reed said Sangji "was trained by senior chemists within Dr. Harran's lab to conduct this specific experiment and handle these specific chemicals." But he couldn't say why there was no record of it.
"We're still trying to figure that one out," he said, adding that Cal/OSHA is also looking into it.
At the hospital, Naveen said, her sister told her that she was not given safety training: "She was very clear about the lack of safety training, because I asked her directly."
It was not unheard of for people in Harran's labs to work without protective gear, UCLA records show.
On Oct. 30, two months before the fire, an annual safety inspection uncovered more than two dozen deficiencies in his four labs, including the one where Sangji worked. Among other things, inspectors found excessive amounts of flammable liquids and missing chemical spill cleanup kits.
"Eye protection, nitrile [rubber] gloves and lab coats were not worn by laboratory personnel," the inspection report said.
The Nov. 5 report said lab coats "must be worn while conducting research and handling hazardous materials in the lab" and assigned the Dec. 5 deadline to correct the deficiencies.
After the accident, however, Bill Peck, UCLA manager of occupational safety and employee health, wrote in his report that "most of the corrections in the laboratory were not accomplished by 12/30/08."
A first-aid kit and spill cleanup materials were still lacking; flammable materials and water- and air-reactive chemicals were still being stored improperly; and employees still weren't using protective equipment, the report said.
Cal/OSHA is investigating why the deficiencies were not corrected sooner, UCLA officials said. One potential factor, they said, is that Harran had planned to move the lab.
Phifer and Langerman saw other potential problems: At the time of the fire, Sangji worked at a cupboard-like "fume hood," which pulls potentially harmful vapors out through an exhaust system. It has a tempered-glass vertical sash that probably was not lowered enough, they said, because if it had been, only her hands and forearms would have been burned.
In addition to the fume hood, Sangji would have been better protected if she had used a "blast shield," a free-standing portable device made of brass that chemists put between themselves and potentially dangerous experiments, the experts said. A blast shield was not required for that experiment, Reed said, and it is unknown if one was available.
Langerman also questioned the safety of transferring t-butyl lithium with a syringe.
"The preferred method is to use pressure to push the liquid out of the source bottle into your receiver through a stainless-steel tube," he said.
Both experts also wondered if Sangji and the postdoctoral researchers who risked their lives to help her had received adequate fire safety training. UCLA officials say they had.
"The response afterward is probably most responsible for her death," Phifer said. "The fact that she immediately turned away from the shower and went in the opposite direction is a problem. It means that she wasn't properly trained in what to do in the event she caught fire."
At the burn center, Sangji's family found her wrapped in bandages, her arms suspended from the ceiling. Deep burns covered her back, legs, torso and ears.
"It was really hard to see her like that," Naveen said. "They gave her a lot of sedation and oxygen therapy, but she was in a lot of pain. Her big concern was her hands. She really worried that she wouldn't get function back. She kept asking about her hands: 'Will they get better? How long will it take?' "
Naveen said her sister could not bring herself to discuss the accident: "She was having flashbacks and nightmares, and she didn't want to talk about it."
Only family members were permitted visits, so friends dropped off cards and posters with photos and messages of encouragement for Sheri, an avid soccer player. She seemed to make progress for about a week, her sister said, but began to decline at about the time of a second surgery to remove burned tissue.
On Jan. 16, she succumbed to respiratory failure, infection and other complications, according to a coroner's report.
"Sheri was such a fighter that it just never entered our minds that she wouldn't make it through," her sister said.
A day before her funeral in Toronto, her family learned that she had been accepted to UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.
"It was her dream school," Naveen said.
EPA to test schools' air for toxic chemicals...The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency will soon begin testing the air around schools for toxic contaminants.
The $2.25 million program announced Monday will be the first to specifically target air contamination near schools. The EPA already operates a nationwide monitoring network that collects information on a variety of air pollutants.
The school monitors will focus on toxic chemicals that are known to cause cancer, respiratory and neurological problems _ especially in children, who are more susceptible than adults because they are still growing.
Initially, states and local governments will monitor the air at 50 to 100 schools located near large industrial facilities or in cities where a variety of sources can lead to high concentrations of pollution.
The agency expects the monitoring to begin in 30 days.
"Questions have been raised about air quality around some U.S. schools, and those questions merit investigation," said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson.
But it is unclear what the agency can do about it if it finds that some pollutants are posing risks on school grounds. There are no federal standards for the 188 chemicals classified as air toxics. It can also be difficult to trace a pollution problem back to a specific source.
On the Net: EPA's Toxic Air Pollutant Web site:http://www.epa.gov/air/toxicair