Vernon - from Los Angeles River Pix

I have recently started updating some older photos that I have taken, giving them a face-lift of sorts and seeing what I night have left out the first time. The shot below of the river flowing through the City of Vernon is one I just finished. Sometimes when I live with a photo for a while I start to see things I didn’t initially see when I first took the photo. I hope you like it.

I photographed in Vernon for a while as a personal project a few years ago. It is a strange place, as you might imagine from a city that boasts as its slogan: “Vernon – Exclusively Industrial.” Evenings and weekends the town is deserted and lends itself very nicely to moody, atmospheric industrial shots: old rail yards, water towers and other cool places.

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That work has gotten a fair amount of attention, probably because no one else has ever taken many photos down there. Recently the French town of Vernon had a festival and celebrated by having a photo show and exhibit (including my work) of other towns around the world named Vernon. The Vernon Chamber of Commerce’s new directory will feature four of my images, including this one, on its cover.

You can see some of the previous work I did and what I wrote in a post on my Citizen of the Planet site – http://tinyurl.com/myltjea

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.

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.

Water: The New Oil

We're going heavy on the pictures and light on the text this week. I had a post about gardening ready to go, but the ongoing nightmare in the Gulf made me think about our water, waterways and oceans and how we have taken it all for granted for so long. I went through my library and pulled out an assortment of images I have shot over the years that relate to water and show the human impact on it. There have been a number of articles of late that call water the new oil, a term referring to the growing scarcity of potable water in many parts of the world due to drought, and the territorial conflicts that will continue to arise out of the shortage. The term now has a horrible irony in light of current events.

Not only is water becoming scarcer, but it is becoming more toxic and polluted, and not just from major catastrophes like oil spills, but by the daily dumping of garbage, plastic, industrial waste and sewage. The fact is we all have choices we can make on a daily basis, and it is up to each of us to take responsibility for the things within our power to change. I'm feeling preachy today, but there really are so many things we can all do to help - water conservation, using natural non toxic products, and our use of plastic. Consider the fact that every piece of plastic ever created still exists somewhere, and will do so for years and years to come. Do you really need to buy disposable plastic water bottles, or could you use a re-usable bottle and filter your tap water? Think about how much money you would save, as well as the damage you would be preventing. If you do use plastic, recycle it as well as all the other items that your city or town will let you. I once heard a woman say that she doesn't feel like recycling, I didn't realize it was about feelings.

I get angry when I see things get to the point where it is too late, like it may be for the Gulf. That tipping point is being fast approached on many fronts and there is no one other than ourselves who can do anything about it. Are we willing to make at least small changes to our lifestyle, to make small sacrifices, to change our buying habits? There is a lot to blame big oil for, good reason to point the finger at government regulators, but we are the consumers, and as long we support and buy their products, they will continue to produce those products that pollute and endanger our planet and environment. End of sermon!

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.

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.

Welcome to the first post of Citizen of the Planet.

I once heard David Burnett, the famous photojournalist, say that photographers get to parachute in and out of other people’s lives. I always thought that was a great way of describing what we do. My camera has always allowed me to enter places and worlds I would never have found otherwise, allowing me to learn a little bit about a lot of things, and sometimes a lot about a few things. Along the way I am usually privileged to meet some very interesting people. That is why I love what I do. What I have discovered shooting a lot of the environmental and Green stories these last few years, is that quite often those interesting places and people are in my own backyard.

Dolphins and Oil Derrick in Catalina Channel

I had been shooting mostly travel subjects for as long as I can remember and even started my own photo agency, Ambient Images, that specialized in travel photos from New York and California. But a few years ago I wanted to move in another direction, to possibly get back to the photojournalistic roots that first took hold of me and my camera some twenty five years ago. It was obvious to me that the big story of our time was what was happening to our planet. On one hand the planet was under assault from the encroaching and gluttonous needs of mankind. Species were dying, the earth was warming and the precious air and water that our lives depended on, were becoming fouler and fouler with each day.

Helicopter dropping water on Sylmar wildfire

On the other hand, there are all the people who have been awakened to the earth’s plight and who have not sat idly or blindly by as these irreversible travesties continued to blight our planet. Technology was changing at seemingly lightning speed to help us meet our energy needs from alternative sources, and battles were being waged to preserve our waters, our air and our health from further erosion. There were many who were making great and sometimes even just small sacrifices to bring attention to these things, so that the rest of us might take off our blinders long enough to see that action was going to be required on all our parts if we wanted our children to inherit something even resembling the planet and glorious natural world that we are still privileged to live in. These heroes are often just our neighbors who spend a day cleaning a beach or river, or it might be a couple of guys who sail across an ocean on a raft, or the family that spends a year living without the normal amenities of life because of their negative impact on the environment.

Heal the bay Clean up at Venice Beach

The first event I photographed was a beach clean up in Venice for Heal the Bay, a well known and longstanding organization that is dedicated to the clean up and education of all matters relating to Santa Monica Bay. I have gone on to work with FoLAR – Friends of the LA River, LA Conservation Corps, the Million Trees LA Initiative out of the Los Angles Mayors office, CBE – Communities for a Better Environment, LA Eco-Village and others.

The "Junk" raft sails from Long Beach to Hawaii

The most interesting story I have done so far was that of the “Junk” raft. Over several months I followed the preparations of Marcus Eriksen and Joel Pascal as they built and made ready to sail their Kon Tiki like raft, made from 15,000 plastic bottles and an airplane fuselage, 2100 miles from Long Beach to Hawaii to bring awareness to the North Pacific Gyre and the floating plastic soup that is permeating the Ocean and infiltrating our food supply. I was lucky enough to be on the ORV Alguita, Captain Charlie Moore's 50 foot Catamaran that towed them out to sea for four days to help them on their way for the ten week journey. We hit a gale on our third day out, an interesting experience for this born and bred New York City boy. I am proud to say that I did not get sea sick, a feat I attribute to riding the New York subways for most of my life.

Plastic Water Bottle Floating in Pacific Ocean

After that trip I would never see a plastic water bottle or  bag the same way. The theme of plastic in our rivers and oceans continues to attract my camera as well as the story of water in Los Angeles in general. Anyone who knows a bit of Los Angeles history or has seen the movie Chinatown, knows how important and critical a role water plays in the dynamic ecosystem of Southern California.

I have come to understand that our own backyards are simply microcosms of what is occurring elsewhere, and that the hard work and spirit that is happening in one neighborhood, is repeated hundreds and thousands of times over in communities in this country and around the planet.

Los Angeles River Expedition in 2008, Glendale Narrows

I hope to show show in this blog, through the use of pictures and words, what is happening in my backyard of Los Angeles and Southern California. I will do my best to make it entertaining as well as educational. I will of course be traveling and showing you the result of those exploits, and I also intend to invite guest photographers to show their work here from time to time, something I am very excited about. Please offer your comments, your critiques and your corrections. I am new at this blogging thing and your input will help me guide me and teach me. Breathe deeply and be well.