As in so many aspects of our lives, COVID-19 and President Trump played major roles in Southern California’s top environmental headlines for 2020.
Overall, environmentalists won some and lost some — as did the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce burdens on businesses by trying to rollback more than 100 environmental regulations, ranging from California’s emissions standards to protections of natural preserves.
Many of the administration’s proposed changes spurred legal challenges, some already successful. And President-elect Joe Biden, whose victory was celebrated by environmentalists, is expected to reverse many of those that remain.
“Biden’s cabinet is going to spend a lot of time undoing what President Trump has done,” said Dan Jacobson, state director for Environment California.
Here’s a look at how the Southern California’s environment fared in 2020, including a few developments independent of Trump and the pandemic, such as wins for the region’s imperiled mountain lions.
Early reports suggested the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns would lead to less motor vehicle traffic and reduced vehicle emissions. But the actual drop in carbon concentrations was within range of normal fluctuations, and “the lockdown-related fall in emissions is just a tiny blip on the long-term graph,” said Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, in a November report.
In the Los Angeles basin, the third hottest summer on record and record-setting wildfires were key contributors to abnormally high air pollution. Ozone — also known as smog — had exceeded standards in 158 days as of Nov. 5, already by then the highest number for a calendar year in more than 20 years, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Particulate matter — also known as soot — had exceeded standards 23 days as of Oct. 14, exceeding the full-year totals of the past five years.
Nonetheless, there was some good air news for environmentalists. In June, the California Air Resources Board mandated that all new trucks and vans sold in the state must be zero emission by 2045. And in August, the board issued more stringent emissions standards for diesel trucks and a new requirement that ships use more electric power while docked. Also in August, the state finalized a deal with five auto manufacturers on strict emissions standards, sidestepping the Trump directive to suspend the state’s legal mandate.
California is expected to recycle less than 40% of recyclables this year, far short of the statewide goal of 75%. The recycling rate has been declining since a peak of 50% in 2014, with the state slow to create domestic markets to replace the dwindling overseas demand for recyclables.
The pandemic has added to the flow of garbage to landfills and to roadside litter that ends up in the ocean, particularly in the form of takeout containers and utensils, and disposable masks.
Additionally, Sacramento lawmakers failed pass to a pioneering bill that would have eventually reduced single-use plastics by 75%. Currently, just 15% of the state’s plastics are recycled. However, a citizens’ initiative for the 2022 ballot was submitted for signature verification and would go even further in reducing plastic waste than the unsuccessful state bill.
The mountain lions of the Santa Ana and Santa Monica mountains are penned in by freeways and are at risk of local extinction because of inbreeding. To address this, biologists, activists and CalTrans have been collaborating to develop freeway crossings to much larger wilderness areas that would help introduce fresh genes to those two ranges.
The proposed Altair development in Temecula, which would have reduced the available crossing area next to the 15 Freeway in the Santa Ana Mountain foothills, was successfully sued by activists, with the developer and environmental groups then reaching agreement for a scaled-back project. As for the Santa Monica Mountains, design of a massive wildlife crossing over the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon was unveiled.
Meanwhile, the state Fish and Game Commission took a key vote in April that gives the cats temporary protective status in six geographic areas — including the Santa Ana, Santa Monica, San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. The vote also launched a year-long study by the Department of Fish and Wildlife to assess whether the threats facing the cougars in these areas merit permanent protective status.
Chemicals in water
Attention continues to grow on PFAS compounds in groundwater supplies throughout the country, including Southern California where wells have been shut down throughout the region. The chemicals have been used to waterproof and stainproof clothes, upholstery and carpet, to make cookware stickproof, and as a component of firefighting foam. Minute amounts have been associated with a host of diseases, including cancer.
Areas near major manufacturing plants were the first to be identified as PFAS hotspots, but the chemicals also have been found in wastewater and leaching from landfills. North and central Orange County have been particularly hard hit, as wastewater in the Inland Empire is released into the Santa Ana River and later settles into the county’s groundwater basin. Although the wastewater is treated, the PFAS remains in it.
More than three dozen wells have been closed in Orange County, which is developing standalone PFAS treatment plants to remove the chemicals and allow the wells to reopen. Eleven agencies in the county this month joined together a massive lawsuit against 3M, DuPont and other manufacturers. The Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency filed a similar, smaller suit in October, and already has a PFAS treatment plant operating.
Five Orange County cities this month formed the Orange County Power Authority, and joined the growing trend of California cities choosing to buy electricity directly from suppliers rather than from privately owned utilities. Southern California Edison will continue to transmit and deliver energy for the cities — Irvine, Buena Park, Fullerton, Huntington Beach, and Lake Forest — but the new authority will choose the source. Advocates say that will help accelerate the move to clean energy and provide a modest cost savings.
A quarter of the state’s population already gets or is soon to get their electricity from what is variously dubbed “community choice energy” and “community choice aggregation.” That includes more than two dozen cities in Los Angeles County and nine cities in the Inland Empire.
Meanwhile, outdated gas-fired power generators in Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Redondo Beach and Oxnard won’t be stop operating as quickly as planned. Those generators were scheduled for closure Dec. 31, but because of concerns that alternative sources were too slow coming online, the state approved extensions ranging from one to three years. Environmentalists fought the decision, arguing that there was sufficient power without the aging gas-fired units, noting that rolling blackouts over the summer were a result of misallocation rather than insufficient energy.
Source: Orange County Register