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Mar-28-2010 16:34printcomments

Water Quality: An Exploration of the Myths, Lies and Misperceptions

“Don’t Test, Don’t Tell” PART II

Kettleman Waste
Another hazardous waste truck leaves the Waste Management facility in Kettleman City.

(LAGUNA BEACH) - In this second and final installment, our caravan will be moving on to problems here in my home state of California. If you live in another state, felt that I was unjustly pounding on the place you love, you might experience a little ripple of “schadenfreude” while browsing. After all, we are unrivaled as the poster child for turning startlingly beautiful, verdant and blue eco-systems into liquid, hazardous waste dumps. We have entire cottage industries that have sprung up like ticks over water-related issues.

After 100 years of strife, we still can’t get a handle on the world of water, we’re lost when it comes to balancing an out-of-control population and relevant public utility expansion based on the same resource budgets from 25 years ago. This is why what passes for government in California can’t find the light switch----No one wants to do what’s best for the state’s resources, instead preferring the special interests and their big $$$ that prop up our corrupt political structure.

Anyone who has attended a State Water Resources Control Board meeting in one of the 9 Cal/EPA regions regarding the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit renewals is forced to sit and listen to lie after freaking lie after freaking lie[1].

“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge

Usually it’s our own traitorous water and sanitation districts and their attorneys leading the anti-improvement surge, forming an insidious cabal that includes city and county governance reps, plus the always fun Building Industry of America (BIA) that whine, piss, moan and bellyache. They’ll take over the public comments sections at hearings, basically filibuster you into inattentive drowsiness if you take time out of your personal life to attend.

As for them, the ones with no conscience but Armani suits, Rolex watches, slick haircuts and fat wallets? They could care less if this costs you money from lost work somewhere because they and their consultants are being paid to attend. And those high-paying attendees, folks, well, their lofty incomes are ironically out of YOUR pocket. So the imbeciles holding up the reversal of groundwater impairments and surface water degradation are using your money to fight providing your family with safer and healthier watery environs.

Is this country great or what, letting these leeches diabolically tap into our own money and staff resources to stave off water quality compliance?

“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” Lao-Tzu, First Patriarch of Taoism

They usually speak first, this “Dis-Loyal Opposition,” everyone in the room knowing their true masters; their loyalty rests with whoever gave them bags of money most recently. The politicians get serious ducats from pro-development entities, and as the public agency staffs and officials are appointed by these bought-paid-and-delivered politicos, they too shake their heads in synch and toe, actually mime, the “Party Whine.” Don’t foget that local public employees have additional job security, otherwise they’d get laid off for lack of community development projects.

The vendors for these cretins are usually seen cruising the margins at these venues chumming for large and small prey, you’ll see them buying lunch for their prospective clients like the good lobbyists they are. Many are reps for bogus or over-rated technologies that get funded as experiments, as pilot/demonstration projects out of State Grant funding sources. A few years later, when these technologies are fully operational, found to be marginal improvements or basically snake oil, they just abandon the first one, then pull another one out of their nefarious bag of legerdemain, like rabbits out of a hat.

“You can never step into the same water twice.” Heraclitus of Ephesus

Truly canards, as in the original French sense: A half of a duck. We’re the ducks, the suckers, and we would be lucky if they even gave 50% improved results---Which most of these technologies do not even approach. I’ve seen millions of Prop. 13, 40 and 50 State Grant Funds go down the drain foolishly in Orange County alone, wasted money that could be used elsewhere.

If you want to research, read some
of the now-deceased Marc Reisner’s
work (Cadillac Desert)

These eco-leeches purport groundless and exaggerated positive results, they fabricate or massage their abilities, and then cheat the taxpayers ruthlessly with a happy salesperson smile and a shrug of their shoulders when they fail---Which most do.

Relying on our increased anxiety over water, on our tendency to panic and throw something up to stem the tide of contamination, they even procure the subsequent Operation and Maintenance (O & M) contracts AFTER selling or leasing someone their very very expensive treatment systems. So they add insult to injury, double-dipping at the State Grant and federal troughs that underwrite a large portion of these attempts. Local matching fund coffers get drained too, there’s little if any oversight because they install these technologies with the disclaimer that they’re only pilot/demos with built-in lowered expectations, do you get it? These vendors sure do.

“In California water flows uphill towards money.” A quote attributed to Mark Twain, invoked by author Marc Reisner in “Cadillac Desert”

Going back to the hearings themselves, you as a concerned citizen are forced to hear variations on a theme, bleating rationalizations regarding the respective public agencies inabilities to comply with, to implement the federal Clean Water Act and/or California’s Porter-Cologne Water Act: “It’s too draconian,” or “It’s too expensive,” or “It’s too onerous,” or the always classic, go-to-quote: “Our ratepayers/taxpayers/residents won’t pay for it,” and blah blah blah.

Local grass roots NGO representatives like myself sit through this BS in frustration, then, as if an afterthought, we get our pitifully limited 3 minutes of fame at the microphone to squeeze in our thoughts. If a major non-profit representative attorney shows up, we get out the popcorn, sit back and watch green lawyers tear these anti-environment bozos a “New One,” if you get my meaning. They usually get extended speaking time out of respect, and frankly we don’t mind that preferential treatment.

I’m not a big supporter of this cult-of-personality stuff, but it is amusing to watch a high profile and very technically knowledgeable attorney rip through these idiots like a knife through butter. Senior Staff Attorney David Beckman of the National Resources Defense Council is one such dude, he’s very erudite and has a calm, considered, methodical approach I appreciate.

David Beckman

My own personal favorite, out of San Diego, is Marco Gonzalez who just founded his own firm, Coast Law Group LLC. I’d almost pay to watch him, he’s still burning hot with indignation, plus I’m a big fan of sarcasm mixed with tar and feathers for chronic polluters. Watching Marco take one of these people to the woodshed is Heaven on Earth.

Über-attorney Marco Gonzalez
of Coast Law Group, LLC

The small, grass roots NGO reps tend to take the moral approach, not especially dwelling on codes and regulations but on the ethics of planetary eco-abuse in their locale. We do that “Think globally, act locally” schtick encouraged by Scottish planner and social activist Patrick Geddes. What’s hysterical is that most of the crap the opposition purports to be the truth has been repeatedly debunked, not that this stops them.

One such confrontation in 2002 over urban runoff warning signs in Orange County was similar to that Bill Clinton dance: Instead of the word “Is” we fought over the word “May.” The State Water Resources Control Board wanted all drainage system discharge points, including pipes and v-ditches that puke the toxic soup of urban runoff into creeks, rivers, lakes and the ocean to have a sign posted.

These signs would be in English and Spanish, warning the ignorant and unsuspecting, basically a CYA for public and/or attractive nuisance litigation. We kicked around exact verbiage, and something like “WARNING: Contact With Urban Runoff Causes Illness” seemed obvious. Here’s the sign they now post at our beaches, many permanently, when testing reveals high concentrations, notice the “MAY” they used to get the County off the hook?

Imagine yourself sitting in a public hearing and your own top Health Department officials (physicians mind you) are claiming that there is no proof that urban runoff causes illness! Our own little gem is Dr. Monica Mazur, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to the “Wicked Witch of the West” (Margaret Hamilton) from Oz.

The resemblance is further supported by her “Queen of Denial” snotty attitude, plus her Tweedle Dee arrogance. Her smarmy sidekick, he of the affected upper class British accent, one righteous and pompous hatchet man Dr. Christopher Crompton, is her Tweedle Dumb at public meetings. They act superior as if in possession of some public health secrets, yet who in their right natural mind these days believes that the substances in urban runoff CAN’T cause illness as these two dolts stonewall us?

OC Public Health fought and fought, trying to keep the connection between runoff and illness being placed on these signs because it left the County of Orange exposed to litigation. Forget that your children are playing in these streams, now turned into concrete wastewater ditches. Ignore that your children are playing in ocean waters near storm drain outfall pipes that are barfing toxins upon the sand they wallow in. Forget the biota, the aquatic and riparian species that have no choice but accept the fluids we force them to ingest.

I once asked Monica, a la Erin Brockovitch, if she would swim around in this crap with us, tow her family around in it fully immersed, maybe gargle some if it’s so safe. Of course she refused, and also refused to tell us if she or her family EVER swim in any stream or beach in the OC. No reply to that either.

Recently, very extensive water quality sampling performed by a major university (USC?) of the main streams from Santa Barbara to San Diego revealed Hepatitis A was ubiquitous! Markers were found in basically 100% of those tributaries, creeks and rivers. Her response: “We need to have a lot more studies to substantiate these frivolous claims.”

A few years ago, several polls here in Orange County CA revealed that over 90% of our population WOULD pay more to achieve safer, healthier sources of clean water both from our taps and in our environs But when did the will of the people ever keep a good politician down? I’ve sat and listened in shocked disbelief while one of my own Laguna Beach City Council members spoke against further improvements. She claimed that our city wasn’t prepared to comply, that she’d be pilloried for supporting such things, the litany of usual excuses---I half expected her to claim that her dog ate her homework.

One of the bad guys favorite venues you need not attend is the REALLY BIG CONFERENCE (aka The Really Big Lie), the Blue Ribbon Task Force or Committee, a dead end cul-de-sac of self-promotion and glad-handing. Read the fine print and the organizers and their speakers are actually the folks who create the problems, the same ones who put off compliance or halt enforcement actions once again (Did you guess?) using YOUR money! They are usually constructed for bogus PR, they only invite speakers that “go along to get along,” and act as if discussing water solves the issues at hand. I was mistakenly asked to speak once long ago at such a gig, but then they realized what a nightmare I’d be and withdrew the invite with a lame excuse.

The stellar historical (and hysterical) texts by urban theorist Mike Davis (Ecology of Fear & City of Quartz, et al) are extremely informative. Together, they can help readers discover where we went wrong as a state and also as a nation in dealing with all things water. You might also want to read some of the pithy patter of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Carl Hiaasen, his ecologically-themed, dystopian, convoluted diatribes about politicians, water and developers in Florida will find resonance and are without peer. See, this scandal knows no borders.

Certainly the public’s alarm is now justified regarding the subject of water in general everywhere on our planet. Another seminal text would be The Riverkeepers, written by my first mentor and inspiration, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a man I fortunately met early on (1998) in Newport Beach. I felt awkward because he’s the spitting image of his Dad, and the first time I ever voted after getting out of the USMC was for his father in the tragic 1968 California Presidential primary campaign. A picture of he and I together from that day still sits next to the one of the other great influence in my life, my Dad, right over my desk lest I ever forget.

As I’ve noted in Part I, one of the disturbing themes, a common thread has been the “Don’t Test, Don’t Tell” mentality. Testing protocols and better science are making that posture more difficult to defend, although the WARNING sign fiasco gives insight into the County of Orange’s “Don’t Tell” part. In the distant past, water providers, whether it was potable (drinking) or reclaimed landscape/irrigation water, weren’t required to intensely analyze samples for many substances now known to be hazardous. Add that to the fact that a great deal of the monitoring means that the henhouse is guarded by the fox as EPA entrusts these good ol’ boy networks to keep themselves in compliance.

Recent watchdog criminal and civil investigations of major water and sanitation district officials is revealing a shadowy and corrupt bureaucracy, and as braver whistleblowers emerge more will come to light. And the more rocks we turn over the more of these scavenging criminals trying to burrow back into darkness we’ll indict. Charged, but not convicted, because of course they’ll get their incredibly expensive defense paid for by their sucker employers: Us!

Ever notice how we, the public, pay their inflated salaries, benefit and severance or retirement packages, then when they get charged we end up paying to keep their sentences light or get them off the hook? For those who take the time to read the legally required propaganda mailed to their homes every year by their local water district, these legally mandated annual reports are at odds with what independent investigative entities are sharing.

It seems as if our water district folks like to pretend that they are looking out for us. One is driven to wonder if these insiders have surreptitiously, and hypocritically, installed multiple-stage treatment systems installed in their homes, those state-of-the-art installations using reverse osmosis and filtration membranes designed to reduce and/or eliminate these hazardous substances.

The potable tap water they send to us, the “hoi-polloi,” what they blithely expect us to guzzle down and bathe in, has obviously become damaged goods, plus an increasingly expensive consumer product[2].

Indeed, the market for some really whack new age purification processes and ancillary widgets with bizarre and intentionally mysterious technologies are evolving rapidly for high profit endeavors due to the fear factor. They carry exotically polished, foreign sounding names, typically slick New Age marketing campaigns, even though many are simply filtered tap water with a fancy-schmancy label.

Some rely on selling the public spiffy devices and maintenance accouterments at exorbitant rates, using the “If it costs more it must do more” logos that Americans have become almost genetically pre-disposed to be fools for: The healing elixirs of long life. Raise the ph above 7.0 (alkalinity), you’ll raise your health, stamina and probably increase erection size simultaneously! Step right up, availability is as limited as the public’s attention span[3].

Does anyone remember Sterling Hayden in the movie “Dr. Strangelove”? Sterling played a whacko Air Force Brigadier General aptly named Jack D. Ripper, a base commander who sends his entire nuclear-armed SAC Wing to preemptively bomb the Soviet Union-----All because he’s convinced that his precious bodily fluids have been affected by the fluoridation of drinking water.

Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove”

Back in 1963 while being filmed, many of our more zany fringe groups like the John Birch Society alleged that fluoridation was a Commie plot, meant to sterilize virile American men. It was painfully funny to hear General Ripper exclaim that he first noticed the side effects of fluoridation, his loss of “essence,” while trying to have sex. If he had only waited, like the Laguna Hills retirement home senior he would have had some Viagra in his coffee for free!

Though Ripper’s frustration and sexual dysfunction were probably a combination of an enlarged prostate and deflated male ego, the movie was way ahead of its time in the context we’re addressing: We rely upon water, healthy water to drink, to bathe and to swim in, to grow and wash our food with, whether it’s in our faucet, our pool, creek, lake or ocean. Ultimately, Americans need to understand that no, it’s not necessarily safe to go into the water anywhere, anyhow, anymore. And due to the incredible lifespan of these contaminates, our flora and fauna are helpless to protect themselves.

Running streams devoid of life are worthless for those who rely upon them for partial sustenance or even a peaceful, recreational sanctuary. Anyone who has ever sat down by moving water, whether the sea, a lake or a stream finds it quite mesmerizing, knows the very calming and quite restful effects in a psycho-spiritual way. When it’s a healthy stream, teeming with life, you can slake your thirst as your primordial ancestors did millions of years ago.

We, as humans, definitely connect with life through our watery encounters.

Another American oddity that I’ve repeatedly tried to debunk is our inherent belief that what technology destroys or impairs it can also fix. Yes, Mother Nature many times eventually makes a comeback, heals Herself, but many of the man-made substances we’ve set loose into our environs take thousands, if not millions of years to dissolve, to attenuate (lessen) below harmfully dangerous levels.

Scene from the movie Blade Runner

The ridiculous policies of EPA contend that if testing cannot detect low levels of contaminants, then they have a null effect. This ignores cumulative ecosystem impacts and bio-magnification, that is the cascading of contaminants throughout the entire food chain by its storage in various species fatty tissue. Mercury is one recent, glaring example: Medical experts now warn the public not to ingest coastal-caught fish and invertebrates more than once per week because of high mercury levels[4].

Regardless of the Pollyanna BS by corporate polluters, a lot of what’s being dispersed into our natural resource systems is being done so irretrievably and irrevocably, unethically so. Increased urbanization and sheer density will have us crammed like sardines in a can, our rural areas turned into toxic wastelands. So instead of wilderness serving as a sanctuary, it will be xeriscape or even deserts in some places, filled with mutant species of plants and animals in others----If anything can survive the chemical and fatal metal onslaught. The corporate rats act as if profit trumps safety.

Money won’t be of much use in that kind of unbridled greedy dystopia, that degraded, acid-rained drenched and pitiful future from movies like Brazil or Blade Runner.

Moving on, far less publicized, ignored or plain misunderstood is the state of our ocean water quality here in California. Whether it’s in a local newspaper, something available online or one of those 3-minute farces called “in depth segments” on television, the public continues to be intentionally misled by government health agencies in regards to ocean water quality monitoring.

Scene from Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" Source: Wikipedia

The disparity between coastal contaminant reality and what the public is being spoon fed is shocking, and the fault lies not only with government but with greenwashing Non-Governmental Groups (NGOs) seeking promotional publicity and long term sustainable funds to support their salaries and their “research junkets” which, by the way, always seem to be in exotic places! I mean you never read about these things taking place in say, Fontana, or perhaps Encino. No, they’re in Tahiti, Durbin or the Caribbean.

Take the Santa Monica based non-profit, Heal The Bay (HTB), please just take them and make them go away. They play into the hands of these chronic pollution violators by propagating both mis and dis-information.

HTB has a yearly analysis titled “California Beach Report Card (CBRC),” which is the butt of many water quality activist jokes here in South Orange County.

Yes, they do some good deeds in the water quality world, but many times NGO’s like this drain valuable funds from more cutting edge groups, the local grass roots attempts to hold government accountable, the ones that actually mobilize and work the trenches uncompensated. Much of the time, beholding to governmental bureaucracies for fame and fortune, partnering for sizable grant packages, these greenwashers can undermine hot button issues by sleeping with the enemy. They are given privileged speaking time and placement at venues, they’re the go-to interviewees in lazy reporters’ rolodexes, and they unjustly obtain semi-celebrity status even if the issue is not in their domain.

David Brower (Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, League of Conservation Voters, Earth Island Institute) was asked near his death why he kept leaving one radical ecological protectionist group and forming another. His response was that after about 10-12 years, they had lost their way, become corporate bureaucracies that had bloated, over-paid staffs with big benefit packages but little conscience. Groups like the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club received his tongue-lashing because they had abandoned their original mission statement, existing simply to, well, just to exist.

They get unpaid, well-meaning volunteers to do most of the grunt work while they skim the cream ($$$) off of the top, justifying their roles as necessary. Usually unsuspecting suckers like students provide good slave labor and then they get the double-dip of PR photo-ops from the local media. Technical and expert assistance is oft-times also contributed, saving more money for those conference trips to Tahiti. They place highly prestigious, yet environmentally ignorant community leaders on their over-stuffed boards to cast a wider net to achieve a persona of socially acceptability.

Eager and hungry when formed, these non-profits get complacent quickly. They file a lawsuit every now and then to keep up their image, thus increasing their annual dues-paying membership numbers. Then they settle out of court, and guess what? Their opponents manage to (surprise!) donate the following year.

Last year, it was revealed that Surfrider hired a marketing firm to help generate more fundraising capacity. They spent 10% of their budget (about $400,000) on this, and it makes you wonder why they don’t ALREADY have in-house fundraising abilities, doesn’t it? Instead they jobbed it out and aren’t even embarrassed!

Invariably, some of these NGOs push aside and take sole credit for hot button endeavors born of the heat generated by others. The 241 Toll Road at San Onofre on the Orange/San Diego County border was a sterling example---Surfrider Foundation came in late, eventually took all of the credit where the original grass roots Save Trestles visionary, charismatic leader Jerry Collamer did all of the grunt work He was assisted later by Friends of the Foothills, Endangered Habitats League, Acagchemem Juaneño Indians, and fishery NGO’s like Trout Unlimited had already laid some of the groundwork too due to steelhead trout presence[5].

Trestles surfer Jerry Collamer. Gastaldo/Union-Tribune

Often, when there are major water quality violations like multi-million gallon sewage spills, because these high profile NGO’s can afford their own legal staff they go to the front of the arbitration line. This way they leverage a large portion of resolution in the public’s name. Often, the Assessed Civil Liabilities (fines) imposed by Cal/EPA turn into funds available known as Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) which of course are diverted to these “go along to get along” NGOs.

Due to chronic violations, these SEPs become a PR/Marketing tool and springboard, plus provide seed money for other staff employee wages. It’s a perpetual motion money-making machine: As infrastructure ages, becomes more antiquated and starts going into major breakdowns and catastrophic failures, more fines occur. A pretty simple formula for corporate success, one exploited to the max as these NGOs set their supporters in search of every revenue stream available.

It’s not jealousy that drives resentment of NGOs like this. It’s the insider knowledge of how conflicted they are, how the compromising pursuit of fiscal sustainability lacks a conscience. In a sense, they take advantage of general entropy to prolong, direct and amplify their revenue models. Several years ago Surfrider in Santa Monica accepted $50,000 from a car manufacturer and brazenly saw no conflict of interest. So much for the phrase “Non-Profit,” huh?

Regarding HTB’s CBRC, the website reads: “Welcome to the only comprehensive analysis of coastline water quality in California. Each week, over 350 beaches are graded A to F based on bacteria analysis.”

What most don’t know is that HTB gets a lot of serious donation sums from celebrities and laypersons alike, yet they don’t actually do the sampling themselves and the testing only reveals bacteria that can cause eye, ear nose and throat problems, sometimes flu-like symptoms. No one tests for carcinogens, for Proposition 65 chemicals or California Toxic Rule substances. This also epitomizes the “Don’t Test, Don’t Tell” attitude: They aren’t required to test hence divulge what’s actually being released into your environs, in the water you and yours swim in, possibly swallow, and most definitely absorb through your skin.

HTB receives obscenely gross sums of grant money, but in a sense they can be viewed as facilitators, covering up for the deficiencies of enforcement and for the public health care agencies they socialize with.

Here’s the fine print from their website, the disclaimers everyone should be reading to better grasp the deceptive nature of HTB inflated boasting: “Heal the Bay’s End of Summer Beach Report Card provides beachgoers with essential water quality information by grading nearly 460 monitoring locations from Humboldt County through San Diego County. The grades are based on dry weather water quality data provided by over 20 different entities throughout California. The Beach Report Card is based on the routine monitoring of beaches conducted by local health agencies and pollutant dischargers. Water samples are analyzed for bacteria that indicate pollution from numerous sources, including fecal waste. The better the grade a beach receives, the lower the risk of illness to ocean users. The report is not designed to measure the amount of trash or toxins found at beaches. The Beach Report Card would not be possible without the cooperation of all of the shoreline monitoring agencies in the state.”

What led to this money-maker? Please read carefully the wonderful goals of the original California Assembly Bill 411 as it was proposed by Howard Wayne (D-San Diego): “AB 411 would require the State Department of Health Services to adopt regulations requiring the testing of all beaches for total coliform, fecal coliform, enterococci, and streptococci bacteria, establish protective minimum standards for the location of monitoring sites and monitoring frequency, to require posting in clearly visible points along affected beaches whenever state standards are violated, and to require that beaches be tested for total coliform, fecal coliform, enterococci, and streptococci bacteria and chemical pollutants including, but not limited to, PCBs, PAHs, and mercury on a weekly basis from April 1 to October 31, inclusive, of each year if certain conditions are met. AB 411 would require the local health officer to notify the Director of Parks and Recreation within 24 hours of any beach posting, closure, or restriction, and would require the Director of Parks and Recreation to establish a telephone hotline and update it daily to inform the public of beach postings, closures, and restrictions.” [6]

Now read the wording of the final AB 411, passed as a shadow of its former self that epitomizes the title of this series. Basically gutting out the more prescriptive and protective elements and the originally wider gamut of constituents tested for, this has the DNA of those same intransigent and in denial public agency reps who fight progress. Coupled with the BIA and the “Usual Suspects” I noted earlier, they rolled this potentially far-reaching bill back into obsolescence. De-fanged, de-clawed, almost voluntary in its compliance implementation, in this warped incarnation it hasn’t had much of any effect.

“and to require that public beaches, with certain exceptions, be tested for microbiological contaminations, including, but not limited to, total coliform, fecal coliform, and enterococci bacteria on a weekly basis from April 1 to October 31, inclusive, of each year if certain conditions are met. By changing the definition of a crime, this bill would impose a state-mandated local program.”

Last, but by no means the least, is the ongoing environmental train wreck that is Kettleman City, CA in the San Joaquin Valley. What many of us now ironically refer to as the “Trifecta” of pollution, local governance chose the large sums of outside corporate money over their own community’s future. Undoubtedly many a local election was and remains influenced by the influx of dollars this nightmare feeds.

Kettleman City, CA Source: Wikipedia

Unlike a horse race trifecta, it’s hard to tell which category finished first, second or third---At least until the billion dollar medical lawsuits are through, air, soil and water are running neck and neck in this interminable race for winner of the greatest contaminate impact(s) inflicted upon regional residents.

This sleepy little town of 1500, with no high school or grocery store, not even sidewalks, does look pretty idyllic in photos until you start researching its recent history. Surrounded by farms, it has been acknowledged by USEPA that it has poor air quality, that the drinking water supply which drafts from local aquifers is dangerously high in banned carcinogens, and that pesticides and herbicides from the region have left the soil and landscape water hazardous. The trigger mechanisms in Kettleman were the cancer clusters and birth defects in larger than expected numbers.

The potable water is laced with arsenic (EPA claims of natural origin), and in fact the entire San Joaquin Valley has degraded air quality. Adjacent to Kettleman City is Highway 41 near the Interstate 5, they get the hydrocarbon emissions from fuming diesel-belching trucks delivered FREE each and every day. And would somebody please tell me why we can’t keep letting these commercial vehicles have lower, instead of those nasty, costly and more stringent pollution standards? I mean why harass commerce, they’re our friends aren’t they, delivering American goods AND pollution to our doors like the milkman, like they do in Kettleman City?

The dispute goes back decades, ever since Waste Management was allowed to create the largest toxic waste dump west of the Mississippi about 4 miles out of town. In 2009, WM admitted that some 400,000 tons of hazardous waste (PCBs, lead, e-waste, et al) entered the ground.

You can just hear the murmur of greedy local interests saying: “Hey, what’s so bad about 800,000,000 lbs. of this stuff being dumped out in the middle of nowhere each year, right?” Who cares about the health effects on a bunch of poor, basically disposable and replaceable agricultural families?

Adding to local’s alarm, WM wants to expand the possible culprit landfill over their objections. In WM’s defense, USEPA and just about every regulator have been all over this place like a cheap suit, like white on rice, like flies on…….Well, you get my meaning, the landfill has been under intense scrutiny for years. Yes, part of the problem is that we don’t trust our own government to protect us anymore, so our fears here are justified and not paranoid dreams when it comes to EPA, an agency prone to mischief by whatever administration is in power.

Residents of Kettleman City urge the EPA to
keep the toxic waste landfill from expanding.
(Photo by Zaidee Stavely/Radio Bilingue)

It’s no secret that Bush rolled back enviro-protection laws to an extent that we may never recover from. There might be other culprits in the vicinity of Kettleman yet to be found, so only time will tell---Unfortunately that’s time the locals don’t have a lot of.

So in Kettleman City, “Don’t Test, Don’t Tell” is “Out of Sight, out of Mind,” but the logic is similar. And incidentally, you’d have to be out of your mind to buy, rent, live or work in proximity to a toxic waste dump. These people in many cases are multi-generational farm workers, unlikely to move---or to complain either.

The general formula is simple: Look for a very rural, poorly educated and unorganized community whose County or city government sees big tax dollars and a few extra jobs, don’t mind selling out their heritage to uncaring, abstract corporate interests. Stir into the demographic a greedy County Chamber of Commerce whose members get little pieces of the action via their service-oriented friends (or themselves). Add daily product, basic necessity businesses into the mixture.

If you’re in power or control, now you merely skim some of the cream ($$$) off of the top by the usual corrupt political structure that dominates---And maybe you get double bonus points by expediting your very own personal retirement network revenue model.

Erin Brockovitch-Ellis Source: Wikipedia

As everyone knows, Wonder Woman Erin Brockovitch won a landmark litigation. It was over a drinking water pollutant, the highly carcinogenic chromium in the City of Hinkley, CA.

She followed it up with a settlement of $335 million from a similar suit (1200 plaintiffs) against PG & E over the groundwater contamination near their Kettleman Hills Compressor Station. The Station is just a few miles north up the 5 Interstate. Seems that the same pipeline fed both Hinkley AND Kettleman. Some coincidence, huh? [7]

Chromium can become an airborne pollutant, so once again what part of contaminating the land, water and soil aren’t we getting here in my home state? The public is still on a learning curve, some I’m sure see people like Erin as eco-disaster ambulance chasers[8]. The bottom line for me, the Odd Man Out, is that the song remains the same: DETERRENCE DRIVES COMPLIANCE. Nobody would really stop at a signal if we had no police, and definitely if no one would stop if we never empowered officers to write a ticket with serious repercussions.

You can forget singing America The Beautiful if the big king fish, the chronic, and yes, in my mind criminal polluters, aren’t properly made to pay. Like the bankers that bilked us, literally mortgaged our country’s fiscal future, so too these people need to see the inside of a prison cell for a while.

Let’s put them on Southern-style chain gangs, put them to work during the day cleaning up the incredible heritage, the mess they’ve left us, “We, the people.”

FYI: If a project near you has some interesting enviro-aspect(s) you think is/are worthy of coverage and our readers attention, feel free to contact Roger with a very brief synopsis. Water-related “Blue Interventions” are his specialty!

[1]No longer available




[5]No longer available







FYI: If a project near you has some interesting enviro-aspect(s) that you think is/are worthy of coverage and our reader's attention, feel free to contact me with a very brief synopsis. Water-related “Blue Interventions” are my specialty!

Launched in 2010, Odd Man Out is the creation of Roger Bütow and his OMO columns are written exclusively for Salem-News-com. Born and raised in the LA Harbor area, son of a German immigrant father, he moved to Orange County in 1965 and has lived in Laguna Beach since 1972. In 1998, he began his professional career in environmental review processes (CEQA, NEPA, MND, MND and EIR/EIS). He's a rare mix of cross-trained builder, writer and consultant as he brings his extensive construction experiences dating back to 1972 into his eco-endeavors. He has tremendous field and technical expertise in successful watershed restorations, plus wastewater, urban runoff, water quality monitoring/improvements and hydrologic mechanisms. He's built everything from commercial spas to award-winning private residences, and provided peer review and consultant analyses for single homes, subdivisions and upscale resorts.

View articles written by Roger Butow Read Roger's full biography on the Staff Page

His resumé is extensive, try an online GOOGLE search of his personal journey and historical accomplishments. His consultation fees are reasonable and if you've got a major project that alarms you, that needs creative intervention, then he's your man. His credentials and "CV" can be provided upon request.

Contact him at his office: (949) 715.1912 or drop him an email:


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