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Wildfires killed thousands of sequoias in southern Sierra Nevada

Wildfires killed thousands of sequoias in southern Sierra Nevada


As many as 3,600 giant sequoias perished in the flames of the twin wildfires that ignited during a lightning storm in early September and rampaged through 27 groves of the behemoths in the southern Sierra Nevada, National Park Service officials said Friday.


More than two dozen groves of the towering trees were scorched as the KNP Complex and Windy fires exploded through parched vegetation, exacerbated at times by fierce winds and thunderstorms.

It’s a stunning loss that equates to 3% to 5% of the world’s giant sequoia population — arriving on the heels of even greater devastation. Last year’s Castle fire killed up to 14% of the global population of giant sequoias. Among the three fires, officials estimate nearly 20% of all sequoias may have perished in the last 14 months.

The somber news was delivered at a briefing in the Grant Grove of Kings Canyon National Park, in the shadow of the General Grant Tree — considered the second largest tree on Earth. Last month, the massive tree, which rises more than 260 feet, was surrounded by sprinklers to protect it from the still-active KNP Complex fire that has torched more than 88,300 acres in rugged country in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

“It does not ever get easy looking at a monarch giant sequoia that has died,” said Teresa Benson, supervisor for the Sequoia National Forest, at the briefing. “That is one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to look at in my entire 30-year career with the forest service. It is not a good thing for our environment.”

Though it’s no longer a threat, the KNP — still just 75% contained — continues to chew through pockets of heavy fuel.

Meanwhile, crews have fully contained the Windy fire to the south, which burned upward of 97,500 acres in the Tule River Indian Reservation and Sequoia National Forest.

Nathan Stephenson points toward treetops.
Nathan Stephenson of the Western Ecological Research Center discusses the loss of sequoias.
(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

The KNP Complex scorched 16 sequoia groves, and the Windy burned 11 groves of the giant trees, natural wonders that can live more than 3,000 years and rise over 250 feet.

Among the worst was Redwood Mountain Grove, where scores of giant sequoias were torched by the KNP Complex fire.

Interspersed with healthy-looking trees, blackened sequoia carcasses rose Friday in eerie, almost sculptural forms, like an army of the dead.

Some were still smoking from the blaze that erupted more than two months ago.

Officials had steeled themselves for the devastation, though the massive trees have survived — and thrived — amid wildfires for thousands of yeas.

With their towering canopies and thick bark, giant sequoias are adapted to withstand low-intensity fire, and even need it to reproduce. But ferocious climate-change-fueled fires of recent years have proved fatal to the trees that experts once thought were impervious to flames.

Officials on Friday said that between 2,261 and 3,637 sequoias with a base of 4 feet or more in diameter were either killed or so severely damaged that they would die in the next three to five years.

The figures come from a report based on analysis by scientists from the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. While preliminary, Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science for the Sequoia and Kings Canyon parks and co-author of the report, thinks they’re accurate — or worse, an underestimate.

Discussing the number of sequoias that perished, Brigham teared up at the briefing.

“While these losses are not as stark and large as the Castle fire, they are still significant, unsustainable and are outside the range of historic fire effects on large sequoias — and are not what we are trying to achieve as we manage these magnificent forests for fire and climate change resilience,” she said.

Since 2015, high-severity fires have killed large giant sequoias “in much greater numbers than has ever been recorded,” officials with the National Park Service said. Drought has also contributed to their decline, weakening their defenses and making them susceptible to incursions from bark beetles, another scourge to which they’ve historically been immune.

The KNP Complex and Windy fires ignited Sept. 9 amid thunderstorms that roiled the region and quickly exploded amid the parched landscape. As crews struggled to battle flames raging in steep, difficult-to-access areas, a devastating revelation emerged: The flames had pushed in the direction of the famed Giant Forest, home to some 2,000 giant sequoias, including the largest tree in the world.

As the grim reality set in, crews in mid-September wrapped the hulking base of the General Sherman tree — and some other well-known giants — in aluminum material typically used to protect buildings. General Sherman, considered the largest tree by volume, and many other nearby trees survived, in part, because of decades of prescribed burns to clear out vegetation in the tourist mecca.

But prospects were dimmer for more remote, less-manicured groves.

Garrett Dickman, a botanist assigned to the Windy fire, expressed fears weeks ago that tree mortality rates could rival those of the 2020 Castle fire, which burned at least 7,500 trees.

Aided by a sequoia task force, Dickman trekked through the backcountry to prepare trees for fire when possible and treat them after flames had passed through. He saw heavily scorched trees and entire groves he estimated had been decimated.

As the crews made their way through the burn zone, Dickman kept a tally of dead trees. He counted 74 by early October, but officials now say that number is far greater.

Brigham initially thought the trees had fared better amid more favorable conditions, including a frequent inversion layer that tamped down flames. But that optimism soured last month when an enormous pyrocumulus formed near the Redwood Mountain Grove, indicating the likelihood of extreme fire behavior. Castle Creek Grove also appeared subjected to high-severity fire.

Park officials wrote on Facebook that they suspected some groves were hit by flames severe enough “to result in sequoia mortality, possibly for significant numbers of trees (hundreds).” The recent assessment suggests the damage was even more severe.

In an effort to protect the beloved trees, crews resorted to unusual firefighting tactics. Besides wrapping the massive trees in fire-resistant aluminum material akin to tinfoil, sprinkler systems were also rigged in rugged terrain, personnel set preemptive fires to burn away potential fuels and climbers were even sent up a 200-foot tree to douse it with water.

“We’re taking such drastic measures to save these trees — and they deserve those drastic measures to be saved,” Dickman said at the time.

Much of Kings Canyon reopened last month, but some areas have since shuttered for the winter season, park officials said. Only a portion of Sequoia recently became accessible to the public.

Park officials last week reopened part of the foothills area, stretching from the Ash Mountain entrance to Hospital Rock, about six miles up the Generals Highway. Beyond that, damage to the road and hazardous trees made the area unsafe, Mark Ruggiero, a fire information officer, said. Some of the park’s biggest draws are still off-limits, including the Giant Forest.

While visitors would see charred trees and smoke billowing from hot spots, they’d also see areas resembling “a green carpet,” Ruggiero said. Grass was growing in burn areas recently doused by recent rains.

“It will look like spring a little bit,” he said.

Source:

Lila Seidman at Los Angeles Times



Toxic fracking waste is leaking into California groundwater

Toxic fracking waste is leaking into California groundwater


The research leaves little doubt: California is facing massive groundwater contamination.


Chevron has long dominated oil production in Lost Hills, a massive fossil fuel reserve in Central California that was accidentally discovered by water drillers more than a century ago. The company routinely pumps hundreds of thousands of gallons of water mixed with a special concoction of chemicals into the ground at high pressure to shake up shale deposits and release oil and gas. The process — called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — produces thousands of barrels of oil every day. But it also leaves the company saddled with millions of gallons of wastewater laced with toxic chemicals, salts, and heavy metals. 

Between the late 1950s and 2008, Chevron disposed much of the slurry produced in Lost Hills in eight cavernous impoundments at its Section 29 facility. Euphemistically called “ponds,” the impoundments have a combined surface area of 26 acres and do not have synthetic liners to prevent leaking. That meant that over time, salts and chemicals in the wastewater could leak into the ground and nearby water sources like the California Aqueduct, a network of canals that delivers water to farms in the Central Valley and cities like Los Angeles.

And that’s exactly what happened, according to new research published in the academic journal Environmental Science & Technology this month. Carcinogenic chemicals like benzene and toluene as well as other hydrocarbons have been detected within a half a kilometer of the facility. About 1.7 kilometers northwest of the facility, chloride and salt levels are more than six times and four times greater than background levels, respectively. The research leaves little doubt: The contaminants are migrating toward the aqueduct. 

“Clearly, there’s impact to groundwater resources there,” said Dominic DiGiulio, lead author of the paper and a researcher at the nonprofit Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy. “At the section 29 facility, you have to go 1.8 kilometers away from the facility to find background water quality. That’s pretty far.”

The facility shuttered in 2008, and it no longer accepts wastewater. Chevron has continued to monitor the contaminant plume and submits yearly water quality reports to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, a local groundwater quality regulator. In a 2019 report, the company claimed it would cost more $800,000 to monitor the plume and report to the regulator for the next 30 years. 

Jonathan Harshman, a spokesperson for Chevron, said the company was reviewing the study and that it “has complied and will continue to comply with” the Central Valley Water Board’s requirements for maintaining and monitoring leaks at the Section 29 facility.

The Section 29 facility isn’t an isolated case. Between 1977 and 2017, over 16 billion barrels of oilfield wastewater was disposed in unlined ponds in California. The vast majority of these are located outside of Bakersfield in the state’s Central Valley: According to DiGiulio’s research, there are at least 1,850 wastewater ponds in the San Joaquin Valley’s Tulare Basin. Of those, 85 percent are unlined and about one-fourth are active, like the Section 29 facility. However, despite not being operational, many of them may be leaking into the ground. Wells that monitor groundwater quality are few and far between, so it’s difficult to know the exact scope of the pollution. But DiGiulio warns that the ponds constitute “a potential wide-scale legacy groundwater contamination issue.”

This month’s study is the first to quantify the number of unlined pits in California and analyze their effects on groundwater. The findings bolster 2015 research by California Council on Science & Technology and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which concluded that unlined wastewater pits posed a threat to groundwater sources and called for investigations into whether contaminants have leaked from disposal ponds. Research conducted by the United States Geological Survey for the Central Valley Water Board has also found evidence of oil and gas wastewater contaminating groundwater.

Disposal of oil and gas wastewater is a national problem. Companies use anywhere between 1.5 million and 16 million gallons of water to frack a single well, and they have struggled to find economical and environmentally safe ways to dispose of the toxic fluid. The vast majority of the wastewater — both in California and nationally — is injected underground into porous rock formations, but companies also recycle and reuse the water to grow crops, de-ice roads, and suppress dust. California appears to be the only state that permits operators to store the waste in unlined pits, according to DiGiulio. 

Residents of the town of Hinkley, California, alleged that PG&E knowingly dumped wastewater contaminated with chromium-6, a known carcinogen since 1925, into the region’s groundwater. 2018-04-09

Patrick Pulupa, an executive officer with the Central Valley water board, defended the practice and noted that the wastewater ponds are only allowed in areas where the groundwater has been deemed too salty for irrigation or household use. In cases where the contamination has threatened usable water, he said, the Board has cracked down with cease-and-desist and investigative orders. “Board staff continue to look in detail at whether additional produced water discharges are a threat to usable groundwater and will continue to issue enforcement orders where appropriate,” he added.    

The definition of groundwater that is “too salty” for use varies across California. Federal regulations consider water with less than 10,000 milligrams of dissolved solids per liter of water as protected for potential irrigation, industrial, and household use. As a result, companies are typically not allowed to dispose of wastewater in underground formations if it threatens groundwater that is below the 10,000 mg/L threshold — unless they secure an exemption from the state

For unlined wastewater pits, however, that threshold has been set at 3,000 mg/L. The inconsistency allows oil and gas companies to pollute potential sources of groundwater, according to DiGiulio, and “appears to be the major driver for this continued disposal practice.”


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“The fundamental problem is that the condition under which California groundwater is to be protected is not sufficiently stringent,” he said, adding that the state water board has the authority to increase the threshold to better protect groundwater near wastewater pits and should do so. 

From Pulupa’s perspective, the 3,000 mg/L threshold is not dissimilar to the standard for disposal into underground formations in practice. Though federal regulations set the limit at 10,000 mg/L, companies are routinely granted exemptions if they can demonstrate that the groundwater is not expected to be used as a source of drinking water. The exemptions apply if the water has a dissolved solids concentration between 3,000 and 10,000 mg/L, and the controversial practice has allowed oil and gas companies to pump wastewater into hundreds of aquifers across the country. As a result, the “protective standards are relatively similar,” and the Central Valley Water Board is “unaware of any effort” to modify the definition of protected groundwater near wastewater pits, he said.

Source:

Naveena Sadasivam at Grist



California Vineyards Use Owls Instead of Pesticides

California Vineyards Use Owls Instead of Pesticides


Winemakers must pay close attention to their soil, the rain, the heat, and the sunlight. But rodents like gophers and mice can wreak havoc on a vineyard. Rather than turning to rodenticides to deter pests, graduate students at Humboldt State University in California are testing a more natural approach by using owls.


The experiment is part of a long-term research study under the direction of professor Matt Johnson of the university’s Department of Wildlife. The current cohort, including students Laura Echávez, Samantha Chavez, and Jaime Carlino, has placed around 300 owl nest boxes sporadically through vineyards in Napa Valley. They are documenting the impact of relying on owls to deter and remove pests rather than rodenticides.

The researchers have surveyed 75 wineries in Napa Valley, and four-fifths now use the owl nest boxes and notice a difference in rodent control. The barn owls have a four-month nesting season, during which they spend about one-third of their time hunting in the fields. A family of barn owls may eat as many as 1,000 rodents during the nesting season or around 3,400 in a single year.

So far, the graduate students have found that the barn owls in vineyards are reducing the number of gophers, but not mice. They are also evaluating the owls’ impact on voles, but that is inconclusive at this time.

Barn Owls: The Secret Saviors of Napa Valley’s Vineyards

But the most important part of the study is whether or not the presence of these owls has led to a decrease in the use of rodenticides in Napa Valley. As of January 2021, the California Department of Pesticide Regulation placed tougher limits on rodenticide use, which can kill birds and other animals that eat rodents poisoned by the rodenticides. These pesticides lead to gruesome deaths via internal bleeding for the rodents that ingest them.

The researchers say that most of the vintners in their study no longer use the rodenticides since adding nest boxes to their properties. But whether relying on owls is reducing pesticide use in Napa Valley isn’t certain. One recent study found that of farmers growing wine grapes in Napa Valley, about 80% use nest boxes and about 21% use rodenticides.

“Whether the use of barn owl boxes caused that reduction in rodenticides is, of course, not proven,” Johnson told Bay Nature. “Nonetheless, this result is encouraging.”

Farmers have been using owls and other raptors to hunt rodents for centuries, but modern chemical pesticides have taken precedence over natural methods in recent times. In an effort to leave less of a negative impact on the environment, farmers around the world are reverting back to relying on raptors to control pests, rather than toxic pesticides. Nest boxes are popping up in agricultural fields across the U.S., Malaysia, Kenya and Israel to help naturally remove rodents that destroy crops.

In Napa Valley, nest boxes aren’t the only tactic for creating more sustainable farmland. Wine grape growers are also trying to minimize water usage and tilling. They’re also planting perennial grasses between rows of grapes, as this may reduce soil erosion and improve nutrient and carbon cycling.

Still, there’s a long way to go in improving sustainable agriculture, including in the wine industry. Napa Valley has over 40,000 acres of vineyards, and only 3,800 acres are certified organic. With the increasing use of nest boxes, there’s hope that farmers will rely on these more natural methods over the rodenticides.

Source:

Paige Bennett at EcoWatch



California is banning gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and weed trimmers

California is banning gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and weed trimmers


Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill on Saturday to ban gas-powered lawn equipment as early as 2024.

The state plans to offer rebates to people who switch to zero-emission electronic lawn tools.

It’s set aside $30 million to help gardeners and landscapers make the switch, the bill’s author said.


Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed a bill into law on Saturday that would ban gas-powered lawn equipment, such as lawn mowers and leaf blowers, as soon as 2024.

The bill, which adds a section to the air-pollution part of California’s health and safety code, offers some rebates for switching to zero-emission electronic lawn tools. The bill’s author told the Los Angeles Times the state was setting aside $30 million to help professional gardeners and landscapers switch to electric equipment.

The bill says small off-road engines, which it describes as those “used primarily in lawn and garden equipment,” emit lots of air pollution.

Gas-powered chain saws, weed trimmers, and golf carts are also affected by the new law, the Times said.

“This is a pretty modest approach to trying to limit the massive amounts of pollution that this equipment emits, not to mention the health impact on the workers who are using it constantly,” the author of the bill, Assemblyman Marc Berman, told the Times.

There are more than 16.7 million small engines in California, 3 million more than the number of passenger cars on the road in the state, the Associated Press reported.

The bill also stipulates that portable generators must be zero-emission by 2028.

The law is set to come into force on January 1, 2024, or as soon as is feasible, whichever is later.

In 2019, the American Lung Association ranked California the worst US state for air pollution. In September 2020, following a string of wildfires, the West Coast temporarily had the worst air quality on Earth.

Source:

Isobel Asher Hamilton at Business Insider



Did ship’s anchor cause California oil spill? Maybe

Did ship’s anchor cause California oil spill? Maybe


Officials investigating one of California’s largest recent oil spills are looking into whether a ship’s anchor may have struck an oil pipeline on the ocean floor, causing heavy crude to leak into coastal waters and foul beaches, authorities said Monday.


The head of the company that operates the pipeline said company divers were inspecting the area of the suspected leak that was discovered Saturday, and he expected that by Tuesday there would be a clearer of what caused the damage.

A anchor from a cargo ship striking the pipeline is “one of the distinct possibilities” behind the leak, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher told a news conference. He said divers have examined more than 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) of the pipeline and were focusing on “one area of significant interest.”

Cargo ships entering the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach routinely pass through the area, Coast Guard officials said. Backlogs have plagued the ports in recent months and several dozen or more of the giant vessels have regularly been anchored as they wait to enter the ports and unload.

“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye said.

Huntington Beach Oil Spill

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Oil floats on the water surface after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. A major oil spill off the coast of Southern California fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday, to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

The spill sent up to 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude into the ocean, contaminating the sands of famed Huntington Beach and other coastal communities. The spill could keep beaches closed for weeks or longer.

The Orange County district attorney, Todd Spitzer, said he has investigators looking into whether he can bring state charges for the spill even though the leak occurred in waters overseen by the U.S. government.

Spitzer also said Amplify’s divers should not be allowed near the pipeline without an independent authority alongside them.

Other potential criminal investigations were being pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, officials said.

Volunteers worked Sunday to try to clear crude oil from a beach in Southern California, after an estimated 126,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the waters off Orange County starting late Friday or early Saturday. (Oct. 4)

Safety advocates have pushed for years for federal rules that would strengthen oil spill detection requirements and force companies to install valves that can automatically shut down the flow of crude in case of a leak. The oil and pipeline industries have resisted such requirements because of the high cost.

“If the operator had more valves installed on this line, they’d have a much better chance at having the point of failure isolated by now,” said Bill Caram with the Pipeline Safety Trust, an organization based in Bellingham, Washington.

The pipeline was built using a process known as electric resistance weld, according to a regulatory filing from the company. That welding process has been linked to past oil pipeline failures because corrosion can occur along seams, according to government safety advisories and Pipeline Safety Trust Director Bill Caram.

Annual reports filed with federal regulators in 2019 and 2020 showed inspections for the inside and outside of the pipe revealed nothing requiring repairs.

Crews on the water and on shore are working feverishly to limit environmental damage from one of the largest oil spills in recent California history, after an underwater pipeline started leaking oil late Friday or early Saturday. (Oct. 3)

On Sunday as the extent of the spill was being revealed environmentalists had feared the oil might devastate birds and marine life in the area. But Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian and director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said only four oily birds had been found so far. One suffered chronic injuries and had to be euthanized, he said.

“It’s much better than we had feared,” he said at a news conference Monday.

Ziccardi said he’s “cautiously optimistic,” but it’s too soon to know the extent of the spill’s effect on wildlife. In other offshore oil spills, the largest number of oiled birds have been collected two to five days after the incident, he said.

Amplify operates three oil platforms about 9 miles (14.5 kilometers) off the coast of California, all installed between 1980 and 1984. The company also operates a 16-inch pipeline that carries oil from a processing platform to an onshore storage facility in Long Beach. The company has said the oil appears to be coming from a rupture in that pipeline about 4 miles (6.44 kilometers) from the platform.

In a 2016 spill-response plan submitted to federal regulators, the company said its worst-case spill scenario was based on the assumption of a “full guillotine cut” of the pipeline occurring 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) inland from one of its platforms. But an outside consultant concluded that a spill of that size was “very unlikely” at that location because the line is 120 feet deep and beneath a shipping lane where ships do not normally anchor.

The Beta oil field has been owned by at least seven different corporations since it was discovered by Royal Dutch Shell in 1976, records show. A corporate predecessor of Amplify bought the operation in 2012.

The Amplify subsidiary known as Beta Operating Co. has been cited 125 times for safety and environmental violations since 1980, according to a database from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the federal agency that regulates the offshore oil and gas industry. The online database provides only the total number of violations, not the details for each incident.

Huntington Beach Oil Spill

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Cleanup contractors get ready to work in the Wetlands Talbert Marsh after an oil spill in Huntington Beach, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021. A major oil spill off the coast of Southern California fouled popular beaches and killed wildlife while crews scrambled Sunday, to contain the crude before it spread further into protected wetlands. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

The company was fined a total of $85,000 for three incidents. Two were from 2014, when a worker who was not wearing proper protective equipment was shocked with 98,000 volts of electricity. The worker survived. In a separate incident, crude oil was released through a boom where a safety device had been improperly bypassed.

In 1999, an undersea pipeline running between two platforms sprang two leaks totaling at least 3,800 gallons of oil, causing tar balls to wash up on beaches in Orange County.

The cause of of the leaks was determined to be corrosion that caused pin-sized holes in the steel walls of the pipeline. The owner of the oil field at the time, a partnership between Mobil Oil Corp. and Shell Oil Co. called Aera Energy LLC, was fined $48,000 by federal regulators — a penalty environmental groups criticized as a slap on the wrist.

Before the spill, Amplify had high hopes for the Beta oil field and was pouring millions of dollars into upgrades and new “side track” projects that would tap into oil by drilling laterally.

“We have the opportunity to keep going for as long as we want,” Willsher said in an August conference call with investors. He added there was capacity “up to 20,000 barrels a day.”

Investors shared Willsher’s optimism, sending the company’s stock up more than sevenfold since the beginning of the year to $5.75 at the close of trading on Friday. The stock plunged 43% in trading Monday.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 2017 and emerged a few months later. It had been using cash generated by the Beta field and others in Oklahoma and Texas to pay down $235 million in debt.

Source:

Stefanie Dazio & Christopher Weber via Associated Press