Low-Tech Remedy for High-Tech State Leaves Millions in the Dark as California Burns

New normal?: In California, some 2 million people will go up to five days without electricity because of intentional blackouts by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Ralph Vartabedian reports for the Los Angeles Times. The deliberate blackouts, dubbed “public safety power shutoffs” by PG&E, are completely at the discretion of utilities and have prompted calls for greater public oversight. At least one Northern California resident died in the days following an intentional power outage, and a caregiver blamed his death on running out of oxygen during the blackout, Will Schmitt reports for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. In spite of the utility company’s extreme preventive measures, wildfires continue to burn across the state, forcing at least 180,000 people to evacuate their homes. Last Thursday, PG&E said a transmission line broke near where the massive Kincade fire in Sonoma County started, one of more than 600 wildfires that have burned over a three-day period, Thomas Fuller and Kendra Pierre-Louis report for The New York Times. As Patrick Redford wrote in Deadspin during the 2018 California fire season: “People have wondered for years what the start of climate change would look like, what form the first harbingers would take. This is it.”

  • Also: Another vulnerable group impacted by the wildfires? Low-wage workers. Brittny Mejia of the Los Angeles Times visited wealthy West Los Angeles neighborhoods under fire evacuation orders and found stranded housekeepers and landscapers whose employers had neglected to tell them not to come into work. And in California Healthline, Anna Maria Barry-Jester describes the risks faced by farmworkers, not only from breathing smoky air, but also uncertainty about wages and housing if their work is suspended because of the fires.

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It’s a jungle out there: Although much of the blame for increased congestion in New York City has been pinned on ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft, The New York Times’ Matthew Haag and Winnie Hu say that some of the responsibility, at least, belongs to Amazon and other delivery services, and by extension, on the New Yorkers who order approximately 1.5 million packages every single day. Delivery service trucks were slapped with 471,000 parking violations last year, 34 percent more than in 2013. This sharp increase in deliveries is having an adverse effect on gridlock, roadway safety, and pollution in New York and other major urban areas.

  • Also: The Los Angeles Times’ Paloma Esquivel talked to people who live next to giant delivery warehouses in Fontana in Southern California, about how the industry has impacted them: “You want to know about the warehouses? They ruined my life,” Mary Anita Valdepeña, 79, said. “Boxed. We’re boxed in from either direction,” said Josie Kuhl, 64. “We hear the forklifts at night. The rumbling of trucks when they’re docking, it’s just nonstop.” Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren, an unabashed supporter of the warehouse boom–who takes pride in the nickname “Warehouse Warren”–told Esquivel that any truck pollution from the delivery industry gets blown away in the wind.

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A costly loophole: A new report from the Government Accountability Office says some of the world’s biggest oil companies have avoided paying $18 billion in royalties to the U.S. on oil and gas drilled in the Gulf of Mexico since 1996 because of a poorly written law, Hiroko Tabuchi writes for The New York Times. The loophole dates from the mid-1990s, when oil producers were supposed to get a temporary break from paying royalties, but the reprieve became  permanent on some wells. The beneficiaries of the mistake include Chevron, Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil, and the industry has gone to court to defend their rights to royalty-free extraction. The mistake could continue to cost the country for decades more.

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Cause and effect: Linda Birnbaum, the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, was prohibited by the Trump administration from saying that the chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) cause health problems, Sharon Lerner of The Intercept reports. “I was banned from doing it,” said Birnbaum, who retired earlier this month. “I had to use ‘association’ all the time. If I was talking about human data or impacts on people, I had to always say there was an association with a laundry list of effects.” PFAS are a group of industrial chemicals that have been used to make nonstick coatings, firefighting foam and other products. The chemicals have caused widespread groundwater pollution around military bases and in other areas. Lerner writes that, although causation is a high bar for toxicologists to establish, Birnbaum believes PFAS meets it: “In my mind, PFAS cause health effects because you have the same kind of effects reported in multiple studies in multiple populations.”

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Paid up: The Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division announced that it recovered a record $322 million in back wages in fiscal year 2019 from employers who violated federal wage rules, including requirements to pay minimum wage and overtime. The wage recoveries benefited more than 200,000 underpaid workers, according to agency data. More than $1.4 billion was recovered in the past five years, the agency said.

  • Also: In Tennessee, Shaffer Farms Custom Meats LLC and Shaffer Farms Texas Bar-B-Q restaurant paid $69,514 in back wages and damages for violating overtime and record-keeping rules, and will pay another $18,762 in civil penalties for the willful nature of the wage violations and for failing to comply with child labor rules.—Federal contractor XOtech LLC paid $43,224 to five employees after violating wage rules at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia.—Kajkunj Inc and Ram Duhn LLC, operators of two Florida convenience stores and gas stations in Florida, will pay $28,724 in back wages and damages to employees after violating minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping rules.

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Roadway deaths: In 2018, 36,750 people were killed in traffic crashes in the U.S., according to an estimate by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s a 1 percent drop from 2017, but still about 700 deaths per week, and well above the recent low of 32,744 in 2014. Deaths of occupants of passenger cars and truck declined in 2018, while pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and deaths in big rig crashes increased.

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In the hot seat: We’re one week into the ExxonMobil climate change trial. As InsideClimate News’ Nicholas Kusnetz explains, the question in the civil case, brought by the New York state attorney general, is whether the energy giant essentially kept two sets of books, defrauding investors by sharing different estimates for the impact of climate regulations than were used internally. A couple days after the trial began, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed  a similar lawsuit against the company, alleging ExxonMobil deceived investors and consumers in her state.

  • Also: Politico’s Zack Colman profiles Richard Heede and the pillar of research he helped establish: “attribution science,” which climate activists hope can help hold fossil fuel polluters accountable for their role in contributing to a warming planet. Heede concludes that fewer than 100 companies are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

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Drink up: How safe is your tap water? You can see for yourself with a recently-updated Tap Water Database, compiled by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. The Revelator’s Tara Lohan interviewed Environmental Working Group senior scientist Tasha Stoiber about threats to public drinking water across the country. “Many of the federal standards that we do have are not protective enough of health,” Stoiber said. “There hasn’t been a new drinking-water regulation passed in nearly 20 years. We still don’t have regulations for about half of the detected contaminants and the regulations…that we do have for a lot of the contaminants are outdated and based on old science.”

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Carfax for guns: Data analysis by The Trace’s Alex Yablon and Daniel Nass reveals gun trafficking hot spots between states with weak gun laws to those that are more restrictive. According to Yablon and Nass, when police trace a crime gun that was legally purchased within the past year, there is a good chance it was purchased for the purpose of committing a crime, or with the intent to sell it to a criminal. Really, the analysis underscores the limits of gun legislation at the state level when the federal laws are lax.

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Visualizing the future: New research published in Science identifies the parts of the globe most at risk from a warming planet, and finds that Africa and South Asia will be among the hardest hit. “The model looks at three specific natural systems that humans benefit from: pollination (which enables crops to grow), freshwater systems (which provide drinking water), and coastal ecosystems (which provide a buffer from storm surges and prevent erosion),” writes Grist’s Miyo McGinn. “Using fine-scale satellite imagery, the team of scientists mapped predicted losses to these natural systems onto human population maps. The resulting map allows you to see how many people could be impacted by environmental changes, and where.”

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