Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Global Warming

Cheap coal? Tell that to the dead miners' families

President Obama in Oklahoma
The Obama administration announced new EPA rules Tuesday that sharply limit the output of carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants.

And not surprisingly, the mining industry objected.

"Requiring coal-based power plants to meet an emissions standard based on natural gas technology is a policy overtly calculated to destroy a significant portion of America's electricity supply," said Hal Quinn, chief executive of the National Mining Assn. "This proposal is the latest convoy in EPA's regulatory train wreck that is rolling across America, crushing jobs and arresting our economic recovery at every stop. It is not an 'all of the above' energy strategy." 

Of course, what Quinn doesn't want to talk about is what types of jobs the EPA rules are "crushing."

To get a better idea of that, you need to read another Times story Tuesday, one headlined "Report: Safety agency failed to enforce laws at deadly mine."

That story tells of the regulatory and safety lapses at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 coal miners and seriously injured two others.

It's a story of lax regulatory enforcement, of inspectors simply not doing their jobs, and of a mine operator that, as the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration said in a report on the deadly incident, engaged in  "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts ... to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators."

How bad were conditions at the mine?  Bad enough that "Alpha Natural Resources, the company that acquired Massey Energy Co. after the explosion, reached a settlement late last year with the Department of Justice in which it agreed to pay a record $209 million in compensation and fines and federal prosecutors agreed not to pursue criminal charges against the company," according to The Times' story.

Even so, some former officials at the mine are under criminal indictment. 

Last month, prosecutors charged the then-superintendent of the mine with conspiring with others to block federal regulators from enforcing safety requirements -- a charge that suggests other individuals are likely targets of action as well.

Prosecutors allege that the former superintendent altered the mine’s ventilation system while an inspector was taking an air sample and ordered that a monitor be rewired so that mining could continue despite elevated levels of methane.

What industry spokesman Quinn also didn't talk about is that EPA regulations would apply only to new power plants, and that, as The Times story said, "the proposed regulations further bolster a trend that the power industry began years ago, as more utilities replaced aging coal-fired plants with new natural gas plants. Very few new coal plants are now on the drawing boards."

Coal is a relatively cheap power source, but it's only really cheap if you ignore the costs in lost lives mining it and the health effects from burning it, not to mention the environmental costs from digging it up.

As The Times story concludes:

"[W]hat this essentially says is we will never be building dirty old coal plants ever again," said Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, one of the litigants in the lawsuit that led to the development of the new rules. "The dominant power source of the 19th and 20th centuries won’t be built the same again."

This isn't about "crushing" jobs.

This is about progress. And it's time to move on.


Candidates go PG-13 on the press

Gov. Brown's tax-the-rich pitch looks like a winner

Did an open mic catch Obama making promises to Russia?

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: President Obama speaks about energy on March 22 at a TransCanada pipe yard near Cushing, Okla. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA

What Sherwood Rowland taught us about science, and the Earth

Sherwood RowlandGood thing Sherry Rowland was working 40 years ago instead of now.

Otherwise, he might not have won the Nobel Prize, and we might all be a lot closer to dead -– as individuals, as a species and as a planet.

If UC Irvine chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who passed away Saturday, had been starting his work now on how chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, damage the Earth's protective ozone layer, it might be getting the same kind of manipulated skepticism and politically cynical slamming that global climate change now receives.

As it was, Rowland had to battle and scrap for his carefully researched warnings to be believed, but within 15 years of publishing his findings, the nations of the world -- the United States among them -- agreed to phase out CFCs. Believe it or not, manufacturers had stopped using them even before the Montreal Protocol was signed.

The Nobel committee, in honoring Rowland and co-discoverer Mario Molina, said their work may have "saved the world from catastrophe." These guys should have been wearing Spandex superhero suits, for what their work accomplished.

In 1990, with the inspiration of C. Boyden Gray, who worked in both the Reagan and the George H.W. Bush administrations, a cap-and-trade law was up and running to control acid rain. But when it comes to global climate change, the current GOP generation mocks this market-driven solution as "cap and tax." 

I interviewed Rowland a couple of times, most recently half a dozen years ago, when the neo-paleo-anti-science crowd was in full-court press as naysayers on human-generated global climate change. Legitimate scientists with nuanced questions about data and formulas being used were lumped in with random cranks as "proof" that the body of scientific evidence is wrong and that science is no more than just another untrustworthy special-interest group.

Rowland told me he did get his share of attacks in the 1970s. You might say that. Radio Free Europe reported that a trade publication called Aerosol Age suggested he was a Soviet KGB agent, and DuPont took out full-page newspaper ads to question his chops.

Almost 20 years after his Nobel Prize, Rowland told me that "the planet is in for a rough century as we try to put together substitutes for the energy that we need in order to prevent very substantial climate change coming from rapidly rising temperatures."

Yet like global climate change, many of the obstacles to fixing our problems also look to be man-made. As I wrote a few years ago, the public doesn't like it when scientists engage in discussions that politicians recast as political, not scientific, and it doesn't like it when scientists detach themselves from "real world" concerns. Rowland remembered a sci-fi story from the 1950s, about a comet imperiling the Earth. Inside a lab, scientists were clamoring for a peek into a spectroscope; outside the lab window, people were getting fried by radiation right in their wingtips.

Rowland's work on CFCs and ozone was a model, just like the world's political response to it.

And in spite of the dire warnings that banning CFCs would tank the economy, guess what: American know-how and technology came up with an alternative, business embraced it and, whatever the dire warnings, our armpits don't stink, we still have spray paint and we've maybe bought the ozone layer up there a few more centuries.

If we down here don't mess our second second chance.


Obama's pump debacle

Refighting California's water war

To catch a Kony, cash won't cut it

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

--Patt Morrison

Photo: Sherwood Rowland is seen in 1989. He died at his Corona Del Mar home on March 10. He was 84. Credit: University of California Irvine / AP Photo

Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who saved the world

F. Sherwood Rowland
It's not often you can say that someone saved the world -- and mean it literally.

But that's the case with F. Sherwood Rowland. The UC Irvine chemist, who died Saturday at 85, was one of three scientists who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry, The Times reported, for their work "explaining how chlorofluorocarbons, ubiquitous substances once used in an array of products from spray deodorant to industrial solvents, could destroy the ozone layer, the protective atmospheric blanket that screens out many of the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays."

In hindsight, it seems straightforward: Bad stuff was eating away a vital part of Earth's environment. So get rid of it.

But it wasn't so simple in 1974, when Rowland and fellow scientist Mario Molina published their concerns in the journal Nature.

As The Times says, the findings "were met with scorn by the chemical industry and even by many scholars. For a decade, Rowland and Molina persevered to prove their hypothesis, publishing numerous scientific papers and speaking to sometimes hostile audiences at scientific conferences. It took almost 15 years for the international scientific community and chemical industry to accept the pair's findings."

Hmmm, starting to remind you of a little something called "climate change," is it?

But here's something of a vital difference between the ozone debate and the current climate change one:

Manufacturers began to phase out chlorofluorocarbons in the late 1980s, prompted by the discovery of an ozone "hole" over Antarctica that formed each winter in response to weather conditions and the falling worldwide levels of ozone. The Montreal Protocol, a landmark international agreement to phase out CFC products, was signed by the United States and other nations in 1987.

The protocol was proof that nations could unite to address common environmental threats, Rowland contended. "People have worked together to solve the problem," he said.

Rowland was right then.  Nations did unite to address a common environmental threat.

But have we taken that lesson to heart?  Will we accept the scientific consensus on climate change and work together to save the planet?   

Or will it continue to be a political football, at least in the United States, where too many politicians are opting for short-term partisan gains at the risk of the planet's future?

Donald Blake, a colleague of Rowland’s at UC Irvine, told The Times that Rowland considered the phase-out of CFCs his greatest achievement.

It would be a shame if Rowland won the ozone battle -- but the rest of us lost the war for Earth’s survival.


Is that a fracking earthquake?

Japan's 1,000-year-old warning

'Obamacare' plaintiff Brown's bankruptcy: Instant karma? 

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: F. Sherwood Rowland, shown in his UC Irvine lab.  Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Is that a fracking earthquake?

Environmentalists: Prepare to be shaken up. It turns out that hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, a.k.a. the latest fossil fuel industry outrage to be perpetrated on planet Earth, isn't just a menace because it may be contaminating groundwater. It also can cause earthquakes.

Ohio oil and gas regulators said Friday that a preliminary report on the relationship between a fracking waste disposal well near Youngstown and a series of minor earthquakes in northeastern Ohio last year found evidence "strongly indicating the Youngstown-area earthquakes were induced." What the frack does this mean? In addition to giving anti-frackers something else to complain about, it means companies drilling for natural gas will probably face a host of new regulatory restrictions aimed at ensuring they don't do anything earth shattering in the future. In Ohio, regulators announced a series of new rules for disposing of and transporting brine, a waste product from fracking, and they're likely to spread.

That's not a bad thing. But before greens who aim to restrict or ban fracking get too worked up about this new entry to the list of its dangers, they should consider that very similar risks also apply to another energy source considered by many -- including Al Gore and President Obama -- to be among the world's great hopes of fending off climate change and weaning us off fossil fuels: geothermal.

The principles involved in fracking and geothermal power production are similar: In both cases, one drills deep into the earth and injects water (combined with other chemicals, in the case of fracking) into fissures. Geothermal energy is produced when hot rock turns the water to steam, which returns to the surface and is used to turn generators. In fracking, the chemicals are used to force natural gas to the surface. Very little seismic activity has been attributed to the process of fracking itself, but things get more dangerous around disposal wells such as the one in Ohio, in which the waste water or brine from fracking is dispensed with by being reinjected, and far more liquid is involved.

In his book "Our Choice," Al Gore says of geothermal energy, "Like solar energy and wind power, geothermal energy could -- if properly developed -- match all of the energy from coal, gas and oil combined." Obama's stimulus package, meanwhile, contained $350 million for development of geothermal projects. It's easy to see what they're so heated up about. Unlike wind and solar power, whose generation stops when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, the Earth's magma is always hot, and geothermal power production emits only steam. But it turns out that when you inject water into hot fissures, it cracks them, and deep underground shifts can cause considerable surface rumbling. After a major geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, had to be shut down because it caused quakes that rattled that city in 2009, one of the nation's biggest projects to pursue the technology (located near my hometown of Santa Rosa) was tabled. The company behind it, AltaRock Energy, is now carrying out experiments in a sparsely populated area in central Oregon instead.

Regulators are right to insist on maximum standards to protect the public from such risky practices, and it's a very good idea to hold off on major projects until more is known about the science. But those who seek to ban fracking because of its earthquake risks should consider the more beneficial technologies they may be quashing. Geothermal power has vast potential, but until we get to a cleaner future, we're going to need more natural gas as a transitional fuel. Pursuing both is richly worthwhile, if it can be done safely.


When big business and human rights collide

Michael Mann's counterstrike in the climate wars

The energy industry's disturbing influence on politics

-- Dan Turner

Photo: Environmentalists rally against fracking in Albany, N.Y., in January. Credit: Mike Groll / Associated Press

Michael Mann's counterstrike in the climate wars

Michael-MannClimate change may have dropped off the national political agenda, but unfortunately that doesn't mean the problem has gone away. As of January, the Earth's atmosphere contained 393 parts per million of carbon dioxide. And rising.

To understand why that's a very sad number, it helps to know that from the dawn of human civilization until the 19th century, the concentration was about 275 parts per million, and that many scientists believe 350 parts per million is a sort of tipping point: Irreversible impacts and feedback loops start to kick in, and the cost of repairing the resulting damage from such things as sea-level rise and droughts not only skyrockets, the cost of adapting to the changes does too. But we've already sailed past that point. And we're heading inexorably toward another one that's far worse: 450 parts per million, the truly scary level at which 3.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial global average temperatures is locked in. The predicted result: centuries of weather extremes, drought-fueled global famine, mass migration, the vanishing of low-lying islands and territories as sea ice melts away, wide-scale species extinction and other horrors too numerous and depressing to list.

To global warming denialists, the above paragraph constitutes the "alarmist" perspective on climate change. Never mind that it is backed by a wealth of research, the world's most state-of-the-art climate models (whose accuracy in predicting the recent effects of climate change has been repeatedly demonstrated), the national science academies  of the world's developed nations (including the U.S. National Academies), the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other prominent academic and scientific organizations. To the denial set, these groups and individual scientists are part of a global liberal cabal that is scheming to impose its radical environmentalist agenda on the entire planet via government programs to cut carbon emissions; as proof, denialists point to their own research and studies -- typically funded by fossil fuel interests, performed by non-climatologists and published in non-peer-reviewed journals -- that pick away at the scientific consensus. You wouldn't think such an anti-intellectual and grossly irresponsible movement would have much success in the court of public opinion. You would be horrifyingly wrong....

Continue reading »

How about Santorum vs. Obama, winner take all?

The liberal-conservative divide
America, it's time for a little presidential poker. Republicans and Democrats need to go "all in" on Rick Santorum vs. President Obama.

Yep, it's "put up or shut up" time for all you political Texas hold 'em folks out there.

Now, the Obama bet you probably understand. After all, he's the incumbent, and he's running unopposed in the Democratic Party.

But why Santorum? After all, he's not only anathema to Democrats, it's not clear whether most Republicans favor him over Mitt Romney (not to mention Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul).

For the good of the country, though, the GOP needs to run Santorum.

Wait, wait, hold the comments, angry or otherwise. I didn't say "Santorum would be good for the country."  If you're asking me personally, well, it's a secret ballot, but no, I wouldn't put my ink spot next to "Rick Santorum."

But I'm also sick and tired of the partisan divide. It's time to call everyone's bluff.

Conservatives maintain that Obama and the Democrats are destroying the country; that we need to return to Christian values, to exceptionalism, to less government, less regulation, less spending and less taxation.

Sure, Romney touts all that too.  But he just wants the Republican nomination. With that secured, he'll pivot to the center, and pretty soon you'll never know he said half the stuff he did to get the GOP nod. With an Obama-Romney clash, should Romney lose, plenty of Republicans would complain that he wasn't a true-enough conservative.

Santorum, on the other hand, is nothing if not a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. He might pivot to the center too, but he's so far right that he can't even see the center at this point. With an Obama-Santorum battle, we'd be able to settle the liberal vs. conservative debate that's stifling government. 

And here's where the "all in" part happens.

If Santorum wins, liberals should acknowledge that the country is on the wrong path. America doesn't want gay marriage, or legal abortion, or government healthcare, or environmental protections. It wants to slash the size of government and reduce or eliminate entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. It wants religion back in public life; it wants the government out of schools. It wants to spend big on defense; it wants to back Israel no matter what. 

However, if Obama wins, all those conservative Republicans would have to acknowledge that they were wrong. That they're not America's voice. That America is OK with gay marriage and a woman's right to choose; it wants affordable healthcare for all, and a safety net that includes Medicare and Social Security.  It agrees with the separation of church and state and believes that while generating good-paying jobs is important, so is protecting the environment. It doesn't want a 1% and a 99% but a 100% that favors social and economic justice for all.

So after election day, that's it. Someone rakes in all the chips. 

If it's Santorum, then Republicans in Congress, the tea partyers and the Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck/Sean Hannity crowd can crow all the way to the inauguration and beyond.

But if it's Obama, those same folks need to face reality. They need to stop the scorched-earth warfare and let him lead.

And we can go back to the old days, when elections mattered.

Did someone say "deal"?


The Dow is climbing! The Dow is climbing!

Issa's House hearings on contraception: Where were the women?

Presidential giants of our generation, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton

 --Paul Whitefield

Illustration by Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times

It's Groundhog Day, for Ben Bernanke and Punxsutawney Phil

Groundhog Day's big momen
What do Ben Bernanke and Punxsutawney Phil have in common?

Simple:  Both are forecasters, paid to see the future.

OK, maybe that's a bit too simple. As Fed chairman, Bernanke is paid not only to see the future but to shape that future. While Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog (or woodchuck, if you prefer), is paid just to tell us how much longer winter will last (and to draw tourists to Punxsutawney, Pa., but let's not be cynical on such a nice day).

So, recapping Thursday's events for the overstressed news consumer:

Punxsutawney Phil came out (OK, was lifted out by handlers) and saw his shadow, presaging six more weeks of winter. Or, in the colorful language of one of the Inner Circle of handlers:

After casting an appreciative glance to the thousands of faithful followers in attendance, Phil proclaimed, "As I look at the crowd on Gobbler's Knob, many shadows do I see. Six more weeks of winter it must be."

Naturally, there were some boo birds in the crowd.

Bernanke came to a different knob -- Capitol Hill -- (presumably on his own, though given the Republican sentiment in Congress, perhaps he too was dragged there by handlers) and told the House Budget Committee that the economic recovery is "frustratingly slow" and that there are  "significant head winds" facing consumers and the broader economy.

Not exactly "six more weeks of winter," but we get the picture.

No booing was reported, though.

By this time, Bernanke must be starting to feel another kind of kinship with Punxsutawney Phil: the movie "Groundhog Day." Just as Bill Murray's character in the movie is forced to relive Groundhog Day day after day, Bernanke must periodically go before Congress and say pretty much the same things.

As The Times reported:

Bernanke repeated that it was important for policymakers not to make spending and tax policies that would hurt the current economic recovery. And he urged lawmakers to get past the political divisions to solve the long-term debt problems.

"I realize politics is a tough game," he said, but it's important to show "cooperation and collaboration" in addressing the nation's large debts.

So, in the spirit of the day, here's a little forecast of my own: That will happen -- when hell freezes over.


Mitt Romney: The Max Headroom candidate

The delayed gratification of the Facebook IPO

Florida's Burmese pythons: Will they make a meal out of (gulp) us?

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: Handler Ron Ploucha holds Punxsutawney Phil on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa. Credit: Gene J. Puskar / Associated Press

Energy: Activists wring blood from a Keystone

Don't believe anybody who tells you today's decision by President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline was about protecting the environment or destroying American jobs. It was about politics, pure and simple -- and that goes not just for Obama, but the environmentalists, conservatives and fossil-fuel interests that have been using the issue to press their agendas, and are likely to keep flogging that horse through November.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts over this pipeline, it would have had a tiny impact on either the economy or the environment. With all due respect to NASA scientist James Hansen, who is still one of the nation's most prescient thinkers when it comes to climate change, he was badly off-base when he claimed that if Keystone were built it would be "game over" in the fight against global warming. That's because failing to build the pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta's tar sands to refineries on Texas' Gulf Coast, won't make the tar sands go away, and probably won't even do much to slow their development.

Tar sands oil is only slightly dirtier than the crude we're already burning, and if the Canadians can't sell it easily in the U.S. they'll just ship it to China. In other words, trying to stop or even slow the consumption of dirty, carbon-intense fossil fuels by attacking their distribution sources is a waste of time, because producers will just find other distribution sources or customers. Environmental activists would have been far better off fighting for a carbon-pricing scheme rather than fighting against Keystone XL, which is a symptom of the carbon problem but not a cause.

And with all due respect to my colleague Paul Whitefield, who sees the Costa Concordia cruise-ship sinking as a reminder that pipelines such as Keystone can fail, the recent maritime disaster actually points to the opposite conclusion. Yes, pipelines do leak, but spills from pipelines tend to be small and easily contained, unlike spills from oil tankers such as the Exxon Valdez. From an environmental standpoint, it's better to get the stuff from Canada via pipeline than Venezuela via tanker.

Conservatives, meanwhile, are just as deluded about Keystone. As Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Michael Levi points out in the Washington Post, the oil industry's claims that the project would produce 250,000 jobs are a fantasy, and the notion that it would significantly reduce global oil prices is nonsensical. There would be some minor economic benefits from building the thing, but nothing game-changing.

The real story of Keystone is the scoring of political points. Congressional Republicans think they put a few on the board when they attached a rider to the two-month extension of the payroll tax cut that forced the Obama administration to either approve or reject the pipeline by Feb. 21. That wasn't enough time to complete environmental and safety reviews of the project, which cuts through sensitive water tables in Nebraska and other states. So President Obama was left with little choice but to reject it, thus giving the GOP new ammunition for its claims that Obama's extremist environmental policies are destroying American jobs. Obama, meanwhile, gets to at least shore up support among his base, who for some reason see the Keystone fight as being far more significant than it really is.

The good news is, nothing has really been resolved when it comes to Keystone. Pipeline developer TransCanada can still reapply for a permit, and no doubt it will do so when the heat from this year's election season has dissipated. As for the political fallout, Obama did the right thing for the country by waiting until all the studies of potential risks and environmental impacts are completed; whether he did the right thing for his reelection chances will be clearer later.


Burning America's future

Deepwater Horizon's missed lessons

Congress' 10 biggest enemies of the Earth

--Dan Turner

Photo: Activists at a November protest against Keystone XL in Washington. Credit: Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg

Keystone XL: America's Italian cruise ship?

Keystone XL protesters in Washington

Why is it that when I picture the Keystone XL pipeline, I see a half-submerged cruise ship in the Mediterranean?

Maybe it's because the wreck of the Costa Concordia off Italy's coast is a reminder that, well, stuff happens.

Which is why it's good news that the Obama administration has decided against issuing a permit for the Keystone project just yet.

Like it or not, pipelines -- like cruise ships and nuclear reactors and the things people make, or operate -- aren't foolproof. Stuff happens.

I'm against building the Keystone. But if we are going to go ahead with it, we'd better make sure we've done everything we can to make it as safe as possible.

And that means not rushing the permit process.

Sadly, President Obama's Republican opponents never miss an opportunity to make political points, even when it's their voters -– such as the ones in Nebraska -– who are also objecting to the project. As The Times reported Wednesday:

"President Obama is about to destroy tens of thousands of American jobs and sell American energy security to the Chinese," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. "The president won't stand up to his political base even to create American jobs. This is not the end of this fight."

Which is utter nonsense. The pipeline's oil would go into the global pool. U.S. refiners would probably continue the growing trend of selling their products to foreign markets. And the number of jobs created would be a relative handful -– 20,000 according to proponents, 6,000 according to the State Department and others.

All for what? So we can put at risk a precious aquifer in the nation's breadbasket?

And then there's the questionable strategy of our dependence on oil in the first place. Go read 350.org founder Bill McKibben's Op-Ed article in Wednesday's Times, "Burning America's future," for a chilling analysis of where that path will lead the planet.

If you don't have the time, here's his kicker:

It may not be aerosol cheese or cryogenics, but can't we all agree that burning every molecule of fossil fuel we can find is a spectacularly bad idea?

We're stuck with oil, and gas, and coal, and, yes, nuclear for now. But we don't have to stay stuck. 

And we certainly don't have to take giant risks for the small return that the Keystone XL pipeline would bring.

After all, the Costa Concordia wreck will probably prove to be a job creator too. 

For cleanup workers.


Graphic: No permit for pipeline

Full coverage: Keystone XL pipeline

Italy's Costa Concordia catastrophe: Why?

-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Protesters march against the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline during a demonstration in Washington in November. Credit: Daniel Lippman / MCT


Council District 15: Wilmington and the air that it breathes


Sometimes you can smell Wilmington before you see it. It might be the scent of the wells, tucked in between houses and neighborhood streets, pumping the last drops of oil from the giant Wilmington oil field, the third-largest petroleum field in the contiguous United States; it might be the odor of one of the refineries -- either the massive Valero oil plant, turning heavy crude into jet fuel and gasoline, or perhaps Valero's asphalt refinery, or maybe the Tesoro (formerly Shell) facility, or perhaps the ConocoPhillips (formerly Union Oil) refinery right there in Wilmington or its companion just across the line in Carson.

It could be flares -- the routine or emergency burn-off of excess toxic gases that make eyes itch and Conocophillips Luis Sinco breathing difficult and that have been implicated in asthma and cancer; it could be the uncovered mounds of sulfur,  the residue of impurities removed from petroleum; it could be fumes from the trucks, trains and other heavy equipment or the solvents and other chemicals wafting from the recycling centers that stretch along the Alameda Corridor or a leak in one of the many underground pipelines.

Less and less, promise officials of the Port of Los Angeles, is it diesel exhaust from heavy container ships or cruise ships, some of which already have converted to electric power while idling, or (starting Jan. 1) from trucks moving into and out of the port that fail to meet the 2007 Federal Clean Truck Emissions Standards.

And every now and then, fighting its way past the noxious odors, it is the scent of the sea.

Wilmas muralWilmington is one of the large Los Angeles neighborhoods, or rather collection of neighborhoods, that make up the 15th Council District, where LAPD officer Joe Buscaino (born and raised in San Pedro) and state Assemblyman Warren Furutani (a resident of Harbor Gateway but with a Gardena postal address) are facing off in a Jan. 17 runoff. Unlike the parts of the district that have the words "harbor" in their names but aren't actually on or even all that near the harbor -- Harbor City and Harbor Gateway -- Wilmington is directly on the inner harbor and suffers the consequences and occasionally reaps the benefits of its location.

It's named after the largest city in Delaware, which had been the birthplace and childhood home of California transplant Phineas Banning. Banning arrived in the 1850s as a dockworker and soon began driving stagecoaches from the waterfront to Los Angeles, 20 miles north. He and his business partners incorporated Wilmington as a city, and it grew as a sort of twin to neighboring San Pedro.

He began building Southern California's first railroad -- from his new city on the harbor to Los Angeles -- at just about the time the Central Pacific was linking Northern California to the rest of the nation. The rail line and a Southern Pacific connection north made the port and Wilmington essential real estate. Only later did the rails reach San Pedro.

The cities of Wilmington and San Pedro were consolidated into Los Angeles in 1909 after L.A. offered a library, a school and other amenities. Federal money built a breakwater, and the former muddy harbor was built into the one of the world's largest and busiest ports. The oil field was discovered and developed in 1932.

But for all the heavy industry in the area, there are parts of Wilmington that are barely developed, with no sidewalks, streets virtually unpaved, unlighted alleys. Elected officials in far-off City Hall -- even representatives of the 15th District, who invariably have been residents of better-connected San Pedro -- have found it convenient to view Wilmington as a freight yard or transportation corridor rather than a community of families living among the industrial goliaths.

Poverty is commonplace, directly affecting at least a quarter of the residents. About a third of local jobs involve transportation, warehousing and goods movement. The harsh economy means job loss -- and additional pressure to ignore environmental standards to keep people employed and food on the tables.

Evolving housing policies have made over the Dana Strand Village federal public housing project, which once sheltered World War II-era workers and later became a dreary complex beset by drug sales and violence. After a bulldozing and a redesign, Harbor View Place Garden Apartments and another New Dana complex are tidy and relatively comfortable and safe.

Neglect has helped drive gang violence, and although it persists, the once-common clashes between the East Wilmas and West Wilmas have quieted and allowed the area to nurture, and become a center of, art, murals, poetry, journalism (see the extraordinary Wilmington Wire) and other expressions of the area's multi-generational local culture.

Amid the heavy industry and chemicals, Wilmington has also become a center of a reinvigorated fight Wally Skalij 2010 for cleanup and for environmental justice. Residents gave the city a high profile in 2010 as they protested against Valero's and Tesoro's support for Proposition 23, which would have pushed back California's landmark AB 32 anti-global-warming mandates. Still, the air can be so bad that schools have installed filters in classrooms as part of a settlement in an environmental suit over port expansion.

The Port of Los Angeles, which is overseen by Los Angeles' Board of Harbor Commissioners, has been in the forefront of both the pollution and (when prodded) the cleanup effort. And after residents protested plans for a high wall to cut them off from the waterfront -- and keep the refinery fumes in but shut the cleansing sea breezes out -- the port instead built a park that buffers the community from the harbor while still embracing it. The park opened last year.

But Wilmington residents say they still get too little in return from the shipping and freight companies that make the area their backyard, and the refineries that make it their furnace. Community activists say San Pedro gets the attention. As far as Wilmington has come, a glance at voting and political fundraising stats show that it has a long way to go before being able to demand the attention from an elected official that San Pedro now gets.

Writing on the Los Angeles Times' Mapping L.A. comments page for Wilmington, commenter Carol said:

I grew up in Wilmington. I still have two sons living there but I really can't say it is beautiful. It looked better when I was growing up. Once you have moved outside the area you see what is Beautiful.

Click on the map above to get a closer view and to be connected to Wilmington demographics, crime and school data.


Watts and Not-Watts

Harbor Gateway, the city on a shoestring

Harbor City, the city not on the harbor

-- Robert Greene

Photos: Top, the ConocoPhillips refinery looms over Wilmington homes. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times. Center, a parking lot mural. Credit: Robert Greene / Los Angeles Times. Bottom, a No-on-23 demonstration in Wilmington in October 2010. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.



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About the Bloggers
The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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