• No categories

Green City

Should taxpayers subsidize desalination?



GREEN CITY Should the state of California hand over a multimillion dollar tax break to a company that is poised to build the largest desalination facility on the continent, just north of San Diego? That question will be decided early next year when Poseidon Resources, a water-infrastructure developer, formally submits its request for more than $500 million in tax-exempt bonds to the California Debt Limit Allocation Committee (CDLAC).

The decision will demonstrate whether California is willing to roll out the red carpet for desalination, an energy-intensive technology that has many questioning whether it’s a wise path to take. Proposals for desalination projects are cropping up across the state, including one for a smaller facility in Marin County, and water bonds recently approved by the Legislature as part of the state’s historic water package include $1 billion earmarked for water recycling and desalination.

With the state well into a three-year drought that has left some agricultural operations high and dry, calls for new reliable water sources such as desalination plants are only growing louder. But critics worry that the private operations will suck in tax dollars the way their intake pipes suck in saltwater, and they’re urging decision-makers to focus on more cost-effective strategies like low-flow showerheads, waterless urinals, drought-proof landscaping, or other comparatively thrifty ways to address water shortages. Poseidon’s Carlsbad desalination plant is projected to be the largest project of its kind in California, but it’s also just the beginning of an emerging trend.

A coalition of organizations, including the Sierra Club, Service Employees International Union, and Food & Water Watch, has been sounding the alarm that San Diego’s Carlsbad Desalination Project is a bad deal that shouldn’t be encouraged with public subsidies in the form of tax-exempt bonds. "Our group, along with most of our partners and allies, are not anti-desalination," says Renee Maas, who works for Food & Water Watch in Los Angeles. "But we think it should be a last resort," after opportunities for conservation have been exhausted.

"Aside from doing nothing about conservation and continuing to require huge amounts of energy for transmission, these plants also have no real community benefit, minimal job creation, and, most importantly, a questionable success and effectiveness," members of Service Employees International Union Local 721 wrote in a letter to the Metropolitan Water District, Southern California’s water wholesaler. "We believe we can conserve more water by installing waterless urinals across L.A. County than we would obtain from the proposed desalination plant."

Yet the facility boasts a long list of powerful endorsements, including that of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a member of CDLAC. The governor was listed as a supporter on a preliminary application submitted to the three-member committee. The two other committee members are State Treasurer Bill Lockyer and State Controller John Chiang.

The facility already has its ducks in a row, with permits approved and a contract with MWD to provide as much as 10 percent of San Diego’s water supply (MWD also agreed to $350 million in subsidies for the plant over 25 years). Poseidon expects the plant to be up and running by 2012. According to company spokesperson Scott Maloni, the project will proceed even if the state rejects its request for tax-exemption.

The plant will use ocean water as a raw ingredient to produce fresh drinking water by pushing the saltwater through reverse-osmosis membranes. With a capacity for producing an estimated 50 million gallons of drinking water a day, the hulking facility will share a site with a 52-year-old beachfront power plant equipped with an antiquated system that draws in ocean water to cool its machinery. Heated seawater issuing out the tail end of the power plant will be pumped into the desalination system and converted to tap water.

Although the plant will provide a localized freshwater source in a dry region without impacting ecologically sensitive rivers or wetlands, it comes with a steep price tag and requires a tremendous amount of electricity. Proponents estimate that the energy consumption in a single day would be the equivalent to the energy used by 16,790 homes. But Maas says even this estimate is low, because if the power plant’s water-cooling system is phased out by 2017, as state law mandates, then the desalination facility would have to start with cold water instead, requiring a substantial power boost. Poseidon spokesperson Scott Malone disputed this claim, telling the Guardian, "The plant will require 28-30 MW to operate during warm water or cold water operations."

Cost and energy consumption aren’t the only concerns advocacy groups have raised. Mark Schlosberg, a program director at Food & Water Watch in San Francisco, considers Poseidon’s last foray into desalination, in Tampa Bay, Fla., to be a cautionary tale. According to an article in the St. Petersburg Times, the plant opened five years late, cost $40 million more than expected, and hasn’t ever hit its target of supplying an average of 25 million gallons a day as originally promised. After Poseidon’s business partner for that affair went bankrupt, a public utility had to take control of the facility.

"They have a bad track record on desalination," Schlosberg said. "It never performed close to its advertised capacity."

Asked about the challenges in Tampa Bay, Maloni said, "Before Poseidon was bought out, the project was 30 percent constructed, on time and on budget. After Tampa Bay Water took over, the plant wasn’t constructed as designed and later failed to pass performance testing."

Critics have also decried the high cost projections for water. San Diego County now uses water imported from northern territories via the State Water Project, at a cost of around $750 per acre-foot (an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons), according to San Diego County Water Authority figures. Poseidon estimates that the water from its plant will cost about $1,300 per acre-foot, but has promised not to charge customers more than the price of imported water. Two years ago, Poseidon told the California Coastal Commission that it intends to absorb its losses "for an unknown number of years" until the price of imported water rises enough to equal the cost of desalinated water.

"Poseidon has entered into 30-year contracts with nine different San Diego County public water agencies that guarantee the cost of the desalinated water will never cost more than the agencies would otherwise pay for imported water," Maloni told the Guardian. "This pricing structure is possible because imported water rates are projected to increase significantly in the years to come, while the cost of desalinating water will stay relatively flat."

Shlosberg’s organization requested public records from the Tampa Bay facility so they could calculate a price estimate that they say is more realistic. Food & Water Watch hired James Fryer, an environmental scientist, to crunch the numbers. Fryer concluded that if the Carlsbad project experienced the same pitfalls as Tampa Bay, the water would cost $3,507 per acre-foot — a sky-high projection. If it ran without those bugs, it would still cost $2,175 per acre-foot, he determined.

The overarching question, in Maas’ view, is whether the state is willing to take conservation seriously enough to put water-saving measures into practice before subsidizing costly, energy-guzzling technology. "By sitting a desalination plant, it really distracts people from solutions that are more environmentally sustainable," she said. "The average water use per person per day is 200 gallons, and 60 percent of it goes to landscaping. With this desalination plant, people think, ‘we don’t have to change our habits.’"

Housing cars or people?



GREEN CITY San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has introduced legislation that would curtail the ability of residential property owners in Telegraph Hill, North Beach, and Chinatown to evict tenants and replace them with garages.

The ordinance, which is currently being reviewed by staff before it is considered by the Planning Commission, seeks to prohibit the construction of garages in rental properties that have been the site of a no-fault eviction in the past decade. Even if no evictions have occurred, owners would have to apply for a conditional use permit from the Planning Department to build the garage.

"We have seen a pattern of applications for garage installations following no-fault evictions," Chiu aide David Noyola explained.

The Ellis Act, a state law passed in 1986, gives owners the right to evict tenants if they decide to "withdraw from the rental market." The law specifies that all units in the building must be evicted. In 2005, the Board of Supervisors also began requiring landlords to pay $4,500 to each evicted tenant for relocation costs, with an additional $3,000 for seniors and the disabled.

Ted Gullicksen, director of the San Francisco Tenant Union, said the Ellis Act was intended to allow property owners to get out of the business of being a landlord, but "in practice it is utilized far more often by developers who are looking to rent the properties at considerable profit."

Although there are restrictions on re-renting property that has been cleared of tenants under the Ellis Act, a primary concern of tenant activists is the use of evictions to convert the building into a tenancy-in-common. A TIC is a form of joint ownership whereby multiple owners can buy the building and live in separate units.

"Often the real estate developer will try to make improvements following a TIC conversion to make it more sellable, and one of those is garages," Gullicksen said.

Malcolm Yeung, the public policy manager of the Chinatown Community Development Center, told us that "a garage generally increases the market value of a property by $30,000 to $50,000."

Yeung worked with Chiu’s office to develop the legislation after arguing in a discretionary review hearing before the Planning Commission that a particular Ellis Act eviction in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood was in violation of Sec. 101.1(b) of the San Francisco Planning Code, which states "that existing housing and neighborhood character be conserved and protected in order to preserve the cultural and economic diversity of our neighborhoods."

Following the distribution of Ellis Act notices to four low-income families, the property owner also filed for a garage add-on. Yeung successfully made the case that the eviction contradicted the Planning Code’s commitment to the preservation of economic diversity. He told us that the addition of garages "incentivizes owners to take on the financial costs of an Ellis Act eviction" and can "transform communities from long-term low-income residents to TICs, which go on the market at high value."

Gullicksen also said landlords often threaten an Ellis Act eviction and offer a buyout. "One of the benefits of the legislation is that it put tenants more in the driver’s seat when negotiating a buyout," he said. He also noted that homeowners are twice as likely to own cars as renters, which means that the conversions to TICs increase the number of vehicles in neighborhoods already congested with automobiles.

But like with all housing activity, there have been a greatly reduced number of both Ellis Act evictions and buyouts since the crash of the housing and credit markets a year ago, slowing to zero from March through May before slowly picking up in July.

Critics have decried the legislation as creating the burden of obtaining a conditional use permit and exacerbating the lack of street parking in the neighborhoods. But Noyola told us, "This problem has been around for a long time and will continue to be an issue when the market picks up again."

The legislation would also decrease the number of parking spaces that may be built with each new housing unit, part of a citywide trend. Noyola said the legislation is "progressive planning policy that prioritizes housing over parking, especially in the densest part of the city."

Marching on Chevron



GREEN CITY Although the 250-seat Roxie Theater auditorium was filled to capacity for the Nov. 1 screening of the controversial film “The Yes Men Fix the World,” the real action took place on the city’s streets when audience members took the film’s anticorporate message directly to an oil giant’s door.

Activists from Global Exchange co-organized the San Francisco film premiere to protest alleged human rights abuses and environmental devastation by Chevron Corporation, California’s largest corporation and the fifth largest in the world. The theatrical protest followed the film and ran from 16th Street to a Chevron station at Market and Castro streets.

Antonia Juhasz, director of Global Exchange’s Chevron Program, introduced the film, riling up the crowd when she said, “After viewing this film, we will be so inspired we won’t know what to do with ourselves. But we need to take this energy and direct it toward affecting change.”

The film chronicles the exploits of “Yes Men” Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, following the pair as they perform various publicity stunts in an attempt to illustrate the greed and corruption of the free-market system and draw attention to their progressive causes.

Currently being sued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for recently staging a fake press conference on global warming, the duo have been called world-renowned troublemakers because of antics like announcing live on BBC that the Dow Chemical Company would finally clean up the site of the Bhopal, India, gas leak and compensate the victims.

Although the film does not directly reference Chevron, it aspires to hold corporations accountable for impacts to the communities they operate in. Juhasz said that although Chevron spends billions of dollars on advertising campaigns, it operates with blatant disregard for the environment.

Chevron spends less than 3 percent of its expenditures on alternative energy, operates a coal company, and is among the world’s largest corporate contributors to global warming, she said.

“We want to link communities in the struggle against this corporation, demanding policy changes and building pressure where Chevron operates,” Juhasz said. “By targeting one company, the whole industry is affected and eventually energy policies can be changed.”

The procession was led by protestors dressed as Chevron officials, cleaners, and absurd imaginary products. “Today we are demonstrating what Chevron is actually doing,” said Rae Abileah, grassroots coordinator for CodePink, the antiwar group that participated in the event. “We are just showing what a mockery this all is and that we can rise up as people to transform our world.”

As “I Will Survive” blared from speakers, the procession had a party-like atmosphere that attracted bystanders. Larry Bogad, an associate professor at UC Davis, came up with the concept and told us that “by using surprise, humor, imagination, and protest to engage people, we can stimulate thought and draw a deeper and wider attention to the issue.”

For David Solnit, organizer with the Mobilization for Climate Justice, the unusual nature of the event was exactly what made it so effective. “We are taking a popular film that deals with corporate power and trying to break down the barrier between consuming media and taking action,” he said.

Bichlbaum, one of the film’s stars, attended the protest and spoke about the importance of the grassroots movement. “If I can do it, anyone can … You need your feet and a bunch of friends. That is much more important than a business card.”

Juhasz said the destination for the procession was a symbolic choice. “This is an independently-owned Chevron station. The target is not the station, but a theatrical event to draw attention to the issue in the spirit of theater and fun.”

Although he didn’t attend the event, the station’s owner, David Sahagun, told the Guardian: “Employees told me that the crowd was well behaved and did a good job making their point.” As former president of the San Francisco Small Business Network, he stressed the struggles of locally-owned businesses in the face of large corporations and said he was “trying to be a community partner”

Chevron officials did not return calls seeking comment.

We want free parking!



GREEN CITY The strong visceral reactions to extending parking meter hours in San Francisco and Oakland present a difficult challenge to those who seek to have motorists pay for more of their societal impacts and help offset declining public transit resources.

When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency held an Oct. 20 public hearing on its proposal to extend parking meter hours to evenings and Sundays in order to better manage parking demand and raise $8.8 million for Muni in the process, the proposal was fiercely attacked as a tax on motorists and burden on businesses.

That outrage was expected from conservative factions — landlords, west side residents, and much of the business community — who consistently oppose progressive reforms. But it was surprising to hear the antiwar ANSWER coalition, an immigrant group, and self-described socialists also angrily opposing the proposal.

"The working class is being driven out, and I hope this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back," ANSWER’s Forrest Schmidt said at the hearing, calling for taxes on rich individuals and companies instead. "Someone else needs to pay for the budget deficit that giant corporations created."

"This is a class issue. The rich and the well-to-do don’t have to worry about where to park in this small and crowded city. They have garages or can afford to pay for parking. It is overwhelmingly working class people who are being hit and who will be hit much, much harder if the new policy goes into effect," ANSWER (which stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) wrote in a press release the next day.

But it’s a demonstrably false statement that the working class will be disproportionately affected by the proposal. Average incomes for drivers are far higher than those of Muni riders, who have borne the brunt of MTA budget cuts and will be hit even harder if this proposal fails.

A recent Transportation Authority study associated with the stalled proposal to charge a congestion-pricing fee on motorists entering the city core found that only 6 percent of them earned less than $50,000 per year. And in the census tract around ANSWER’s Mission District office, where Schmidt said poor workers who need cars are being aggressively ticketed, less than half the households actually own cars.

Beyond the fact that drivers are generally richer than the carless, there’s the established fact that they don’t come anywhere close to paying for their full societal impacts, from road building and maintenance to health care costs from accidents and air pollution to global warming.

"These are facts that a lot of people ignore," said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, calling ANSWER’s position "just a very limited perspective that they haven’t thought through yet."

Indeed, when I discussed the campaign with ANSWER’s regional director, Richard Becker, his arguments were almost entirely anecdotal. "I participate in the scramble for parking on a daily basis," he said.

The emotional reactions to taking away free parking also cause critics to lose sight of the facts. The proposal only affects metered spots in commercial districts, not street parking in neighborhoods. And the study treats every neighborhood differently based on parking demand, with the goal of reaching 85 percent occupancy to make parking more available — the very thing many critics of the proposal are demanding.

"They don’t understand that if we don’t raise the price of parking, we’re going to raise the price of Muni. They are extremely naïve beyond all reason," said Jason Henderson, a San Francisco State University geography professor who has studied the politics of parking and is current writing a book on the subject.

"There are people who want to democratize unsustainable lifestyles," Radulovich said, calling it "a strategy without a future."

Transportation activist Dave Snyder got into a heated discussion with some ANSWER members outside the hearing room, faulting them for failing to oppose the Muni fare hikes and service cuts that were approved last spring and for refusing to accept the need to discourage environmentally damaging activities like driving cars.

"To use price to discourage that is indeed a regressive tax. It’s still worth doing, but we have to think about [ANSWER’s reaction]," Snyder later told us.

But Henderson, Snyder, and Radulovich see a silver lining in this discussion. "It’s a sign of progress," Henderson said. "The more this floats to the surface and we can deal with it now, the better we’ll all be in the long run."

Billboards and blight


GREEN CITY David Addington presents a tempting vision for revitalizing the seedy mid-Market area, a kind of something-for-nothing deal that helps the children, property owners, and residents of the Tenderloin and relieves that burden from the cash-strapped city government.

All we, as San Francisco voters, have to do is accept a few new billboards, which voters banned in 2002 by passing Proposition G. Well, actually, more than a few. More like a cacophony of flashy and interconnected electronic signs and large billboards on top of the area’s 52 buildings. Proposition D, which Addington wrote and sponsors, would allow an unlimited number of business and general advertising signs along Market Street between Fifth and Seventh streets.

"I’m not afraid of signs," Addington says in his Southern drawl as we walk the neighborhood where he owns the Warfield Theater, the old Hollywood Billiards building, and the new Show Dogs gourmet hot dog joint next to the Golden Gate Theater, and where he seems to know everyone from scruffy street souls to his fellow business people.

As Addington points out, this is the most dilapidated stretch of Market Street, rife with vacant storefronts and cheap retail outlets, but bordered by U.N. Plaza on one side and the bustling Westfield Mall and Powell Street cable car stop on the other. It’s a two-block stretch that is neglected and ignored by much of the outside world.

"To change that, you’re going to have to make a dramatic visual presentation," Addington said, laying out a vision of a glitzy, twinkling theater district that lights up the neighborhood and beckons visitors. And the kicker is that by doing so, advertisers would pour millions of dollars of revenue into improving and promoting the neighborhood.

Property owners would get most of that money: 60 percent for most of them, but 80 percent those with street-level theaters, museums, or other interactive uses. "The idea is to create more ground-floor entertainment uses," he said, which, in turn, would liven up the neighborhood.

The rest of the money — and all the sign permits and approvals — would be controlled by the Central Market Community Benefits District (CBD). Some of the money would go to things like a ticket kiosk, some to creating a master plan for the neighborhood, some to beautification programs, and some to youth programs in the Tenderloin, which Addington has used as a major selling point for Prop. D.

"This measure will change the lives of the kids of the Tenderloin next year," said Addington, whose money and vision have garnered significant support from across the political spectrum, including a majority of the Board of Supervisors, much of it locked down before most people even saw the measure coming.

But opponents say problems with the measure go far beyond just accepting billboards as the answer to blight, which is a tough enough sell in sign-wary San Francisco. They note that the measure for the first time usurps city authority over permits and gives it to a CBD, which profits from the signs and has no incentive to put the brakes on. Further, the vaguely written measure has no guarantees for how the money will be spent, or if the kids will indeed get any of it.

"We definitely need to do something about Market Street, but Prop. D isn’t the thing," said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and the measure’s chief critic. "It’s very disturbing for those of us who believe in public process."

The Planning Department also raises concerns. Planning Director John Rahaim wrote in a scathing July 24 memo that the measure creates vague structures and logistical difficulties and tries to regulate sign content and delegate city authority in ways that may be illegal.

"Such unprecedented delegation of power to a private entity may create the risk of legal liability for the city. Moreover, because of the new powers that would be assigned to the CBD, concern regarding the CBD’s membership, decision-making process, and accountability are apparent," he wrote.

Radulovich also takes issue with Addington’s contention that the measure is needed to restore the luster of the once-vibrant theater district. "There’s no legislative reason to do this if it’s theater marquees you want," Radulovich said. "Prop. D is really about big billboards on the tops of buildings."

Saving the bay



GREEN CITY When three women from the Berkeley Hills banded together in 1961 to halt monstrous development plans that would have filled in huge swaths of the San Francisco Bay, it became what some have characterized as the first-ever grassroots environmental campaign in the Bay Area.

Critics dismissed Catherine Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick as "enemies of progress, impractical idealists, do-gooders, posy pickers, eco-freaks, enviro-maniacs, little old ladies in tennis shoes, and even almond cookie revolutionaries," Gulick once told a crowd at UC Berkeley. But their critics were defeated in the end, and popular support for preserving the bay prevailed.

Organizing initially over almond cookies and tea, the trio of housewives forged ahead with the Save San Francisco Bay Association, which later evolved into Save The Bay. They drummed up widespread support for stronger coastal protections to curb rampant bay fill and garbage dumping along the waterfront.

Their efforts eventually helped spur the creation of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), which later served as a template for the creation of the California Coastal Commission and influenced the push for federal coastline protection.

This bit of history is the key narrative to Saving The Bay, a four-part documentary series produced by filmmaker Ron Blatman, KQED, and KTEH to tell the story of the San Francisco Bay. Narrated by Robert Redford and featuring luminaries like oceanographer Sylvia Earle, former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, and renowned California historian Kevin Starr, the four-hour documentary is the most comprehensive history of the bay ever produced.

The filmmaker refers to it as "the project that ate my life," since it took seven years to complete. His production crew amassed about 1,000 images from 70 different institutions, he says, and even collected historic film clips to illustrate the story through the lens of various eras. The funding was provided by a host of public agencies and corporate donors.

"The title comes from the three women in the Berkeley Hills," explains Blatman. But the series begins at a much earlier point in history: the time when the Miwok and Ohlone were the only people who inhabited the area, which was rich with natural wonder and teeming with fish and wildlife.

In some ways, the story of the San Francisco Bay is depressing. Viewers are confronted with the dramatic impacts that 160 years of industry and development have had on the region’s once-thriving ecosystem. From the loss of native tribes to the collapse of fisheries, to fill projects that permanently altered wetlands to lingering toxic byproducts of heavy industry, San Francisco’s transformation from a sleepy little town before the Gold Rush era into today’s thriving metropolitan hub has brought no shortage of irreversible environmental consequences.

Still, Blatman says that in the end, it’s a feel-good story. "If you went back 40 years and drew a projection of what the bay would look like today, you’d never get this picture," he points out. The Save the Bay movement revolutionized the way people thought about the San Francisco Bay, he says, and the preservation mindset has marked a positive turnaround. Today, wetland restoration projects abound, and people are accustomed to the idea that the shoreline is a resource that is equally shared by all members of the public — even though these were radical concepts several decades ago.

The inception of this documentary project was accidental, Blatman says. It started because Will Travis, executive director of BCDC, needed something better than the low-quality educational slideshow he used to bring new BCDC commissioners up to speed on the natural history of the bay. A mutual friend introduced the two, and the filmmaker agreed to produce a half-hour educational piece. But the project grew deeper, wider, and much longer.

Lately, Travis says his focus has shifted from educating people about the past to warning them about the future. As a consequence of climate change, sea levels are rising, and the bay is projected to expand. "I hate to tell Ron," Travis jokes, "but he’s going to have to make another film."

Saving the Bay premieres on KQED Channel 9 Thursday evenings Oct. 8 and 15 from 8-10 p.m. (repeating overnight and Sundays Oct. 11 and 18 noon-2 p.m.). The series will then run on KTEH four successive Thursday evenings Oct. 22 to Nov. 12 from 9-10 p.m. For more, visit www.savingthebay.org.

Environmental review, Inc.



Michael Cohen, director of San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, called us from the back of a taxi on a recent Thursday afternoon and complained that he was feeling "perplexed" by all the negative attention aimed at a plan his office helped design.

Perplexed? Maybe — but the concept of having a private consultant take over some planning work during the environmental review of major development projects was never going to happen without a fight.

No sooner had Cohen, OEWD Development Advisor Michael Yarne, and Planning Department Director John Rahaim publicly floated the idea than it was roundly criticized by a host of opponents who called it a danger to public jobs and an invitation for conflict-of-interest nightmares.

The controversy was triggered by a draft request for qualifications (RFQ), released jointly by OEWD and the Planning Department, to hire a private consultant to help the city’s environmental review of major development projects. The consultant would be hired on the developers’ dime. The idea, Cohen said, was to do something about the long backlog in city planning’s Major Environmental Analysis division. Developers often complain that environmental review takes too long, and delays cost money.

"MEA doesn’t have enough resources to do all the work," Cohen told us. "Our simple suggestion is to require private development projects to pay to provide extra resources to the department." The RFQ states in an underlined font that the private consultant would work under the supervision of city staff, and that final policy decisions would remain with public employees. Cohen emphasized that if it goes forward, "not a single planner will lose their job."

Nonetheless, the RFQ was lambasted in a letter sent to Rahaim on behalf of IFPTE Local 21, a union representing about 250 city planners. The letter charges that it could undermine city jobs and allow developers to essentially purchase an environmental analysis that would pave the way for project approval.

Under the current system, a developer who requests a permit to build, say, a condominium high-rise must hire a private consulting firm to write a report describing how the new condos would affect the existing landscape. That report then gets forwarded to the Planning Department for review by MEA staff, a time- and labor-intensive process.

The RFQ would make it possible for a large-scale developer who desired a speedier environmental review to shell out more money for the private consultant, who would do much of the legwork of reviewing the environmental impact report. While city staff would still have the final say, the environmental review process for those projects would consist largely of a consultant overseeing a consultant.

And nearly all the consultants in the environmental-review field make their money from developers.

A source close to city planning told the Guardian that Yarne drafted the RFQ, and that the impetus behind it was to remedy delays encountered by the Treasure Island and Lennar Corp. Hunters Point Shipyard projects.

A critic who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Guardian that there’s a lot of skepticism surrounding the idea since it comes from a former developer. Yarne was a principal at development firm Martin Building Co. until 2007, and he publicly complained about the slow environmental review process while in that role.

"The only deficiencies that we have been informed of have been relayed to us by Michael Yarne in the Mayor’s Office," the Local 21 letter notes. "His primary observation has to do with the expediency by which these reviews have turned around. We do not believe that outsourcing these services addresses the problems he expressed to us." On the contrary, the letter states, "in-house staff would have to review a second consultant’s work, which would prolong rather than streamline the environmental review process."

Rahaim, the planning director, told us that "the idea was to look for ways to help the staff out," and stressed that he viewed it as "augmenting as opposed to outsourcing" city jobs. However, he added that it’s "not something I’m sold on as the only way to do this."

Rahaim seemed receptive to the union’s concerns, said Adam Gubser, president of the Planner’s Chapter of Local 21. But union members remain universally opposed to the proposal as it stands. "There are serious flaws that need to be addressed," Gubser said. "We’re very concerned about contracting out, so any proposal is held under a microscope."

The harshest cut



"I wake up at night at 3:30, hearing the logging trucks and knowing what’s happening," Susan Robinson complains. "It makes me sick."

Robinson lives just off State Route 4 in Arnold, a Calaveras County community perched on the western slope of the Sierra.

For the past nine years, this feisty retiree has been clamoring to get Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s leading timber company, to stop clear-cutting the forest. "I’m the daughter of a forester myself. I am not anti-logging," she told us. "Of course, SPI should be able to log its land. But it shouldn’t have the right to obliterate everything."

A decade ago, logging and forestry practices in the Sierra were big news. Media reports, protests, and legislative action focused on SPI’s practice of slicing through entire large tracts of land, hacking down every tree, bush, and seedling and leaving nothing but devastation behind.

But most of the news media have long since moved on to other issues — and the clear-cutting continues. If anything, the pace at which SPI is felling the forest has hastened since the intensive logging controversies grabbed headlines in the 1990s.

"When I recently read the June 2000 issue of the Guardian exposing SPI’s activities in the Sierra, I was pained because I thought, ‘Wow! This could have been written yesterday,’" said Marily Woodhouse, a Sierra Club organizer in Shasta County.

It’s not as if nothing has changed under the Sierra sun. Some timber companies have adopted more responsible practices. But SPI is still a major problem. And as the largest private landowner in the state, its footprint is huge. Conservation activists have been exploring new opposition tactics while maintaining their diligent efforts on the legislative, legal, and educational fronts.

Susan Robinson and the other members of the Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch often take visitors to tour the backcountry roads and see the damage for themselves. On Winton Road, plots managed by SPI are adjacent to the Stanislaus National Forest, which is administered by the U.S. Forest Service — and the contrast is staggering.

Patches SPI harvested two years ago are still bare due to herbicide spraying. Between stumps, 10-inch-long replanted ponderosa pines may poke their frail limbs out of the churned soil, but there’s nothing left on a 20-acre lot for deer, bobcats, raccoons, or woodpeckers to eat, rest on, or breed in. No bees pollinating. No chickarees denning. It will take decades for the seedlings to reach maturity.

On the opposite side of the gravel road, on Forest Service land, sugar pines, ponderosa pines, lodgepole pines, incense cedars, oaks, and white firs of different ages shelter ferns, mushrooms, and berry plants. The forest has been thinned to reduce fire hazard, but it has not been converted to a monoculture tree farm.

"What grows back after you clear-cut is a plantation," said Doug Bevington of Environment Now. "A forest is not simply a collection of trees. What makes a forest a vibrant ecosystem is its diversity, having different species and different ages. And it’s the diversity of the forest that creates the habitat to support more species of life."


You don’t need to travel to the Sierra to get the picture — connecting to Google Earth will suffice. Zoom into Arnold and levitate above Highway 4. Beyond the lush forest "beauty strips," the landscape looks like a moth-eaten blanket of evergreens.

Over the past 10 years, SPI has clear-cut 18 square miles in Calaveras County alone. (Clear-cut also includes slightly more moderate logging techniques that leave few trees and snags remaining on an otherwise desert-like tract.)

State records show that between 1996 and 2006 SPI clear-cut 270,000 acres of forests and dumped 335,000 pounds of herbicide into the soil. That’s roughly 420 square miles of scalped woodland. SPI isn’t the only timber company clear-cutting in this state, it just happens to be the most zealous. And it owns 1.7 million acres.

Proponents and opponents of clear-cutting agree on one point: it’s the most productive and the cheapest way to grow timber. But environmentalists say the ecosystems pay a heavy price for the practice.

Mark Pawlicki, SPI’s director of government affairs, told us that the company meets the standards set by the state’s Forest Practice Rules, and that Californian clear-cutting regulations are the strictest in the country. California allows 20 acre cuts; in Washington, the denuded area can reach 240 acres.

Timber harvest plans are not only reviewed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), but also by the California Department of Fish and Game, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the California Geological Survey. Recently, SPI has even started to replant its clear-cuts with two or three different tree species.

The scientific community recognizes that clear-cutting has greater ecological impacts than any other harvesting method. Such radical treatment may be the only way to salvage logs from woods killed by insects or fire. And the industry is forced to mitigate some of the impacts — buffer zones, for instance, are required for waterways supporting aquatic life.

But that’s not enough: the tiny tributaries feeding the waterways aren’t protected, so sediment and debris can end up in the protected streams, affecting water quality, fish species, and amphibians. The water cycle is inevitably disrupted, with snowpack melting earlier in the season and rainfall running off the naked slopes. The fragmentation of the forest displaces animals that move around for their living, putting pressure on surrounding lands.

Environmental organizations are also concerned about exacerbation of climate change.

In national forests, clear-cutting has been phased out for more than a decade. Members of Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch wonder why the state can’t make the same rules for private loggers.

"I do reckon that private companies have to make profits," said Forest Watch activist Addie Jacobson. "But we do see companies like Collins Pine harvest timber in a way that all of us are happy with yet make some profit."


Collins Pine has been managing 94,000 acres of timberland in Plumas and Tehama counties since 1941. It primarily uses selective cutting, where only certain trees are sparsely removed. Chief forester Jay Francis says that after a month, you can hardly tell a logged area from a pristine one.

"Our owners do not want us to do anything that compromises the values of our Sierra mixed-conifer forest, whether its wildlife, clean water, recreation, esthetics," he told us. "So we do a very minor amount of clear-cutting. In fact, we just turned in a plan for a 15-acre clear-cut for health reasons. We have an infestation of root-rots in an area. That’s probably the first clear-cut we’ve done in 50 years."

Those cuts are less than six acres wide, meeting the rules of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international organization that certifies sustainable forest management. Since its inception in 1993, FSC has developed standards to accommodate the commercial, social, and environmental values of forestland. It has the backing of the world’s leading environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. Consumers can rely on its label to buy environmentally and socially responsible wood products.

Collins Pine was the first privately held logging company in North America to receive FSC certification, in 1993. There are now 22 certified companies.

Gary Dodge, director of science at FSC U.S., contrasted FSC’s approach to wildlife with CAL FIRE’s, which only protects state-listed endangered species. "We also believe that it’s the role of the forest to prevent common species from becoming rare, or prevent rare species from becoming extinct," he said.

In the iconic North Coast redwoods of Mendocino County, the Mendocino Redwood Company has taken its cue from Collins Pine. In 1998, MRC took over 228,800 acres from the environmental villain Louisiana Pacific. From the start, MRC managers stated that they aimed for the business to be a good steward and a successful business. The company received FSC certification in 2000.

"There are a lot of models for what it means to be a successful business, but there are fewer for what it means to be a steward of the land," Sandy Dean, chairman of MRC, told us. "We think quite literally that it is to leave it better than we found it. It includes a reduction in the level of harvest, the elimination of clear-cutting, and the adoption of a specific policy to protect old-growth trees."

SPI is not impressed by this trend. "By and large, the companies that exclusively use selective logging just have a different objective than we do," Pawlicki said. "They’re not growing as much timber as we are."

SPI, nevertheless, is also using the buzz-word sustainability. According to Pawlicki, the state of California requires timber companies to be sustainable anyway. "You can’t cut more than you grow under California law." Jumping on the green-building bandwagon, SPI has also sought certification — with an organization called the Sustainable Forest Initiative that is not recognized by the LEED green building rating system.


These days, conservation activists are trying out new strategies to compel SPI to straighten up its act. ForestEthics’ Save the Sierra campaign aims at protecting forests using the market as a weapon. "The average person may not have heard of SPI," said activist Joshua Buswell Charkow, "but they know its clients: Home Depot, Lowe’s, Kolbe & Kolbe [Millwork Company].

Some environmental groups still resort to litigation. "I’m not too optimistic to think that the industry will reform itself," said Brendan Cummings from the Center for Biological Diversity.

The center recently filed three lawsuits against CAL FIRE for approving timber harvest plans without properly analyzing the greenhouse gas emissions from each specific project. Instead, the agency accepted SPI’s broad assertion that growing its tree plantation over the next 100 years would offset the immediate carbon release caused by plowing the soil and burning the slash. But even if that’s true, the nature of the climate crisis is such that we need to curb emissions right now, said Cummings. In response, SPI withdrew its plans.

Concerned Sierra citizens are also challenging logging plans in the courts. In Shasta County, Marily Woodhouse has been opposing a plan to clear-cut 809 acres in the vicinity of the Digger Creek that flows through her town of Manton for fear it will disrupt an already heavily logged watershed. The Battle Creek Alliance, the coalition she helped form, filed suit in January 2008. "What happens if they drop a plan? Eventually they come back again," she said.

"The lawsuits do slow things down. But the fact is, [the loggers are] never going away."

Past experience has taught activists to be wary. Ten years ago, when SPI’s frenetic activity first came under public scrutiny, rallies and media coverage curtailed the timber giants’ greed. Yuba Valley residents led a protest against a plan to scrape 171 acres along the banks of the South Yuba River. And farther South, locals from Arnold faced with an 884-acre clear-cut launched Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch. SPI kept a low profile for a while, even declaring to the press it would scale back clear-cutting in Calaveras County — only to redouble its practices a few months down the road.

The Yuba River site has been spared, thanks to the intervention of the Trust for Public Land, which has been able to purchase 110,000 acres from SPI. Those parcels, also located in the Tahoe region and Humboldt County, were transferred to public ownership for conservation.

On the policy front, Forests Forever has been leading the charge for 20 years. The lobbying group has sponsored three initiatives in Sacramento to ban or further restrict clear-cutting. The last bill was killed by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee in April 2008.

"There’s a lingering sense that logging is still an economic driver in the state," said Forests Forever executive director Paul Hughes. "But tourism and retirement, which depend on healthy forests, actually contribute more to the economy."

Skeptics say that 80 percent of the wood used in California comes from Washington and Oregon or from the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, where clear-cutting is the norm anyway. But as Hughes put it, "You’ve got to start somewhere to fight this abomination."

Desperate measures?



A proposal to open the first desalination plant on the San Francisco Bay inched forward Aug. 18 when the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) board voted 4-0 to build a facility that would convert 5 million gallons of seawater a day into fresh drinking water.

It’s the latest chapter in a saga that has pit environmentalists, who see the plant as too energy intensive, against business and development interests, which fear the district is going to run out of water.

The plant, which is planned for a seven-acre shoreline plot in San Rafael and could be up and running by 2014, would cost an estimated $105 million to build and another $3 million to $4 million a year to operate. MMWD says it will fund the project using bonds and a $3 to $5 increase in monthly water bills.

MMWD Board President David Behar and directors Larry Russell, Cynthia Koehler, and Jack Gibson also approved $400,000 to cover permits and design construction of the new facility

The Aug. 18 vote took place with the five-member MMWD board short a director (former Board President Alex Forman died July 9). And it came after hours of public comment, with opponents arguing that desalination is too expensive, detrimental to marine life, and will release climate-changing gases.

"When you look at the bigger picture, it makes no sense," said Mark Schlosberg, California Director for the Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch, an environmental advocacy group.

In June, Food & Water Watch’s James Frye released a report titled "Sustaining Our Water Future," which argues that MMWD could meet its future water needs by intensifying conservation measures and improving reservoir operations. Frye’s report also indicated that the water district overestimated its expected water shortfall because it based its calculations on high-use years.

But MMWD’s general manager Paul Helliker contends the report was not realistic. "They are talking about everyone, business and homeowners, cutting landscape water use by 40 percent. That’s a phenomenal cut," Helliker told the Marin Independent Journal at the time.

Others see desalination as a drought-proof way to satisfy projected population and economic growth.

"We’re concerned about bringing supply and demand into balance," Hal Brown, president of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, said during public comment.

"Under a severe drought, the economy will be impacted tremendously," said Bill Scott, business manager of the Marin Building Trades Council.

When the board ultimately voted to green-light the next steps in the desalination plant building process, they noted that they will explore the use of alternative renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, wave/tidal, or landfill gas, to power the plant. They also pointed out that when the next drought hits, Marin won’t be able to build emergency pipelines and negotiate for more water from the Russian River, which is what the county did during previous droughts.

Today, Marin County relies on seven small local reservoirs. The district contends that the new facility will be insurance against longer dry spells, which are anticipated due to global warming.

"This has been hard," Board member Cynthia Koehler acknowledged, addressing the riled-up crowd and noting that the district still has "a number of off-ramps."

The MMWD is already on the vanguard of conservation statewide, Koehler noted, observing that no water district achieves its conservation goals. "So I don’t think six years is rushing," he said.

"We will not build a desalination plant without the need," MMWD director Larry Russell told the crowd. "We are not fast-tracking this. But if a drought comes, we will."

"I’d be lying if I said I have no concerns about de-sal, starting with the energy," MMWD director Jack Gibson told the agitated crowd. "So, why am I not there with you? I view it as being prepared."

Recalling how attitudes changed overnight when the drought hit in 1976 and 1977, Gibson added, "If we have a serious water crisis, people are going to be clamoring for water. My concern is that the Russian River, as a fish habitat, will be gone."

With four of five seats up for election in November 2010 election, the composition of the board could change dramatically before the desalination plant’s fate is sealed.

Protecting babies from fire and chemicals



GREEN CITY Profit-driven companies are fighting an expensive and underhanded battle to keep their toxic fire retardants in California’s furniture.

Senate Bill 772, authored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), seeks to exempt certain children’s furniture from California’s fire code, thereby allowing manufacturers the option of forgoing toxic fire retardants and giving consumers the opportunity to raise their babies around chemical-free furniture. But lobbying efforts last week stalled the bill in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where it will be reconsidered Aug. 26.

California’s onerous standards for fire safety are unique. According to Technical Bulletin 117, established by the California Bureau of Home Furnishings, all furniture manufactured in California must be able to withstand an open flame for 12 seconds without igniting.

While there are other methods that meet California’s standards, such as barriers and safer chemicals, the cheapest way for manufacturers to meet TB 117 is to pour toxic, halogenated chemicals that act as fire retardants into all upholstered furniture.

This means that fire retardants are put in most things in your house — your couch, your mattress, your baby’s pillows and strollers. The companies producing the fire retardants are huge multinational corporations — Albermarle, Chemtura, ICL Industrial Corp. and Tosoh — spending millions on lobbying and in drafting nonprofit fronts.

The fire retardants go by a variety of technical names: polybrominated diphenyl ether, halogenated substances, TRIS, BFRs, CFRs … the list goes on. That chemical family is halogenated chemicals. The only one that is legal in all consumer products is decabrominated diphenyl ether, referred to as DECA. Some of the chemicals that are known to be toxic are only banned from certain products, such as pajamas in the case of TRIS, but are still being poured into everyting from electronics to clothing to upholstery.

SB 772 specifically focuses on four pieces of children’s furniture. After reviewing years of data, the Bureau of Home Furnishings found that bassinets, nursing pillows, strollers, and infant pillows have never caused fire causality. Leno contends, "There is no need to pour chemicals into products that are not fire risks."

Numerous studies and agencies, including the National Toxicology Program and the California Environmental Protection Agency, have linked halogenated chemicals to cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, ADHD, child autism, and long list of other ailments. Some, like Seth Jacobson, spokesperson for Citizens for Fire Safety, argue that the studies are exaggerated and "not scientifically valid".

Any manifestation of these diseases may take years to see or are complicated by other factors, making correlations to specific chemicals difficult to pinpoint. Russell Long of Friends of the Earth believes that this is a comparable scenario to the asbestos crisis of the 1980s. Asbestos was a common household chemical long suspected of toxicity and in 1989, after numerous health and legal battles, the EPA banned it. Decades later the federal government is still spending billions in liability lawsuits affecting more than 600,000 people.

Another issue is bioaccumulation — these chemicals don’t stay put. According to Leno, these chemicals don’t bind to materials. Instead they fall to the floor and become part of dust. In 2006, the California EPA reported that "PBDEs have been measured in house and office dust, indoor air, plant and animal-based foods, terrestrial and marine animals, and in human breast milk, blood, and fat."

In 2008, scientists from UC Berkeley, Harvard, and the Silent Spring Institute found that the levels of PBDEs in Californians are twice as high as other U.S. regions. The California EPA has reported that the highest tissue concentrations of PBDEs are found in California aquatic life, with rising levels in San Francisco Bay harbor seals. Long believes "this is one of the biggest toxic threats facing Californians today".

This is Leno’s second attempt at passing a bill involving these particular issues. The first, SB 706, introduced last year, sought to directly ban the use of toxic fire retardants. SB 706 was named the Crystal Golden-Jefferson Act, in memory of a 41-year-old firefighter who died of work-related, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is believed she developed the condition after breathing in dioxin (a highly toxic carcinogen) that was released from burning flame-retardants. Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Maine have already passed bills banning dioxin and have started phasing it out.

Banning chemicals is hard to do. Richard Holober of the Consumer Federation of California says that the petrochemical industry will slightly alter a banned chemical, "sort of chasing one version after another." In the United States, chemicals are mass-produced and distributed until they are found to be dangerous. In Europe, chemicals must be proven safe first.

The most outspoken opposition to both bills, SB 706 and SB 772, is a group called Citizens for Fire Safety. The group, headed by Jacobson, argues that fire retardants saves lives, noting that since California established TB 117 California structure fires have dropped by about 60 percent. Records from the National Fire Protection Association show a drop of 32 percent between 1980 and 2000. Yet other states, including New York, show a drop of 40 percent without a similar fire regulation. The drop can easily be ascribed to an increase in smoke detectors, better education, and more regulations on cigarettes: the number one fire instigator.

Citizens for Fire Safety’s funding is suspicious. Its Web site clearly states "a portion of our funding&ldots;comes from various chemical industry leaders." Indeed, Jacobson says he has no problems accepting funding from the same companies that manufacture the chemicals in question. Leno believes Citizens for Fire Safety is a "concerted business effort to confuse the public."

This nonprofit front is just one of the extraordinary efforts of the chemical companies to stop bills of this nature. According to Holober, the bromine companies spent between $6 million and $9 million on lobbyists and efforts to derail SB 706. This is the largest amount spent by a consumer-interest group in lobbying efforts, Leno and Holober say.

Public records show that the two biggest lobbying efforts on behalf of Citizens for Fire Safety represent the Citizens for Fire Safety Institute, (which is funded by chemical corporations) and a PR group representing the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum. The BSEF represents all the major brominated flame-retardant companies.

Joe Kerr, president of Orange County Professional Firefighters Association Local 3631, makes more reasonable objections to SB 772. Kerr opposes the deregulation until "all the principals are brought to the table. Get the burn ward doctors, and the environmentalists, EPA, and Mark Leno together — because there are good arguments on both sides." In the meantime, Kerr doesn’t want to "throw the baby out with the bathwater." He also voices concern that some consumers will stop buying California products if the state’s fire standard is lowered.
SB 772 is a deregulatory, pro-environment bill that gives the market the option to decide. Any product that does not meet regulations will be labeled accordingly. Leno voiced concern that the labels will confuse the issue and many amendments have been made about where the labels should be placed.
Although the bill was approved by the full Senate in June, heavy lobbying efforts prevailed in the Assembly and it fell three votes short in the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week. Reconsideration has been granted for next week when the bill will need nine votes before it can proceed to the Assembly floor. If SB 722 does not get nine votes, it will be another year before it can be heard again.

Mirant plant to close



GREEN CITY City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office struck a deal with Mirant Potrero LLC on Aug. 13 to shutter its polluting Potrero power plant no later than Dec. 31, 2010. The settlement agreement represents a major victory for San Francisco and the broad array of elected officials and environmental-justice advocates who’ve been railing against the hazardous byproducts of the 40-year-old fossil fuel-fired facility for years.

The agreement also requires Mirant to pay the city $1 million, which will be put toward addressing childhood asthma and supporting neighborhood beautification.

"It’s a great result for the city, but in particular for the southeast sector," said Herrera, who has opposed the plant since 1999. "A lot of folks deserve a lot of credit for this."

Residents living in southeast San Francisco and Bayview-Hunter’s Point, where asthma rates are higher than average, have borne the brunt of toxic emissions spewing from the plant’s brick smokestack nearly 24 hours a day.

"It’s been a long haul," Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who represents the neighborhoods adversely affected by the pollution, said at a press conference. "Our community [has] some of the highest rates of asthma, the highest rates of cancer. We have babies being born in this community every day — and so we cannot keep our eye off the prize."

Maxwell’s vow to continue pushing even with the signed agreement in hand may prove wise considering that the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO) — a body that oversees the state’s power grid and determines capacity requirements — has yet to grant its blessing to the deal. Under the terms of the agreement, Mirant must declare to Cal-ISO that it will not continue operation beyond the shutdown date. The utility also agreed not to pursue renewal of its "reliability must-run" (RMR) contract with Cal-ISO, which has required the plant to run against the wishes of elected officials in San Francisco for years.

Cal-ISO left open the question of whether it would agree to release Mirant from the RMR requirement. "The ISO will continue to require local measures to be available at the level necessary to ensure that San Francisco reliability is consistent with that of other major metropolitan areas in California and the nation," spokesman Gregg Fishman noted in a statement.

The battle to shutter San Francisco’s dirty power plant might not be over — but for the first time Mirant will now be aligned with the city and at odds with Cal-ISO. "I’ve got to give credit where credit’s due," Herrera told the Guardian. "[Mirant] ultimately did step up here with the settlement and make an unprecedented commitment."

What’s in it for Mirant? The city attorney dropped a lawsuit against Mirant that sought compliance with codes requiring seismic upgrades to old brick buildings on the site. The city also will give priority to any redevelopment plans for the company-owned site.

Chip Little, a Mirant spokesperson, said the company doesn’t have a particular vision in mind. "At this time, we have no redevelopment plans for the site," he said. Mirant does have other projects in the works outside San Francisco, however. "We responded to a [request for offer] that PG&E issued last year for new capacity," Little told us. Mirant has applied for licenses to build a 930 MW natural gas-fired plant near Antioch, and a 550 MW natural gas-fired facility at the Pittsburg power plant site.

The TransBay Cable, an undersea power line that will transfer electricity from Pittsburg power sources to San Francisco, is expected to go live in March. The cable will negate the need for most of the electricity supplied by the 350 MW Potrero plant, but there will still be a 25 MW generation gap.

"That’s really a rather small amount," Ed Harrington, director of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, told reporters during the press conference. "We believe it could be met by underwriting other projects that PG&E is working on and by … cutting back when there’s a peak."

When a battle was waged last year over proposed construction of city-owned power plants to replace Mirant, many thought a solution that didn’t involve new in-city generation was impossible. One year later, this new accord with the City Attorney’s Office rests on the idea that shutting down Mirant with no new fossil fuel is not just possible, but within reach in the near future.

Cecile Lepage contributed to this report.

Sailing into the plastic vortex



GREEN CITY If a plastic soft drink bottle got tossed into the San Francisco Bay and swept out under the Golden Gate, it might end up in the massive junkyard-at-sea that swirls through a current known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

Nicknamed the Plastic Vortex, this massive collection of marine debris circulating in a remote area northeast of Hawaii is a sort of watery graveyard for all manner of human refuse. The ocean churns the waste, disintegrating the debris into bits and turning it into something more like plastic soup than a buoyant mass. Ocean experts say it’s a very big problem — the gyre is about twice the size of Texas and taking in more garbage all the time — and is only getting bigger.

This gigantic manmade mess — which exists in international waters not regulated by any particular governmental body — presents a slew of difficult questions. What long-term effects is it having on the marine ecosystem? Is there any way to clean it up? Are minuscule plastic particles and their hitchhiker toxins circulating back to people’s dinner plates via bioaccumulation?

These are just a few of the mysteries that a crew of researchers hope to unravel during an ocean voyage called Project Kaisei. The Kaisei (Japanese for “ocean planet”) is a 151-foot brigantine that sailed out of the San Francisco Bay Aug. 4 for a month-long venture into the plastic vortex.

The tall ship, the second of two research vessels commissioned for Project Kaisei, is operated by the Ocean Voyages Institute, a Sausalito-based nonprofit. Its counterpart, the New Horizon, is operated by the Scripps Institute for Oceanography and departed several days earlier from Southern California.

Project Kaisei spokesperson Ryan Yerkey describes the mission as a multipronged effort. Scientists’ first goal is to get a “snapshot” of the effects the garbage is having on the marine ecosystem. “These materials, they never really dissolve,” Yerkey explains. “They don’t just become part of the ocean. They break down at different degrees. Things like a plastic bag — it breaks down in the heat, and the sun and the water. And a lot of this stuff is so minute that it’s getting ingested by fish.”

Project Kaisei researchers will also test various technologies that might help them chart a course for cleanup. One idea — using reprocessing technology that has never been tested at sea — is to convert the marine debris from trash to fuel. “We’re testing the various reclamation and harvesting technologies,” Yerkey explains. “We’d love to be able to get that technology onboard our future vessels out there so they would be able to fuel future missions with the very trash they’re collecting.” The third goal will be to educate the public about preventive actions like recycling, since an estimated 80 percent of marine debris originates on land.

Algalita, a Long Beach-based marine research foundation, has conducted eight voyages in a 50-foot catamaran to study the Pacific Gyre. “Last year, in February, we were doing a night trawl — that’s when a lot of the marine life come up to feed,” explains Marieta Francis, executive director of Algalita. “We caught hundreds of these small, six-inch fish, so we thought this was the perfect opportunity to study them. And one of those little fish had 84 pieces of plastic in its stomach.”

Over the course of a decade, Algalita has taken hundreds of water samples from the gyre — and not a single one was plastic-free. There are believed to be two giant garbage patches in the Pacific, but the scope of the problem is only beginning to be understood, Francis says. “Now we feel, along with other researchers and even [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] that there are not two distinct patches, and that in between the two areas where it seems to be accumulating, there is sort of a superhighway that’s also collecting the debris.”

The Project Kaisei team appears to be embracing what its Web site calls “the biggest clean up Earth has ever witnessed.”

The algae solution


The San Francisco Bay may soon host a dramatic new environmental project that backers say could solve three problems at once: clean wastewater, remove carbon from the atmosphere, and produce biodiesel fuel. Yet it’s gotten remarkably little attention.

"For the most part, people are just ignoring me," says Jonathan Trent, a researcher at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, who is one of the driving forces behind the project.

The new technology Trent and his colleagues have created is called OMEGA (Off-shore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae). The idea is to grow large colonies of freshwater algae in what amounts to large plastic bags floating in the bay.

Wastewater from local sewage plants and carbon sequestered from power plants would provide food for the algae, which then produce oxygen and freshwater along with an oil that can be refined into fuel.

The OMEGAs are giant semi-permeable membranes; the design allows freshwater in but keeps saltwater out.

Using algae for biofuel isn’t new — there are a number of algae farms on land. But they require large amounts of real estate and fresh water and enough electricity to keep the water moving.

In this case, light from the sun provides the energy, and the motion of the waves stirs the algae around.

Trent is looking at ways to collect the freshwater that gets released by the OMEGAs — potentially another major breakthrough for a state desperately short of water.

Trent has shopped his project all over the world and many countries have showed interest, but he believes San Francisco is the perfect fit. "The people of San Francisco really have an enlightened attitude and are aware that something needs to be done to fix the problems we’ve created," he told us. "It’s a great place to demonstrate to the world that this is a feasible technology."

The OMEGA project still faces political hurdles. Trent recently survived an internal audit. And U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) has been critical of federal spending for biofuel projects.

But the scientist isn’t discouraged. "Actually I’m glad we have been audited," he said. "I’ve been able to get attention and show that not only does our system not use water, it actually produces clean water."

On July 29 the project received approval for an $800,000 grant from the California Energy Commission. According to Trent, the approval for the grant was ready for approval months earlier, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to put it on hold because of the budget crisis.

The CEC grant is coming just in time. A previous grant, from Google, was due to run out at the end of September. "We’re optimistic that if people see that the CEC has invested, maybe others will want to invest," Trent said. "But we need more than just financial resources — we need brain power as well. The next step is to find engineers to really make this a workable option."

Trent would like to get a working model up and running within the next 18 months and hopes to see a full-scale operation in place in five years.

San Francisco may be the first city to host OMEGA. San Francisco Public Utilities Commission staffers have met with Trent and are cautiously optimistic. "Although it is just at the preliminary stages of discussion, it doesn’t dampen our excitement about the project," said Tyrone Jue, spokesperson for the SFPUC. "We have to know what good we will get out of it and if it is feasible in this area."

Environmentalists caution that it’s far from a perfect solution to the planet’s problems. Sierra Club staffer John Rizzo notes that "biofuels themselves are not a good solution. It’s a good bridge, but they are still burned and create carbons that are bad for the planet." In the short term, however, it sure beats drilling for oil off the California coast.

Making great streets



GREEN CITY There’s a growing movement to transform San Francisco’s streets into safe, vibrant public spaces, part of an international trend that has drawn together disparate partners around the belief that roadways shouldn’t simply be conduits for moving automobiles.

Recent advances include the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s approval of a package of 45 bicycle projects and the success of the Sunday Streets program, a series of temporary road closures to cars (the next one is this Sunday, July 12, in the Mission District).

And there are new players on the scene, from Streetsblog SF (see "Street fighters," 1/14/09) to the San Francisco Great Streets Project (www.sfgreatstreets.wordpress.com), a newly formed organization sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), the Livable Streets Initiative, and the Project for Public Spaces.

The Great Streets Project focuses on facilitating temporary conversions of streets into plazas (such as the new 17th Street Plaza at Castro and Market streets), parties, and other carfree spaces and with creating a civic conversation about the role of roads by bringing in renowned urban thinkers such as Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who spoke at the main library July 6 and sat down for an interview with the Guardian the next day.

"The heart and soul of a city is its public pedestrian space," said Peñalosa, who banned parking on sidewalks and expanded Bogotá’s protected bikeways, ciclovias (temporary road closures that were the model for Sunday Streets), and bus rapid transit system, creating an urban renaissance that he has since promoted in cities around the world.

"It became clear that the way we build cities could make people so much happier," Peñalosa said, noting how such urban design concepts dovetailed with his advocacy for the poor. "In a poor city, the inequality is felt most during leisure time … My main concerns are equity and happiness and the way cities can contribute to those things."

Peñalosa noted that "the 20th century was a terrible century for human habitat. Cars took over for people. Later we realized that was a big mistake." Such growth patterns, Peñalosa said, are simply unsustainable in the 21st century, particularly as Asia and Africa modernize.

Many European cities have taken aggressive steps to correct that mistake, but in the U.S. — whose dominant economic position during those years created the most car-dependent infrastructure on the planet — change has come slowly.

"Change is difficult, but change is already happening," he said, noting the strong carfree movements in San Francisco, New York City, and other U.S. cities.

Peñalosa transformed Bogotá at a time when the country was besieged by a violent civil war, timing he said was more propitious than unlikely. As with the current global warming imperatives and the traffic congestion that is choking many big cities, times of crisis can be moments of opportunity.

"When the crisis is so big, people are willing to risk different things and make experiments," Peñalosa said.

While most San Franciscans have yet to truly embrace the transition from car culture, Great Streets Project proponents are using temporary projects to push the envelope and gradually introduce new ideas into the public realm.

"It’s important for everyone to come into this with a spirit of experiment," said SFBC program director Andy Thornley. "Presenting these things as trials helps people get comfortable with the ideas."

SPUR director Gabriel Metcalf said temporary projects often bypass the need for cumbersome and expensive environmental studies and outreach efforts, placing innovative urban design concepts on public display as ongoing experiments.

"They allow you to make adjustments. It’s an option that exists with public spaces that you don’t have with buildings," Metcalf said. "It de-escalates the fear people have over change."

Plus, as the project’s director Kit Hodge notes, temporary placements let transportation planners and advocates try out new ideas instead of just endlessly studying them. As she put it, "San Francisco has a tradition of creating great plans that don’t get implemented."

The prime example is Market Street, an inefficient street for automobiles and a dangerous one for bicycles and pedestrians, and one that has been subject to countless studies about how to make it more livable. Yet little changes. "You need to achieve as much consensus as possible," Peñalosa said, "but in the end, you have to take risks."

Or as Metcalf put it, "It’s time to start enjoying some of the fruits of urbanity that we’ve been denying ourselves."

Selling the park



GREEN CITY Considering that it exists just a short hop from the industrial grind of Third Street, Candlestick Point State Recreation Area is a surprisingly wild and peaceful 150-acre bayshore park.

On a recent afternoon, a man practiced his golf swings, a group fished off a pier, and a lizard darted across a trail and into a clump of wildflowers, all apparently unaware of the storm gathering around the future of this waterfront habitat.

State Sen. Mark Leno’s Senate Bill 792 would give the State Lands Commission and State Parks Department the authority to negotiate an exchange of 42 acres in the park for patches of land on the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, allowing Lennar Corp. to build condos in the state park and reducing Bayview’s only major open space by 25 percent.

Leno claims that SB 792 "will help realize one of the few remaining opportunities for large-scale affordable housing, parks, open space, and economic development in San Francisco by authorizing a key public-private land exchange necessary for the development of Hunters Point/Candlestick Park."

"A lot of this property is dirt, and much of it is used by the 49ers for parking. It’s not high quality park land," Leno told the Guardian.

In addition to adding some amendments suggested by the Sierra Club, Leno said state and federal agencies must approve the deal, which would also require a full environmental impact report. "There will be no environmental shortcutting," Leno said.

But environmental advocates are outraged that Mayor Gavin Newsom and his chief economic advisor, Michael Cohen, are trying to get state legislators to facilitate an unpopular land swap that allows an out-of-state developer to build thousands of condos on state tidelands in exchange for strips and pockets of the toxic shipyard (see "Eliminating dissent," 6/17).

"When Michael Cohen asked us to endorse what they were calling a conceptual framework, he called it a rush to the starting line and promised us a full and robust discussion of the actual proposal," Kristine Enea, who works for the India Basin Neighborhood Association, said of last year’s Proposition G. "We’re not trying to stop the development, but we want a discussion. And we’re raising questions that otherwise won’t be raised until after the environmental impact report is completed."

In April, Newsom wrote to Sen. Fran Pavley, who chairs the state’s Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, claiming that plans for the shipyard and Candlestick Point had already been endorsed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and overwhelmingly approved by voters in June 2008.

"By utilizing a true public-private partnership, this [SB 792] will cause tens of millions of dollars of public open space investment to state park lands and public trust lands, at no cost to the state or the city’s general fund, providing a significant benefit to the state as well as to the citizens of San Francisco," Newsom wrote.

As part of the land swap, Lennar would pay fair market value for much of the parkland, with estimates of about $40 million that would go to the state for managing the remaining acreage. Lennar proposes to build 7,850 housing units on Candlestick Point, and it’s unclear how many of those will go into what is now a state park.

Critics say Newsom is trying to use Prop. G like a hammer to force through legislation that wouldn’t pass locally and would destroy the park’s current functions and wildlife habitat, forever changing life in Bayview Hunters Point, due to the scale and socioeconomic and environmental impacts of Lennar’s proposed redevelopment.

Created by the legislature in 1977, CPSRA is the state’s first urban park. It offers panoramic views of the wind-whipped bay, San Bruno Mountain, and Yosemite Slough, the only unbridged waterway in the city’s southeast sector. And while it’s not typically crowded, the park is well-used by residents, who like to hike and jog, walk their dogs, and windsurf adjacent to Monster Park stadium.

Saul Bloom — whose nonprofit group, Arc Ecology, angered Cohen and Newsom in February when it published "Alternatives for Study," a draft report that identified deficiencies in Lennar’s current proposal — admits that a section of the park is a weed-filled lot that 49ers fans use for parking on game days.

"But the leasing for parking contributes $800,000 toward park maintenance annually," Bloom told the Guardian, noting that this is a vital source of funding in tough times.

He also noted that the California State Parks Foundation recently raised $12 million to restore Yosemite Slough and the California Solid Waste Management Board (whose members include former Sen. Carole Migden, whom Leno defeated last year) recently completed a $1 million rehabilitation of a former construction debris field on the state park property.

But neither this nor the state Budget Conference Committee’s recent decision to institute a $15 surcharge on vehicle license fees of noncommercial vehicles as a dedicated funding source to keep California’s state parks open will save CPSRA from being hobbled if SB 792 is approved in its current state.

"Surely other land can be used for building condos. Affordable housing and condo residents need open space too," said Peter Barstow, founding director of Nature in the City, noting that the 42-acre parcel of contested land represents 25 percent of the park, but only 5 percent of the 770 acres the developer has at its disposal to build 10,500 units of proposed housing.

"Any loss in acreage would seriously diminish the ability of the park to serve the city’s needs, especially with 10,500 new units proposed for the Lennar development," Barstow said.

He said some "logical swapping" is possible. "But they are doing some numbers game, in which they are counting a huge amount of parkland that is already there."

"We should be thinking how to connect these ecologically isolated islands," Barstow said, who sees this debate as an opportunity to link CPSRA to wildlife corridors in McClaren Park and Bayview Hill. "The development should be in the interest of the people, critters, wildlife and plants in the Bayview, not in those of someone in an office thousands of miles away."

He also scoffed at proponents’ arguments that the density of the development means that it is smart urban growth. "Just because a development is dense is not an argument to build it on a park."

Cohen recently told the Guardian that the 77 acres of the 49ers stadium and all the paid parking inside its facility will be filled with "mainly retail and entertainment," while the 42 acres of state park would be used to build condos.

Meredith Thomas of the Neighborhood Parks Council noted that her group "fully supports the revitalization and redevelopment of the Candlestick Point/Shipyard area … But when folks voted for Prop. G in June 2008, nowhere did the measure say that by voting for it, you are agreeing to sell parkland."

"We are always concerned when municipal land that is being used as a park is put up for sale," Thomas said. "While it’s a state park, it really functions as a neighborhood park for those who use it. I think what happens when we plan for large developments is that we don’t do enough to plan for parks with the density increase that’s coming."

The Sierra Club has been leading the charge against the bill. "We lose 40 acres but gain a bathroom," Arthur Feinstein, the Sierra Club’s local representative jokingly told the Guardian. "Now that’s a good deal!"

Observing that the organization’s position is "no net loss of acreage, no loss of biodiversity, no loss of wildlife corridors," Feinstein said, "There are a ton of alternatives to this plan and no reason to destroy 25 percent of the park or build a bridge and a road over Yosemite Slough."

With Arc’s studies showing that the bridge, which will cost $100 million to construct, only shaves two minutes off travel time, Feinstein added: "This is a road to nowhere. It’ll cost $50 million a minute."

He also said that allowing a company to buy state parkland "sets a terrible precedent… Then every state park is at risk from developers as the state’s budget woes grow. I hope Sen. Mark Leno sees this."

"No one would ever think put housing on Crissy Field," Feinstein continued. "But in the Bayview, the attitude is, why not? That whole mentality has made the area into an environmental justice community. Even when it’s given something, it comes in a costly way to the community, but a cheap way for the developers."

Is there hope?



GREEN CITY They agree global warming is happening, that it’s caused by the overuse of carbon-based fuels, that its impact on the planet and its myriad life forms will be devastating, and that Congress is failing to properly address the crisis. But the environmentalist and the oil executive disagreed about the most important issue: whether there’s any hope of saving the planet from the worst impacts of climate change.

Chevron CEO David O’Reilly and Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope squared off June 10 at the Hotel Nikko ballroom in San Francisco for a truly historic Commonwealth Club event titled "Drilling for Common Ground." And they did find some, including agreeing publicly to jointly lobby Congress for an energy policy that more quickly phases out coal, the worst of the fossil fuels.

But the more telling exchanges between these two giants highlighted a fundamental disagreement: can we do something about this, or are we simply fucked? And by fucked, I mean doomed to simply accept official predictions of rising seas creating a billion refugees by 2050, the extinction of a million plant and animal species, severe water shortages in California and many other regions, and an unpredictably unstable new world ravaged by severe weather and exotic diseases.

To avoid much of that (but not all — it’s already too late for that), Pope said the scientific community consensus is that we need to stop all coal burning by 2030 (unless emissions can be sequestered, which isn’t technologically possible yet) and reduce our consumption of oil and other carbon-based fuels by 90 percent by the year 2050. "You can’t meet the targets any other way," Pope said.

And he thinks that meeting those targets is not only possible, but it would help the U.S. economy. "The rapid changes in the telecommunications field were good for the economy, and a similar change in the energy field would be good for the economy," Pope said. "We have lots of options if we start moving like it’s a crisis."

But O’Reilly doesn’t think that’s possible. "Even with the best of intentions, we’re only going to get part of the way there," O’Reilly said, quickly adding, "I think we’ll be lucky if we can get 20 to 25 percent by 2050."

At a press conference after the forum, I asked the two men about the implications of only reducing our fossil fuel consumption by 20 percent. Pope cited impacts ranging from "Florida will be a lot smaller" to severe water rationing in San Francisco. "It’s not an acceptable risk to take," he said. O’Reilly didn’t disagree, but he avoided specifics, saying, "I do fear that we have to plan for some adaptations."

It was a remarkable admission, one that most media coverage buried far beneath angles focusing on the common ground they found. But if the oil industry isn’t willing to diligently address the crisis — or worse, if it hinders political efforts to do so, as it has done for decades — does it really matter that it acknowledge the problem?

That core conflict created the sharpest exchange of the forum. "This is the 21st century. We can move much faster than we ever have before," Pope said.

"Well, if you can get the government to move faster, good luck," O’Reilly replied.

"It would help if you would get out of the way," Pope retorted.

Indeed, it is aggressive lobbying by Chevron and its industry trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, that created the energy situation that O’Reilly now finds so intractable. But Pope said he’s happy to work with O’Reilly on policies that support their areas of agreement, which even includes instituting a carbon tax.

Their clash didn’t just focus on global warming; it also focused on the oil industry’s wanton exploitation of people and ecosystems around the world, from propping up despotic regimes and sponsoring human rights abuses in oil-rich countries to leaving toxic messes in Ecuador and elsewhere.

Pope called for the oil industry to set aside 10 percent of its profits to create a global trust fund for dealing with its impacts and for international operating and cleanup standards that would prevent oil companies from exploiting weak or corrupt governments. "Chevron has to come to the table with the global community." Pope said.

O’Reilly never responded directly to the suggestion.

Which kind of poison?



GREEN CITY The push from city leaders to shut down Mirant’s aging Potrero power plant advanced another step June 2 when the San Francisco supervisors approved an ordinance sponsored by Sophie Maxwell and Michela Alioto-Pier that urges closing the entire facility by the end of 2010 and directs the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to update a plan charting the city’s energy future.

But the current city proposal for closing the Mirant plant appears to rely entirely on replacing that power with the output of other private fossil fuel plants — in someone else’s backyard.

The city is following the same script as Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which wants to upgrade and expand the lines bringing its own private power into the city — instead of San Francisco generating power of its own.

In fact, Mayor Gavin Newsom has introduced legislation to sell four city-owned combustion turbines that are currently collecting dust in storage in Houston. Obtained as part of a 2003 lawsuit settlement, the turbines were almost employed last year to build four small city-owned power plants to fully replace the Mirant facility — but that plan was ultimately shot down.

The California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO), a federally regulated body that oversees grid reliability, currently requires Mirant’s dirty San Francisco facility to stay in service to provide in-city generation capacity in case of catastrophic power grid failure. But city officials now say a new underwater power cable from the East Bay could replace Mirant Unit 3, which spews fumes into the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood.

Last month, Newsom, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, SF Public Utilities Commission General Manager Ed Harrington and Sups. Sophie Maxwell and Michela Alioto-Pier sent a letter to Cal-ISO making the case that with the installation of the TransBay Cable — which would link the city with generating facilities in Pittsburg — and other planned system upgrades, the entire Mirant facility could be retired by next year.

Maxwell’s ordinance references that letter, and urges PG&E to "develop expeditiously" its transmission-upgrade projects to pave the way for the plant’s closure. Cal-ISO spokesman Gregg Fishman says that so far, it hasn’t reviewed PG&E’s plans.

Joe Boss, a longtime member of the city’s power plant task force, says he has little confidence that Mirant can be shut down without being replaced with new in-city electricity generation. He told us he believes it’s a bad move to sell off the publicly owned combustion turbines.

The TransBay Cable is essentially a 10-inch thick extension cord that would connect a PG&E substation in Pittsburg with another PG&E substation in Potrero Hill. It’s being bankrolled by the Australian investment firm Babcock & Brown, which ran into serious financial trouble during the economic downturn, and its San Francisco branch was bought out last month. Currently under construction, the cable project is being built in tandem with the Pittsburg power company, a municipal utility that would retain ownership of the cable and converter stations. PG&E customers will ultimately pay for power transmitted over the line.

The way the theory goes, once the cable goes live next March, Potrero’s Unit 3 — a natural-gas fired generator that runs about 20 hours a day — could finally be shut down. "But the question is, is it just going to bring dirty power to SF?" asks Sierra Club Energy Board chair Aaron Israel.

Near the Pittsburg end of the cable, there are two gas-fired Mirant-owned power plants, operating since 1972 and 1964.

There are proposals for two new Mirant natural-gas fired power plants in that area as well, plus a 530 MW plant called Gateway owned by PG&E that became operational this year.

So the future looks like this: San Francisco gets rid of a pollution source, and shifts the problem to a poor community 40 miles away. And PG&E and Mirant retain their hegemony over the city’s electricity supplies.

"’Which poison would you like?’ is kind of where the debate is," says Greenaction for Environmental Health & Justice Executive Director Bradley Angel. "We’ve got to keep advocating for a dramatic increase in renewable energy, here and elsewhere," Angel says. But that’s not going to happen with PG&E and Mirant calling the shots.

Blocking the Port



GREEN CITY A lawsuit filed against the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports is impeding the Port of Oakland’s ability to regulate dirty trucks.

In April, a U.S. District Court sided with the American Trucking Association (ATA), placing a preliminary injunction on both ports’ clean truck programs and prompting ports across the nation to amend their clean truck programs to avoid similar lawsuits.

Meanwhile, the Oakland Port Commission was expected to vote on whether to approve a Comprehensive Truck Management Program for the Port of Oakland at its June 2 meeting, which would ban trucks that do not comply with new state air quality regulations and require trucking companies to register with the port.

The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports (see "The polluting Port," 3/25/09), a mix of environmental, labor, interfaith, and community-based organizations, criticizes the Truck Management Program for falling short of a more comprehensive policy, but blames the shortcomings on the legal injunction secured by ATA. "The litigation has really tied their hands," says coalition director Doug Bloch, who helped organize a June 2 protest against what his group characterized as the trucking industry’s "obstructionist tactics."

Rather than targeting clean air regulations, ATA has focused its attack on a ban on low-salaried independent drivers from the port. Proponents of the ban argue that that an employee driver-based system would be more effective than the current system of independent drivers, because the cost burden of emissions upgrades would then fall onto trucking companies rather than independent contractors who often cannot afford emissions retrofits. "Truck drivers are scrambling" to afford retrofits required by stringent air quality regulations that become effective Jan. 1, Bloch notes. While the new rules will help alleviate West Oakland pollution, "they aren’t sustainable if the people responsible for meeting them can’t pay," he says.

The Port of Oakland commissioned an economic impact study by Beacon Economics, which favored an employee driver-based trucking system over independent drivers for similar reasons.

David Bensman, a labor studies and employment relations professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has studied port trucking extensively. "Deregulation created a hypercompetitive industry where truckers have no bargaining power," Bensman says. The result is a sort of race to the bottom. If the drivers refuse to accept a substandard rate, workers look at the long line of semis waiting, engines running, and see many others willing to work for that low rate. "The American Trucking Association is defending an industry model that is broken," Bensman asserts. "The system is not able to put trucks on the road that are clean and efficient."

ATA, however, believes that forcing truck companies to take on more employees will harm the entire industry’s competitive edge. Independent drivers have power and flexibility over their business practices, according to Clayton Boyce of ATA. "They are an independent business because they want to be an independent business. Anyone can give that up and become an employee if they wish," he says. "If they can’t run a business and buy the health insurance for themselves and maintain their trucks, then they shouldn’t be in that business."

At the Port of Oakland, however, 83 percent of truck drivers are independent, and only 17 percent work under truck companies. A report by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy found that 62 percent of 1,500 truck drivers in the Port of Oakland do not have health insurance or the means to buy cleaner trucks. The proposed Comprehensive Truck Management Program does include a provision that would assist independent truckers with emissions retrofits, but the $5 million allotted doesn’t begin to cover the estimated $200 million price tag calculated by Beacon Economics, according to Bloch.

The Port of Oakland’s Maritime Committee passed a resolution supporting the findings of the Beacon Economics study and urging the adoption of an employee-driver system, but little can be done to move forward with it until after the Southern California injunction has been lifted. The Port Commission was also scheduled to vote on that resolution June 2.

The American Lung Association estimates that one in five children in West Oakland has asthma. According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, diesel pollution is five times higher in West Oakland than in other parts of Alameda County.

Rebecca Bowe contributed to this report.

Mirant’s last gasp?



GREEN CITY A new multipronged effort to shut down San Francisco’s Mirant Potrero Power Plant is raising hopes that the end could be in sight for the controversial fossil-fuel-fired facility.

An ordinance proposed by Sup. Sophie Maxwell suggests that the entire facility — including the primary unit 3 and the smaller, diesel-fired units 4, 5, and 6 — could be shut off without having to create any new fossil fuel generation within city limits. The legislation would direct the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to figure out how to bridge the in-city electric generation gap using energy efficiency, renewable power, and other alternatives.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed against Mirant by City Attorney Dennis Herrera targets Mirant’s failure to perform seismic upgrades. The effort wouldn’t close the plant directly, but could make it more burdensome for Mirant to do business here. Mirant did not return calls for comment.

"Mirant has been given a free pass for a while, and the city doesn’t want to give it to them any more," Deputy City Attorney Theresa Mueller told the Guardian. "Part of the reason they’ve gotten away with not doing it is because it was expected to close."

City efforts to replace the Mirant plant’s power with combustion turbines that San Francisco already owns were derailed last year after Mayor Gavin Newsom withdrew his support for the plan, instead backing an alternative pushed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. that would have retrofitted the Mirant plant, a proposal that consultants said didn’t pencil out and that failed to win Board of Supervisors’ approval (see "Power possibilities," 11/5/08).

Despite various city efforts to shutter the plant going back nearly a decade, Mirant Potrero still runs an average of 20 hours per day, according to figures released by the California Independent System Operator (Cal-ISO). In 2007, the plant released 235 tons of harmful pollutants into the air, and 336,300 tons of carbon dioxide.

For now, Cal-ISO requires Mirant to continue running to guarantee that the lights would stay on in the city even if major transmission lines fail. But with the installation of the Trans Bay Cable — a high-voltage power cord that will send 400 MW of electricity under the bay from Pittsburgh in 2010 — Mirant’s largest unit will be unnecessary.

"We assume that the Trans Bay Cable will be in service sometime in mid 2010. We can then drop Potrero [unit 3]" from the reliability contract, says Cal-ISO spokesman Gregg Fishman. The dirtier, diesel-powered units 4, 5, and 6 would still be required, he says.

Not everyone accepts this as the final word on the matter. Maxwell’s legislation calls for the SFPUC "to take all feasible steps to close the entire Potrero power plant as soon as possible." That ordinance, expected to go before the Land Use Committee on May 11, would direct the SFPUC to update a plan for the city’s energy mix, called the Electricity Resource Plan, to reflect a goal of zero reliance on in-city fossil-fuel generation.

The original plan, issued in 2002, was also designed to eliminate the Potrero plant. This time around, key assumptions have changed. Last year, as Newsom and some members of the Board of Supervisors battled over the Mirant-related projects, PG&E sponsored a study indicating that the city might not need new local power generation.

Maxwell’s new proposal, citing information from the PG&E assessment, now suggests that after the installation of the Trans Bay Cable and other transmission upgrades, the electricity gap for in-city generation will be much smaller than previously assumed. This gap, which Joshua Arce from the Brightline Defense Project likes to refer to as the "magic number," has apparently shrunk to 33 MW in 2012, as opposed to 150 MW. But Arce said, "We want the magic number to be zero."

Barbara Hale, assistant manager for power at the SFPUC, confirmed that the city agency was preparing to update the plan and noted that it would likely contract with a Colorado-based firm, Rocky Mountain Institute, to do it. "We are hoping we can meet San Francisco’s electricity needs in a way that does not involve fossil fuel generation in San Francisco," Hale told the Guardian.

Encouraged by the recent activity, environmental justice groups are organizing for what they hope will be the last push to shut down the Potrero plant. Tony Kelly, president of the Potrero Boosters and an activist on power plant issues, is optimistic. "There really is an end in sight to that power plant," he says.

Some eyebrows have been raised over the implications of the Trans Bay Cable, which by most accounts will be plugged into a fossil fuel-powered facility in Pittsburgh. "We really are going to be highlighting that San Francisco needs to take responsibility … so that we don’t have clean air on the backs of poor people and people of color in the East Bay," says Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.

Nor is everyone feeling optimistic that the closure of the plant is near. Joe Boss, a member of the city’s Power Plant Task Force for about nine years, says he still doesn’t expect Cal-ISO to budge, and believes the city will have to live with the Potrero plant for years to come.

Fishman, from Cal-ISO, said that as things stand, units 4,5, and 6 will "almost certainly" still be required. Almost. "Between now and when the Trans Bay Cable is in service, we can conduct … studies on transmission projects that are officially presented to us," he added. "Based on the hard data that comes from those studies, we may reevaluate the need for local generation."

Don’t drill here



GREEN CITY When U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar looked out at a sea of faces during a San Francisco public hearing April 16, a band of activists dressed as polar bears, sea turtles, and other marine creatures stood out from the rest. Their message, also articulated by a host of federal and state-elected officials, was unequivocally clear: no new oil and gas drilling off the California coast.

Waving a thick document in the air, Salazar explained that he’d inherited a five-year plan from the Bush administration to award new leases for oil and gas drilling in the federally controlled outer continental shelf, which comprises some 1.7 billion underwater acres off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska.

Rather than move the policy as planned, Salazar extended public comment for six months, met with stakeholders in each region, and placed greater emphasis on developing offshore renewable energy. The San Francisco public hearing was the last in a series of four that Salazar attended.

"One of the significant issues that is so important to President Obama is that we move forward with a new energy frontier," Salazar said. He advocated embracing offshore wind and other renewable alternatives as part of a "comprehensive energy plan going forward." Yet Salazar also indicated that future plans for the nation’s energy mix were "not to the exclusion of oil and gas," and mentioned that opportunities for "clean coal" technology should also be considered.

Under the five-year plan, three new leases are proposed off California’s coast — two in the south, and one in the Point Arena Basin, an underwater swath near Fort Bragg. Elected officials unanimously opposed any new offshore petroleum development. "Our state clearly is saying to you today, no," declared Sen. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Instead of putting our California coast and economy in jeopardy, we need to look at … green technology which will bring us new jobs."

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi sounded a similar note, saying the billions that would be invested in offshore oil could be put toward advancing clean energy. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) highlighted the risk of oil spills around the Point Arena Basin. "It could be turned from a wellspring of life into a death plume," she said. "This shimmering band of coast must be protected."

While nearly every testimony blasted new offshore oil development, the conversation brightened when Salazar asked for comments on renewable energy. According to estimates by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, offshore wind in shallow areas could provide some 20 percent of the electricity needs of coastal states nationwide. Wave energy, while still under study, might one day generate enough electricity to power some 197 million homes per year, according to Department of the Interior estimates.

Most of the oil that could be extracted from the outer continental shelf would come from the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska, with some 10 billion barrels potentially available off the Pacific coast. Joe Sporano of the Western States Petroleum Association said offshore drilling could create jobs and limit dependence on foreign oil. Yet Boxer pointed out that, based on Energy Information Administration figures, drilling for oil across all areas would yield just 1 percent of the nation’s total oil consumption by 2030 — and it’s not believed to make a real difference in gas prices.

Richard Charter, government relations consultant with Defenders of Wildlife, seemed confident that California’s coast would be protected. "You have a new interior secretary for an administration that received California electoral votes … in a state that is pretty much single-minded in its position in terms of saving the coast," he said.

Charter’s optimism was helped by a recent federal appeals court ruling against the previous administration’s plan to award new offshore-drilling leases in the Arctic.

So now, "whatever Secretary Salazar does will have his own stamp on it," Charter said. "In each of these hearings, it’s become apparent that the Obama administration may be coming around to a new approach."

Public comment for the offshore leasing plan ends in late September. Salazar told reporters that he expects a decision by the end of the year.

Green-collar heat


› sarah@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Local residents, workers, and businesses are anxious to learn who and what will be stimulated by the billions of dollars that President Barack Obama authorized for release when he signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Since January 2008, unemployment in the Bay Area has risen from 4.9 percent to 8.4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, and house prices and consumer spending are down.

Despite all the anxiety, representatives from local low-income community groups hope to turn Obama’s stimulus package into an opportunity to make local government accountable for creating decent green-collar jobs. And Sups. Eric Mar, John Avalos, Sophie Maxwell, and Board President David Chiu seem happy to help further the community in this environmentally friendly cause.

Mar scheduled a March 23 hearing of the board’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee "to obtain community input on the creation of jobs, particularly green-collar jobs, in San Francisco as the city positions itself for federal investment dollars."

"The hearing was the first step toward building a grassroots coalition to hold government accountable," continued Mar, who worries that the Mayor’s Office is not sharing enough information related to the stimulus package. "Labor and community groups, not just department heads and City Hall, should be at the table."

At the hearing, representatives from the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development said that a substantial part of the first wave of stimulus package dollars has already been allocated, mostly to shovel-ready projects such as the Doyle Drive rebuild and massive development projects at Treasure Island and the Hunter’s Point Shipyard.

OEWD representatives also indicated that more waves of formula funding are expected, for which San Francisco must compete with other cities, and that the city’s Department of Technology is constructing a Web site to track all local money from Obama’s $787 billion package.

OEWD deputy director Jennifer Entine Matz says community-based organizations, unions, and community colleges need to work together to ensure that people are successfully brought through any work program. "In many cases, green collar jobs are existing jobs," Matz said. "If we are successful in training people with green power technology, they will be more marketable here and beyond. We can also train and modify people in existing programs."

But representatives from the Chinese Progressive Association, PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights), and POWER (People Organizing to Win Employment Rights) expressed their belief that stimulus package funds should go to help low-income communities, not rich corporations.

"Let’s make sure we stimulate quality to make sure we stimulate the economy," said PODER’s Oscar Grande, who warned against using the funds on low-paid jobs with few advancement opportunities. He and others suggested tracking what communities receive funding. "We want to go past the green hype, the green-washing, and the green lifestyle marketing," Grande said.

Raquel Pinderhughes, an urban studies professor at San Francisco State University who helped Berkeley’s Green Business Council and Oakland’s Green Jobs Corp program, defined green-collar jobs as "blue collar jobs in green businesses.

"Green collar jobs can function to get more people out of poverty," Pinderhughes said. "They can provide living wages. They have low barriers to entry. They provide an opportunity for occupational mobility. They are inherently dignified, and they have a shortage of entry-level workers, so there is room for people."

But Pinderhughes warned that cities must link improving environmental quality to social justice to avoid creating temporary jobs and preserve industrially zoned lands for green-collar jobs. She also said that cities must fund case management services "so folks don’t quickly drop out."

The Land Use Committee has scheduled an April 6 continuation to address a plethora of outstanding issues like how much money is going to specific corporations and departments, the division of funds between public transportation and freeway projects, and how much Lennar Corp. is getting for its Hunters Point Shipyard/Candlestick Point redevelopment project.

The polluting Port


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Manuel Rivas is an independent truck driver working at and living near the Port of Oakland, where diesel exhaust from old idling vehicles has created a serious public health threat.

Officials have long talked about addressing the problem (see "ImPorting injustice," 7/17/07). In the meantime, however, Rivas and his twin boys — whom he has cared for alone since his wife died in a car accident 12 years ago — struggle with respiratory problems on low wages and with no health insurance.

"I’ve spent 21 years working as a truck driver. This is where I’ve spent most of my life, and I don’t have anything from it. You can see for yourself," Rivas tells the Guardian in Spanish, gesturing to his small, rundown house and showing us his empty refrigerator. "We are people, not slaves. We fuel the economy not just here in Oakland, but throughout the country."

Rivas works eight to 10 hours per day and says he takes home about $5.55 per hour after the expenses for his truck. Deregulation of the trucking industry has left drivers, many of them immigrants, as independent contractors with low wages and few benefits.

"We don’t get any vacation time," he said. "We don’t get health insurance. If we get sick, then we have to pay out of our own pockets."

And they do get sick. Diesel exhaust is a toxic air pollutant. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports organized an asthma screening in West Oakland last month to address problems around the Port. "Small particulates get breathed into the lower reaches of the lungs and cause irritation and inflammation, an increase in respiratory problems like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and a long term risk of lung cancer," said Dr. Robert Harrison, a UCSF professor who participated in the screenings.

Sandra Witt of the Alameda County Health Department said West Oakland residents are exposed to three times more diesel particulate matter than the rest of the Bay Area, thanks to the Port and nearby freeways.

"We’re driving all day, every day, and at this moment my throat is very dry and it hurts, so I take cough drops," Rivas said. He is concerned that one of his sons recently came down with bronchitis and was unable to play soccer.

Harrison says that children and the elderly are most susceptible to toxic air. "Bronchitis is one of the symptoms of respiratory problems from diesel pollution," Harrison said. One in five children in Oakland has asthma, the highest rate in California.

But treating a large population for respiratory problems is difficult. "There really isn’t any way to treat the community unless you reduce air pollution," Harrison said. "I found that the independent status of truck drivers keeps them vulnerable to health problems."

Port Commissioner Margaret Gordon, a longtime community activist before joining that body in 2007 (see "Port tack," 10/10/07), has pushed the Port to take responsibility for its contribution to the problem. "Diesel is bad in any way it comes. In trucks, trains, ships, cargo, or cabin equipment, it’s bad. But the closest thing to the people of West Oakland are the emissions from the trucks," Gordon said.

Swati Prakash of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports hopes that new legislation will alleviate some problems from diesel pollution. "For the first time you have state regulations coming down the pipe," Prakash told us. "The California Air Resources Board has recognized how deadly diesel pollution is."

On Jan. 1, 2010, pre-1994 trucks will not be allowed on Port land and 1994-2003 trucks must be retrofitted to reduce diesel particulate matter by 85 percent. But Rivas can’t afford a new truck, so he and other drivers are hoping to become employees of trucking companies.

The Port’s Comprehensive Truck Management Plan (CTMP), which will address diesel pollution and related issues, is now being drafted and is set to go before the commission for approval in June. Richard Sinkoff, the Port’s director of environmental programs and planning, said staff is working at an accelerated schedule because of the urgency of the issue.

"I think the board really understands that public health is a concern for all of us," Sinkoff said. "Time is always of the essence when dealing with a recognized public health issue."

Station leaves the train


› steve@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY The Transbay Terminal rebuild is moving forward, but this multi-modal downtown transportation station seems to be pulling away from what was supposed to be its showcase centerpiece — the California High-Speed Rail Project — before it can satisfy the design and capacity needs rail officials require.

San Francisco officials from Mayor Gavin Newsom to Sup. Chris Daly, who sits on the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) Board of Directors, all say high-speed rail must be a component of the Transbay Terminal. Yet they were caught off-guard when the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) recently made clear that the station would need to handle up to 12 trains per hour, more than double what current station designs can accommodate.

Even as phase one of the station got underway in December (see "Breaking ground," 12/10/2008), it lacked the more than $300 million needed for a so-called train box that would make it easier and cheaper to later bring high-speed rail and Caltrain into what would otherwise be a $4.3 billion bus station and commercial complex.

TJPA officials were struggling with how to secure that money, ideally through federal stimulus funds, when officials from CHSRA and Caltrain told a Feb. 25 Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting that current designs were inadequate for their needs (see "Stimuutf8g transit, 3/4/09).

While the demand for straight platforms, rather than the curved ones TJPA designed, can be fairly easily addressed, the volume issue is far more significant and costly. During a March 12 TJPA meeting on the issue, engineers said that adding the third floor of trains that would be needed to handle 12 trains per hour would add $1 billion to the cost. Even if no train box is built, TJPA officials say that just the foundation work and deeper dig needed for the higher capacity would add $500–$700 million to the cost of the project’s first phase.

The good news is the federal stimulus package sets aside $8 billion for high-speed rail development, and Transbay Terminal is one of the few shovel-ready projects out there that would qualify for immediate assistance. The bad news is the criteria for attaining those funds won’t be ready by the time TJPA plans to sign its construction contracts in late May.

Delaying the project would not only increase costs and forestall the immediate economic stimulus impacts of the construction, it would also anger bus transit agencies such as AC Transit, which kicked in $57 million to the project. "AC Transit expects the TJPA to meet its commitment to AC Transit and its passengers, as well as keep the construction of phase one on schedule," AC Transit attorney Kenneth C. Scheidig wrote to TJPA March 11.

At the March 12 meeting, TJPA members uniformly reacted with dismay to their dilemma, criticizing CHSRA for its unrealistic demands. Program manager Emilio Cruz said the agency had designed to high-speed rail specifications and only learned in January of the desire for trains to run up to every five minutes during peak hours.

"They were presented without adequate justification for why they need increased frequency," Cruz told the TJPA board as he offered his analysis for why that frequency isn’t needed to handle the 12 million annual riders the system predicts for 2030 and noting that Tokyo — which has far greater volume and density — is the only high-speed rail station in the world to run 12 trains per hour.

CHRSA executive director Mehdi Morshed said Cruz isn’t a rail expert and disputed his analysis, noting that Tokyo and Paris each have multiple stations that together run far more than 12 trains per hour. He also noted that the BART system is at capacity after just 30 years.

"We are building a train that has the capacity to hold not just the riders in 2030, but beyond that," he said. "They are trying to fit the high-speed trains of the future in a very limited space, and we’re telling them that’s not adequate."

Morshed said his agency is still years away from getting into station design, but has been as accommodating as possible with TJPA’s desire to move forward now. Daly and others have pointedly criticized CHSRA and its chair, Quentin Kopp, to which Morshed said, "Sure, we can take all the blame, but how is that going to help San Francisco get its station?"

Think globally, shop locally


› culture@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY When we say a product is "eco-friendly," what we really mean is "eco-friendlier," as in "less ecologically damaging to the environment than available alternatives." The manufacturing process always has some negative effect on the environment, and while products may be labeled organic, biodegradable, recycled, acid free, ecospun, fair-trade, unbleached, vegetable-based, cruelty-free, or all-natural — they all require land, unclean energy, and unrenewable resources to produce.

The easiest way to start thinking eco-friendliest is to take into account the enormous amount of energy used in distribution. Sure, it’s unrealistic to expect all of our products to come from California, because certain things, like lifesaving medicine or Belgian ale, don’t have homegrown substitutes. But some items do have nearby equivalents. Here’s a guide to some of our favorite stylish eco-stops for locally manufactured gems.

For eco-friendly home goods, make sure you stop by Russian Hill’s Spring (2162 Polk, SF. 415-673-2065, www.springhome.com), where you can get your Coyuchi organic cotton sheets, Method home care products, Sara Paloma vases, International Orange spa goodies, Erbaviva homeopathic baby products, Naya bath salts, Nectar Essence aromatherapy sprays, and EO bath and body things, all in one trip. Did I mention that all these companies are California-based?

Another favorite on the spendy eco-boutique front is Eco Citizen (1488 Vallejo, SF. 415-614-0100, www.ecocitizenonline.com), which carries sustainable high-end clothing and showcases several talented local designers, including Sara Shepherd, the San Francisco clothier who creates conceptual, modern styles in black and white. While you’re there, be sure to ask about Jules Elin, a designer from Novato who works solely with organic and recycled fabric, and whose feminine, whimsical jackets are perfect for life in a perpetually spring-like city.

If you’re shopping for tomorrow’s green warriors, try Mabuhay‘s (1195 Church, SF. 415-970-0369, www.mabuhaykids.com) eco-friendly children’s clothing, featuring San Franciscan lines like Smallville by Jimin Mannick, who hand-sews lovely little garments for boys and girls. Jasper Hearts Wren play clothes for toddlers are decorated with charming details like rocket ships and birds crafted from felt made entirely from postconsumer recycled plastic bottles, and are made by Oakland’s Heather Jennings and Lisa Schwartz.

And speaking of kids, Ladita‘s (827 Cortland, SF. 415-648-4397, www.shopladita.com) owner, Christine Kay, has been wanting to open a boutique since she was a kid herself. At the sweet little boutique, whose storefront reads "Eco-friendly of course," check out Kim White’s handbags created with vintage fabrics pulled from automobile upholstery, like a clutch made from a 1980s Camaro. Also keep an eye out for regenerated cotton socks by Love & Socks, made here.

Other places to keep on your radar? Eco Boutique (4035 18th St., SF. 415-252-0898, www.shopecoboutique.com) offers glass products by Dharma, a Fort Bragg company — think wonderful little glass straws you can use instead of plastic disposable ones. EcoLogiQue (141 Gough, SF. 415-621-2431, www.ecologiquesf.com) offers 100 percent made-in-California T-shirts by Naked Cotton using organic cotton grown in the San Joaquin Valley. If you want to commission your own messenger bag, contact Rickshaw Bagworks (904 22nd St., SF. 415-904-8368, www.rickshawbags.com) and have a designer make one out of your own material, or choose from the on-hand selection of 100-percent postconsumer waste fabric. Rickshaw Bagworks makes each bag to order, so no unused bags sit around a showroom. Clary Sage Organics (2241 Fillmore, SF. 415-673-7300, www.clarysageorganics.com) offers a staff-designed, locally made line of yoga gear fashioned from ecologically sustainable materials. SF-based online retailer Branch (245 South Van Ness, SF. 415-626-1012, www.branchhome.com) offers plenty of eco-friendly furniture designed and produced in the city, including bamboo lamps by Schmidtt Design, recycled rubber coasters and placemats by JoshJakus, and recycled cork trays by Urbana Designs.