New solar array at Culver City elementary school

I did double duty today as a father and photographer at my son’s elementary school when at a ribbon cutting ceremony this morning the switch was turned on at Culver City Unified School District's new photovoltaic power system. The giant solar array is located at Farragut Elementary School and spreads out over the parking lot next to Ballona Creek and the back playground on the east side of the school.

Solar power at elementary schoolSolar power at elementary schoolConstruction was started over last summer and was completed a few weeks into the school year. The Sunpower 750kw solar array is expected to provide $400,000 a year to the district’s general fund.

It will also serve as an education tool to help teach students about alternative energies, sustainability and climate change. Much like the many school gardens I have photographed, the new solar array will introduce these new ideas to the students by allowing them to interact with it, as tours and lectures are already being introduced into the curriculum.

Solar power at elementary schoolOn 2/4/2014, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held at Farragut Elementary School in Culver City for the switching on of the school district's new 750kw solar array built at the school. In addition to providing an expected $400,000 back to the school district, it will also serve as an education tool to help teach students about alternative energies, sustainability and climate change.

Solar power at elementary schoolHundreds of kids from the school attended holding up their home-made signs. Parents and teachers milled about, as did many of the town’s dignitaries. At the ribbon cutting ceremony was the mayor - Jeff Cooper, the vice mayor - Meghan Sahli-Wells, many city council members as well as school board members were present along with representatives of Sunpower and Todd Johnson, the co-chair of Culver City’s Environmental Sustainability Committee.

 The thing I love about living Culver City is that in spite of being in the middle of one of the largest urban centers in the country, it still manages to feel like a small town. It feels good to be in a place that is being proactive on many sustainability issues, where the city’s leaders are working closely with the community and schools to make our city a progressive and greener place to live.

If oil companies paid their way...

I debated whether to post another story about an oil company protest so soon after the one I did a few weeks ago on AB32, but the behavior of oil companies is a hot topic right now and rightfully so. There are many stories coming to light and this one is about more than just the environmental impact, it is about about a devastating financial impact as well. You don’t have to live in California these days to know that the state is in the throes of a $19.1 billion budgetary deficit that has already forced many spending cuts and threatens to implement many more. Jobs are at stake, and social programs and education will also undoubtedly feel the pain.

Now, you reduce deficits by either cutting spending or raising taxes, so what other oil producing states have done is to exact something called an oil severance tax, which is a royalty paid by the oil company for the right to extract the oil from the state’s land and water. The idea is that if you are going to deplete a valuable natural resource from the land, you need to pay for it. Seems fair, and even other oil producing countries have this tax which are usually much higher than the ones imposed in this country.

The problem is that the only oil producing state that does not have this severance tax is California. There have been several attempts to rectify this, most recently in 2006 with Proposition 87, which would have implemented a 6% tax on oil extraction. It had widespread support but faced a $95 million campaign funded by oil companies and went down to defeat 54.7% to 45.3%.

Lest you think this is a right versus left thing, consider that Gov. Sarah Palin and the Alaska GOP controlled legislature instituted a 25% tax on oil extraction and now have a multibillion-dollar budget surplus. The California 6% tax would have been modest in comparison, and would have raised about $1 billion in annual revenue, but at least it would have been a start. Critics argue that the tax would force prices up, chase oil companies from the state and eliminate jobs, but these are all the red herrings that are always thrown out when oil companies are threatened with a reduction of their massive profits and are debunked quite rightly by those outside the industry.

Last Thursday, over a thousand people, made up of union workers from SEIU Local 721, as well as students, childcare workers, school employees, and various community organizations marched from the Federal building in Westwood to the Occidental Petroleum offices a few blocks east on Wilshire and Westwood Blvd. The line of people stretched for blocks as the protesters gathered in front of the offices and emptied small fake bottles of oil at Occidental's doorsteps.

When I told people about the rally and march later, several of them asked if something like that actually makes a difference. I responded that the only thing I knew for sure was that if all those folks had stayed home, then absolutely nothing would have been accomplished. At the very least, demonstrations serve to rally the community and to energize those participating, who in turn have a chance to educate others about the situation, just as I am doing here. Not participating is exactly what the oil producers hope for. Maybe with talk once again of instituting an oil severance tax, the time will be right to actually make it happen.

Green roofs

I’ve been on vacation a week, but before I left Los Angeles I shot a couple of green roofs in downtown and South Central. They were two very different kinds of green roofs, one a Japanese Garden, the other an environmentally designed sustainable roof for city councilmember Jan Perry’s local headquarters. The Japanese Garden on the third floor of the Kyoto Grand Hotel in Little Tokyo is a half-acre of waterfalls and bamboo shaded alcoves, and even has a little stream running through it. And while it is pretty to look at and may even keep the building a bit cooler, the sustainability factor is pretty low as one can only wonder how much energy is used to keep the waterfall and stream constantly flowing. Still if you want to see the novelty of a manicured Japanese rooftop garden with the Los Angeles skyline behind it, take the elevator to the third floor of the hotel, which is located on the corner of Los Angeles Street and 2nd st, and take a little stroll.

Driving south from there along South Central Avenue, you come across a striking looking building, and a stark contrast to the rest of the neighborhood it resides in. It is Council District 9 Neighborhood City Hall, the offices for councilwoman Jan Perry. Designed by architect Paul Murdoch, the Leed certified building features a drought tolerant rooftop garden that helps mitigate storm runoff and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. A 7,000 gallon underground cistern also collects rainwater for re-usable irrigation. The courtyard contains eight raised photovoltaic arrays that move during the day to track the sun while shading the space below, and also contains more drought tolerant plants around the perimeter of the gated compound that takes up the whole block.

As much of a contrast as these two green roofs may be to each other, they are still the exception when you think about all the other urban rooftops out there. This was made even more apparent when last week I was driving through the Berkshires and was surrounded by thousands of acres of rolling hills of green forests and lush valleys. Imagine for a minute if all the flat rooftops in a city like New York or Los Angeles were converted to green roofs. What would that look like? Now what if some or even most those green roofs were actually small urban farms growing fresh fruits and vegetables, like the Eagle Street rooftop farm I shot the other day in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The impact of this would be tremendous: cooler buildings while lessening the urban heat island effect (a metropolitan area which is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas); local grown produce would mean a big reduction of the energy needed to transport them otherwise; improved health by eating better, and a beautiful green urban landscape that would have an enormous affect on greenhouse gases and carbon emissions.

Is this possible? Yes, but probably not anytime soon. One of the reasons is I still think we see them as unique anomalies rather than the norm. Obviously a green roof or a solar array is the smartest alternative to the empty spaces that reside on top of most buildings, but we are not used to seeing them or thinking of them in that way. This is starting to change, but a big factor that needs to alter is something I am starting to call the Visual Aesthetic. This is not some innate aesthetic we are born with, rather it is what we get used to and accept as the norm. When this starts to change, and I believe it is, then we can start to make real progress. More about this in the next few weeks.

AB32

If there was one thing Governor Schwarzenegger did right during his term, it was to enthusiastically sign AB32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the landmark state law that would reduce carbon emissions and greenhouses gases back to their 1990 levels by the year 2020, a nearly 25% reduction. As you would guess, there are going to be those that are not too happy about such a thing, but who would imagine the absolute chutzpah it would take to launch an initiative to suspend this law under the premise that it would cost us jobs? Why, it’s our old friends the oil companies! You see it is not that they are afraid that their profits would suffer if we started to rely more on alternative fuels or that our air quality improved, but that our jobs would be lost. Yes, I’m sure that really keeps them up at nights, worrying about our jobs. Well, less we doubt them, they have decided to call their November ballot measure the “California Jobs Initiative”, and with a name like that, you know they have to be sincere.

If passed by the voters, the “California Jobs Initiative” would suspend AB32 until the unemployment rate in California falls below 5.5% for at least one year. The current unemployment rate is at 12%, so given the speed that things are going, it would be a long, long time before they would have to comply, giving them more months and years to spew out their toxic emissions and greenhouse gases without regulation. It actually gets uglier, because you see the two oil companies who are funding the initiative are not even from California, they are from Texas. Tesoro Corp. and Valero Energy Inc. are two oil giants who have decided they know what is best for us, and what kind of air our children should be breathing.  The two companies have already bankrolled the imitative with over $3 million to help qualify the measure for the November ballot.

I joined a group of protesters last weekend who were rallying at the Tesoro refinery in Wilmington, a town near Long Beach and home to several oil refineries. I wrote about the Toxic Tour a few weeks back and you may recall that Wilmington residents are subjected to a constant barrage of toxic emissions from the nearby refineries, and are the people who will be most affected by a repeal of AB32. The crowd consisted of local residents and enthusiastic students from the nearby high schools. They are enthusiastic because they know it is their future air quality and health at stake. They picked “Family Day” to protest,  a day where Tesoro employees could bring their kids to tour the refinery. What a bizarre way to spend an afternoon, but it obviously sounded like a spanking good time to some, because by the time the protesters got there, lines of SUV’s and minivans were bringing loads of happy visitors to the facility, and inside, golf carts were zipping around with Moms, Dads and the little ones, as the refinery belched out fumes, gases and other non-breathables.

The protesters, organized by CBE - Communities for a Better Environment, and other local groups, peacefully picketed in front of the gates, letting in traffic and causing no disruption to Family Day. After an hour or so, they left, but the point was to let them know that people are watching and paying attention.

Contrary to what the oil companies tell us, The California Air Resources Board's (CARB) economic analysis of AB32 forecasts that economic production would actually increase by 27 billion dollars, the gross state product by $4 billion and personal income by $14 billion. Moreover, their preliminary analysis indicates that the total economic value associated with public health benefits is likely to be on the order of $4.3 billion by 2020. Gov. Schwarzenegger has said that “This initiative sponsored by greedy Texas oil companies would cripple California's fastest-growing economic sector, reverse our renewable energy policy and decimate our environmental progress for the benefit of these oil companies' profit margins.”

If Tesoro and Valero have already poured $3 million dollars just to get it on the ballot, one can only imagine how much they are willing to spend to get it passed, but we all know how deep their pockets are and to what lengths they will go to protect their profits. It is infuriating to me that a ballot measure can be worded so misleadingly, but if people understand what is really at stake, if it is exposed for what it is, it will fail. The public’s opinion of oil companies is at an all time low and that can only help. But it is up to each one of us to talk about this with others, and  for California voters to go to the ballot box in November to cast their vote if we don’t want Texas oil companies deciding what is right for California.

Is this just about California? Keep in mind that if this landmark environmental law is repealed in California, clean air legislation in other states, and potentially on a federal level, will be stifled, and oil companies and other polluters will be empowered to cripple progress elsewhere. I will post more about this situation as it progresses, but this is a battle that can and must be won.

Vernon - “Exclusively Industrial”

What can I say about Vernon that hasn’t been said before? Actually a lot I would guess. Vernon is not the type of place that would inspire many people to prose, but I found it interesting enough to make several trips to photograph what I consider a pretty bizarre place. I first mentioned Vernon here a few weeks ago when I posted about the Toxic Tour, much of which took place in Vernon. It is a strange place because it is a completely industrialized town, according to the last census it has a population of 91, and you would be hard pressed to find them. What you do find is street after street of factories, food processing plants, warehouses, railroad tracks and abandoned buildings. People are very scarce except at closing time, when one or two intersections host a few folks waiting for a bus or a ride home. Just so you know, Vernon’s official slogan is “Exclusively Industrial”.

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The town of Vernon along the Los Angeles River with downtown LA in the background

Vernon almost from the beginning was fated to be an industrialized city, the site of the town was picked because of the confluence of railroad lines. Founded in 1905, by the 1920’s twenty-seven slaughterhouses lined Vernon Avenue and major industries such as Bethlehem Steel, Alcoa glass and Studebaker made their home there. Needless to say there is a vested interest in keeping the town industrial as the tax revenue from Vernon is quite a bit higher than equal sized residential communities. Leonis C. Malburg, the grandson of the city's founder John B. Leonis, was Vernon’s Mayor for over fifty years until he was convicted of among other things, voter fraud, and had to resign last year. There is a lot of money to be made in a town like Vernon, but you gotta hand it to a guy who tries his hand at voter fraud in a city of less than a hundred.

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Old Water tower in train yards on Vernon illuminated by moonlight

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Old warehouse and railroad tracks in Vernon

There is an old water tower that looms above everything else, and although I could not get a lot of historical background on it, I would guess that the tower was the center of town at some point and is the last vestige of what was. I’m a sucker for old railroad tracks and if you throw in an old water tower I’m a happy fellow. I always found my way back there trying to get the best light or angle for a shot that would capture it, and the last night I was there a full moon helped with the lighting and mood, and I was happy.

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Mural on the side of the Farmer John meat processing plant

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Sara Lee plant with large bagels on the side of the silos.

It is also home to many of your favorite food processing plants, Sara Lee, Farmer John Hot Dogs (a Dodger Stadium favorite) all cook up their special goodness in Vernon. The Sara Lee plant intrigued me, as it looks like they are storing some humongous (my son’s favorite new word) bagels in their giant silos. The Farmer John plant has a mural that adorns its perimeter with strange pastoral images of pigs, farms, pastures and even a Daisy Mae look alike reminiscent of Lil’ Abner. The mural was actually commissioned in 1957 and a movie set painter named Les Grimes worked on it for eleven years until he died from a fall from his fifty-foot scaffolding.

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Malburg Generating Station, Vernon Power Plant.

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O-I Plastic Products.

The only time I actually talked to someone in Vernon was when a couple of cops pulled up to where I was photographing the Malburg Generator plant. I can’t blame any cop who checks me out, if I saw me photographing half the things I photograph, I would want me checked out too. A few years ago the City of Vernon had proposed a large new 943 megawatt  power plant at a location nearby the Malburg plant to supply more juice to its industrial residents. The new plant would have spewed millions of tons of emissions into the nearby residential communities of Maywood, Bell Gardens and Huntington Park. Last September, the efforts of community groups and environmental organizations such as CBE, forced the town to withdraw the application of the new plant, a big victory and proof that the little guy can sometimes win in the protection of their community.

Palmdale

I first heard of Palmdale in the Frank Zappa song “Village of the Sun” many years ago, turns out he grew up in the neighboring town of Lancaster. It is a high desert town, and although the surrounding San Gabriel Mountains and outlying desert are beautiful, the town itself is a series of strip malls and housing developments. They do have one thing going for them though, it is very windy, and the day I went there it was very, very windy.  Zappa’s lyrics say it all.

…good God I hope the Wind don't blow. It take the paint off your car And wreck your windshield too, I don't know how the people stand it, But I guess they do.

I went up there to photograph wind turbines, not the massive wind farms they have near Palm Springs, but smaller residential and business wind turbines that are a perfect energy source in this breezy desert town. You get to Palmdale on route 14, the Antelope Valley Freeway, and the first thing you see from the bluff overlooking the town is a huge 318 foot wind turbine on the edge of Lake Palmdale. There is just the one, a giant sentinel standing guard over the town, and you can easily see it is the tallest structure for miles around. It was built in 2004 to help power the district's Lake Palmdale water-treatment plant and can produce up to 950kw of electricity.

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The Walmart/Sam’s Club just recently installed a mini wind farm on their parking lot. Seventeen micro wind turbines were humming along pretty furiously the day I was there, standing at respectful distances from each other and producing 76,000 kilowatt-hours of energy annually for the store. You may not like Walmart for some of their business practices, but they are making an effort to make their stores more sustainable.  I included a video I took of it, it’s not very exciting, but it gives you an idea of just how windy it was.

I came across a few small residential wind turbines as I toured the town, but could not help but think how much more could be done to take advantage of the winds that whip pretty consistently across this high desert town. As I drove around I was listening to radio reports about the oil spill in the gulf, it was hard not to be discouraged by the lack of will to make a serious effort to get this country and the rest of the planet off our addiction to fossil fuels. It seems environmental disasters and the price of gas are the only things that get us to even start talking about alternatives. What a cliché, but it is the truth.

The travel photographer in me wanted to see if I could find any vestige of history in this town, but the only things I could find were an old schoolhouse and a motley graveyard called the Palmdale Pioneer Cemetery. No coonskin caps or stagecoach remnants I’m afraid, it wasn’t very inspiring. But passing through the town is the great California Aqueduct, bringing water from the north to Los Angeles and Southern California as it begins to wind down its journey in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. More on the aqueduct later.

Toxic Tour

Last year I spent a day taking the Toxic Tour, far removed from anything you would take at Universal Studios, this illuminating, and sometime nose burning journey is offered a few times a year by CBE – Communities for a Better Environment. It was a strange and fascinating day which included visits to chemical sites, refineries and brownfields, which are abandoned or underused industrial and commercial facilities. Don’t bring the kids!

Roberto Cabrales talks about toxic sites at CBE headquarters at beginning of Toxic Tour.

CBE’s focus is on environmental health and justice, whereby they offer legal assistance, research and organizing help to poor and working class communities of color that suffer from environmental pollution and toxins due to proximity to industrial polluters. In fact shortly after arriving we were shown a map of Los Angeles with neighborhoods broken down by people of color and toxic facilities. I’m sure you can guess how many toxic sites were located in Malibu and Brentwood compared to South Central. The only thing that was surprising was how staggeringly disproportionate it truly was. CBE’s southern California headquarters is located in Huntington Park, right next to Vernon, the most industrialized city in the United States. Whereas Vernon is almost completely industrialized (it has a population of  91 according to the last Census), Huntington Park is a very residential community, and its proximity to Vernon and its emissions has given it the unfortunate nickname of "Asthma Town" due to the high incidence of respiratory illness afflicting its residents.

Overpowering smell from the the lead rendering plant in the background.

We spent most of the morning with our tour guide, Roberto Cabrales, viewing a number of successful examples of CBE and the local residents kicking out and  shutting down toxic facilities in and around Huntington Park, Vernon, Maywood and Bell gardens, all communities a short distance from the downtown Los Angeles. It was a gray day, not the best for picture taking, which was fine, as it is sometimes hard to listen and shoot at the same time. The day ended in Wilmington, an area in San Pedro, near Long Beach, that some people might recognize as the town along the 110 freeway with the gargantuan oil refinery in the shadow of Rancho Palos Verdes. As someone who grew in New York City and spent way too many trips holding my nose as I passed by the oil refineries in Elizabeth, NJ, I can say that this one gives anything I have seen a run for its money.

Young latino boy plays in the shadow of Wilmington oil refinery.

The tour definitely saves the most dramatic for last. Where most of the examples we had seen were closed sites, the situation in Wilmington is ongoing, and for me the most striking thing was how close the residential houses were to the refinery. Street after street of modest, but nice single-family homes were literally a stones throw away from the belching smokestacks of the facility. Children played on the streets and people carried on with normal neighborhood activities as they would anywhere, except the background was not some mountain range, lake or even a mall, it was a giant, active oil refinery.

Residential houses next to ConocoPhillips refinery at Wilmington.

The dramatic juxtaposition of the homes next to the refinery was worth another trip, so I waited a few days for clearer weather and returned in late afternoon. As I was setting up my camera on an embankment next to the freeway, a van pulled up with several young men. The driver leaned out his window and asked if I was with the press. Now the press is not always welcome, but it can lend some legitimacy to some situations, and since I do carry LA County press credentials, I replied that I was. The question I received was not the obvious one I expected about when someone was going to do something about the stinky oil refinery in the neighborhood, but rather he wanted to know if I was there to do a story about trees the city had planted along the embankment that I was on. It seems the trees were planted a little while back and no one has come back to care for them. I took a glance at the sickly looking saplings he was referring to and said that I was sorry, but no. I think I mumbled something about the refinery, at which point he became disinterested and drove off.

A residential street next to ConocoPhillips refinery at Wilmington.

I stood there wondering how someone could care more about these neglected trees than the more blatant health hazard of the refinery. Not that caring about the trees isn’t a legitimate concern, but relative to the greater danger, it made no sense. But then again living in this neighborhood and the nearby streets made no sense to me either, and yet this type of scenario is repeated thousands of times around the country and the world. Why do people live next to or near toxic sites? Much of the time they have no choice, poverty or the necessity of a nearby job limit choices. But these were nice lower middle class houses that many people would normally be happy to call their home.

There is no one answer I suppose, a combination of denial mixed in with the desire to own an affordable home (this area is definitely below market value), and possibly a certain resignation to the inevitability of that toxins are everywhere, so if this doesn’t get you, something else will. There is certain amount of truth to that, but I would say that it is still a relative case.

The Toxic Tour is given both in Los Angeles (the next one is May 15) and at CBE’s other headquarters in Oakland.