Welcome to The Compost, a weekly newsletter on key environmental news impacting Southern California. Subscribe now to get it in your inbox! In today’s edition…
Restaurants get routine third-party inspections and public ratings for health and safety. Should schools in California get the same treatment?
That was one of the recommendations that came up as my colleague Roxana Kopetman and I dug into the complex issue of indoor air quality in Southern California’s public schools.
It’s an issue that saw decades of slow progress amid worsening pollution issues, with testing to show dirty air outside drifts inside classrooms even if windows and doors are closed. That’s of particular concern for Southern California students, parents, teachers and other school staff, since the prevalence of busy freeways, ports, airports and other pollution sources is linked to a range of health and developmental issues.
The issue finally got real attention and funding during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Districts like Los Angeles Unified spent big to upgrade HVAC systems, buy portable purifiers and more. And schools everywhere were eligible for millions in funding to help address ventilation issues, with some budgeting to spend on indoor air quality plans.
But as pandemic concerns fade, Roxana and I learned that some plans to boost air quality in Southern California schools also are falling by the wayside. Other schools apparently didn’t focus much effort or funds on that solution at all, with big loopholes in a state law that kicked in Jan. 1 requiring filtration upgrades.
When I asked East Whittier City School District, for example, for information about what they’ve done to improve air quality in schools in recent years, a spokesman for the district said they’d pass on the request to comment. When I asked why, he responded, “We just don’t currently have any information to share that would add value to the story.”
Chronic absenteeism still is plaguing schools — and hitting their budgets hard. So clean air advocates say districts should not be backing away from efforts to improve indoor air quality. Instead, they say they should be layering solutions such as improved HVAC filtration and air purifiers, which are rarely deployed together. Other ideas that came up in working on this story included consolidated oversight at the state level and requiring routine air quality testing and monitoring with CO2 sensors.
Improving air quality in public schools was one of the issues Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth also raised in his recent story, which looked at how schools need to be more climate resilient and promising ways they can get there.
Addressing ventilation issues in schools in many ways, however, is not an easy task.
“Ventilation in schools, or any indoor space, can be a complicated issue — especially here in Southern California,” Ed Avol, an environmental health professor at USC, acknowledged.
“Due to outdoor air quality concerns, one often might prefer to limit the intake of outdoor air and operate on mostly recirculated indoor air, to avoid outdoor air contaminants such as air pollution, wildfire smoke, refinery or port emissions, etc.” But when illnesses are circulating, Avol said you want to do the opposite, perhaps risking those outdoor contaminants in favor of diluting or reducing recirculation of active bacteria or viruses.
“This competing tension can make optimizing air ventilation control management a challenge,” Avold told me.
But with all of the funding, equipment, knowledge and regulations added over the past three years, Theresa Pistochini with UC Davis, who studies air quality in schools, said she’s optimistic that progress will continue if people who care about these issues keep pushing.
“In theory, all it really takes here is for a handful of concerned parents or teachers or an active school board member or somebody to say, Hey, you know we’ve got to do this, right?” she said.
“Then I think eventually, it just becomes the system.”
Addicted to meth(ane): Why have natural gas (a.k.a. methane) rates spiked so much in Southern California in recent weeks? Our visual journalist Kurt Snibbe rolled out a series of graphics in this explainer that looks at how much natural gas we import, where problems in the system have emerged, how we compare to other states and more. …READ MORE…
Surprising stat: While California is No. 3 in the nation for clean energy production, we’re still No. 2 for natural gas consumption.
Keep reading: For more on which states are most dependent on natural gas and which areas could more easily pivot to fully electrified homes, check out this great explainer from a Washington Post team.
Make America brown again: Republicans are getting ready to unveil their first big legislative push since retaking control of the House in January. And Politico reports it’s all about not-so-clean energy, with plans to push everything from “boosting fossil-fuel production on federal lands to disapproving of President Joe Biden’s block on the Keystone XL pipeline to easing environmental reviews of energy and mining projects.” …READ MORE…
Recycling fashion: See ya, Shein? I wrote about a bill from state Sen. Josh Newman that would require clothing brands to fund a collection, reuse, repair and recycle program if they want their products to be sold in California. While an estimated 95% of textiles can be repurposed, Newman says, some 85% now heads to landfills. Some in the fashion industry aren’t exactly pleased at this proposal, with one trade group head calling it “monumentally stupid.” …READ MORE…
Potential ripple effects: In the same way that California’s clout as the fifth largest economy in the world helps set clean air standards for the global auto industry, Newman hopes his legislation might have similar implications for the fashion industry worldwide.
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Drought eases: The recent series of storms that still have some San Bernardino County mountain residents trapped in their homes just lead the U.S. Drought Monitor to declare that most of California is no longer experiencing drought conditions. But the tool shows inland portions of Southern California still are experiencing moderate to severe drought. Our Hanna Lykke talked with experts about why those conditions persist and what it will take to make a real difference. …READ MORE…
PFAS limits coming: The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose restrictions on harmful “forever chemicals” in drinking water after finding they are dangerous in amounts so small as to be undetectable. But a report estimates “it could cost roughly $38 billion to remove enough of the chemicals to meet a strict EPA rule limiting them to where they can’t be detected.” …READ MORE…
Rights make a wrong: Should California’s water rights system be dismantled? Ian James from the L.A. Times looked at this question in the wake of a report by the environmental group Restore the Delta that concluded the people who make decisions about California’s water are overwhelmingly white and male. …READ MORE…
Ohio in the I.E.: Could a train derailment like East Palestine, Ohio, occur in the Inland Empire? A minor version of that disaster actually played out in the area not long ago, as our Jeff Horseman details in this story that also looks at what safeguards are in place and where some say more are needed. …READ MORE…
Off the rails: Plans for an expansion of the Riverside-Downtown Metrolink train station, to add new tracks, a new platform and more parking, could be abandoned Wednesday. Our Sarah Hofmann looks at how the project went off the rails. …READ MORE…
Battery problems: “Failure to deliver safe, affordable and efficient batteries for electric cars could mean that California fails to meet its landmark mandate, enacted last summer, to phase out new gasoline-powered cars by 2035.” Julie Cart with Calmatters looks at the race to make cheaper, faster-charging and more durable EV batteries. …READ MORE…
Coyotes vs. dogs: As in other parts of Southern California, residents of Laguna Woods have been reporting increased instances of coyotes posing problems for family pets. During a recent community meeting on the issue, questions about whether coyotes can be trapped and relocated, poisoned or even shot were quickly quashed. But experts did offer some advice. Our contributor Daniella Walsh has the tale. …READ MORE…
Guarding the high seas: Over the weekend, United Nations member nations finally agreed on a treaty to protect huge swaths of water in the high seas, outside of national boundaries. The treaty allows for marine protected areas, limits on marine genetic resources and more. NPR chatted with an expert about what it all means in this Q&A. …READ MORE…
Whale of an expansion: The Pacific Marine Mammal Center just broke ground on a $14 million expansion and water reclamation project that will make the center more environmentally friendly and boost its ability to help study ocean health and environmental impacts on marine life. Our Erika Ritchie has the story. …READ MORE…
Best quote: “Sea lions have terrible manners and always poop into the pool.”
Find inspiration: You may not have come to The Compost in search of writing inspiration. But our contributing columnist Donna Kennedy took a look at how exploring nature can help break up writer’s block and contribute to all sorts of creative inspiration. She also offers up some of her favorite Inland Empire spots for rediscovering her muse. …READ MORE…
Oscars fans, unite!: For this week’s tip on how Southern Californians can help the environment… Sunday will see the return of the Academy Awards, and there are a number of 2022 films among the more than four dozen nominees that overtly take on topics in the climate and environment space. Lucky for you (if perhaps not my dear non-artsy-film-loving husband), I make it a goal to watch every nominated film before the show! I have just a few features and shorts left to go, but wanted to recommend eight that can help expand our minds and start conversations about climate change, animal rights, nature and more.
Haulout — Nominated for best short documentary, this one looks at how walruses are being effected by climate change. So yes, it’s not exactly cheerful. But wait for one moment that takes your breath away to be topped by another such moment and another… Stream this one free via The New Yorker.
Ice Merchants — This nominee from Portugal in the best animated short category, which tells the story of a father and son who deliver ice to a nearby remote community, has a clear message about climate refugees. The New Yorker also is streaming this one.
EO — Donkeys are key to a few Oscar nominated films this year, but none more so than Poland’s nominee for Best International Feature Film. While there are some light moments, don’t expect an uplifting film, with a strong message about animal rights running throughout. EO is available to rent through Apple TV or Vudu.
Avatar: The Way of Water — Yes, the visuals are the thing here. But James Cameron’s sequel, which scored four nominees including for Best Picture, also has a clear and at times painful message about protecting our oceans and its marine life. This one is still only in theaters, which is where you’ll want to see those visuals in 3D anyhow.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery — I don’t want to share too much about why this adapted screenplay nominee qualifies to be on this list, since I don’t want any spoilers here. But let’s just say it was ironic to see after I’d just written about a certain energy project up for discussion at UC Irvine… Stream this one on Netflix.
All that Breathes — One of three nominees from India, this feature documentary tells the story of brothers who rescue and treat kites and other injured birds in New Delhi. It’s an occasionally tough but also lovely look at how humans and nature collide. Stream it on HBO Max.
Fire of Love — Hard to believe some of the images in this feature-length documentary weren’t photoshopped, as a husband-and-wife team dance in front of exploding volcanos in shiny silver suits. But there’s a good amount of science here, too, along with lessons about protecting communities near these sleeping giants. Stream this one on Disney+.
The Elephant Whisperers — This documentary short out of South India features another husband-and-wife team. But this time, they’re focused on raising orphaned elephants. Stream it on Netflix.
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