Categoria: air pollution

‘Greenwashing’ Allegations: Quemetco Deal To Pay Nonprofits In Toxic Settlement Criticized

When the California state Attorney General’s Office brought legal action in 2018 involving 29 violations of leaking hazardous waste at a car-battery recycling plant in City of Industry, nearby residents concerned about exposure and cancer risks were anticipating strong remedies.

But that’s not what happened.

A member of the public voice his concerns during a public meeting about the court settlement between Quemetco, Inc. battery-recycling company near Hacienda Heights and state agencies involving the release of cancer-causing air toxics and waste handling on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, SCNG, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Meredith Williams, director of the DTSC, speaks during a public meeting about the court settlement between Quemetco, Inc. battery-recycling company near Hacienda Heights and North Whittier, and state agencies involving the release of cancer-causing air toxics and toxic waste handling. Williams spoke at the beginning of a two-hour meeting on the topic, including on the controversial SEPs program, at the Hacienda Heights Community Center on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

The Quemetco battery-recycling facility on 15 acres in City of Industry, located at 720 S. Seventh Ave., May 31, 2016. (Photo by Leo Jarzomb/San Gabriel Valley Tribune)

A late December 2022 court settlement for Quemetco, Inc. approved by Attorney General Rob Bonta and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) required the company to pay $2.3 million in penalties, of which no amount was earmarked for repairs or toxic waste monitoring.

The Clean Air Coalition, made up of nearby residents of Hacienda Heights, Avocado Heights, La Puente, North Whittier and other areas, denounced the settlement as a slap on the wrist. Others said it used environmental groups to paint over the issues with a green sheen.

Byron Chan, attorney with Earth Justice, which is working with the Clean Air Coalition, said the Attorney General had the power to fine Quemetco tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars since it filed against the company. “When that lawsuit was filed it felt like DTSC was turning a page. Four years later the result of that lawsuit was nothing,” Chan said.

In defense of the settlement, DTSC said 27 of the 29 violations were fixed. But DTSC investigators reported that two major violations had not been resolved, involving hazardous waste leaking from storage areas and possibly migrating into neighborhoods, and installation of monitoring systems to detect toxic chemicals seeping into the underground aquifer — a drinking water source for at least one million residents of Los Angeles County.

“The settlement is a result of strong enforcement actions the department took,” said Meredith Williams, DTSC director, who spoke at a recent DTSC-sponsored public meeting on Feb. 8.

Quemetco said in a statement that it has invested $50 million in new pollution control equipment since 2008. “The company is proud to be the cleanest lead recycling facility in the world and it continually meets or exceeds all applicable environmental standards and requirements,” the company said.

But criticism and confusion continues to swirl around the settlement. Aside from the relatively modest fines, the focus has been on the unusual way the settlement was constructed.

DTSC used a relatively new, under-the-radar approach that environmental lawyers and residents have criticized as unusual, unhelpful, and insulting to residents living for years with exposures, or in this case, improperly managed.

Of the $2.3 million, half — about $1.15 million — went to hiring small, nonprofit organizations for non-specific educational programs, something that DTSC calls its Supplemental Environmental Projects or SEPs, used to offset defendant penalties. They also add a bonus action that goes beyond legal requirements, according to DTSC’s website.

The settlement paid $575,000 to the first SEP group, Nature For All, a Monterey Park-based organization that leads field trips to the mountains. The small group also works for access to the Angeles National Forest, and protecting local watersheds and open spaces, said Belén Bernal, executive director, in remarks made to the audience at the February meeting in Hacienda Heights.

Another $575,000 went to hire Oakland-based The California School-Based Health Alliance, which helps students improve their health and academic achievements. A local trustee with the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District said the school district was not consulted and does not know this group.

Residents and Earth Justice lawyers say the large amounts of money diverted to these organizations in lieu of traditional fines against Quemetco are excessive. On the state DTSC website, the overwhelming majority of SEPs listed involve considerably less than $500,000.

For example, in 2017, the Coalition For Clean Air in Los Angeles was awarded $35,000 to help install air pollution monitors around USC, part of a DTSC settlement using the SEP program, DTSC reported.

The grass-roots Coalition in Hacienda Heights said the large amounts of money going to the two SEPS in the Quemetco settlement could have been used to install air and water monitoring stations, or perform testing of children’s blood for lead, a compound produced by the melting of 600 tons of used lead-acid batteries per day.

Lead exposure can lead to impaired human brain function and learning disabilities, experts say.

Paying nonprofit groups more than half a million dollars each, and calling that a remedy, is an affront to a community dealing with violations from Quemetco for nearly two decades, said Angela Johnson Meszaros, managing attorney for the Community Partnerships Program at Earth Justice during an interview on March 8.

“The DTSC settlement didn’t do a thing that would directly result in reduced emissions or reduced impacts from the facility,” Johnson Meszaros said.

“In all of my 30 years doing this work, I have never seen anything like this,” she said.

When asked if it was an example of “greenwashing,” a process in which state agencies or corporations undertake small, unrelated green actions while ignoring the major environmental issues, Chan said: “I would unfortunately frame it that way.”

Johnson Meszaros said a SEP is supposed to relate to the issues in the lawsuit, in this case, hazardous waste exposure, lead exposure and also in a previous settlement, air toxics involving arsenic, a known human carcinogen. But neither the Oakland-based SEP or the local SEP has experience in the hazardous waste field or in air toxics, making the SEP-based settlement an example of the state agency simply taking cover or of a defendant avoiding harsher fines, she said.

“It was almost like they (DTSC) said: ‘We are going to pretend this is awesome and the community is going to fall for it,’” she said. “It is a striking failure on DTSC’s part to really address both Quemetco’s history of violations and the needs of the frontline communities.”

The Quemetco plant, in business since 1959, is the largest of its kind west of the Rockies and operates on 15 acres at 720 S. Seventh Ave. and employs 200 or more workers. It recycles about 10 million lead-acid regular car batteries a year as well as other lead scrap to make about 120,000 tons of reclaimed lead, according to its website.

Quemetco was forced to pay $600,000 in penalties for air pollution violations in May 2020. Among violations found at the plant was emission of lead, arsenic, and 1,3-butadiene, emitted into the air at levels that exceeded air quality rule limits, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which agreed to the settlement.

In 2004 and again in 2013, DTSC inspectors found soil with elevated lead concentration around the perimeter of Quemetco’s property. In 2018, inspectors ordered the cleanup of lead contamination in industrial facilities located near the facility. A 2016 investigation of 132 homes in Hacienda Heights, just south of Quemetco, found that 100 homes had lead levels high enough for further evaluation and might require potential cleanup.

Lead exposure limits the brain’s development and can cause kidney disease. Human exposure to lead, arsenic and 1,3-butadiene also can cause cancer.

“The policy on SEPs is that they’re supposed to have a nexus to the harms. But the choices DTSC made, I wonder if they have a proper nexus. They don’t reduce the exposures. They don’t do sampling of the soils,” Johnson Meszaros said.

DTSC says the use of SEPs benefits communities that are experiencing environmental harm and addresses environmental injustices. Using an outside nonprofit for related projects augments a settlement and improves public health, according to DTSC’s website.

Environmental lawyers who’ve brought lawsuits over environmental degradation or toxic exposures to residents but are not involved in the Quemetco case expressed varying views on the use of SEPs.

“I am in the inner circle of environmental lawyers in the state and I’ve never heard of this,” said Sabrina Venskus, an environmental land use attorney. “It is unusual.”

Geralyn Skapik, with the Skapik Law Group in Chino Hills, said a SEP can be effective if correctly applied. She remembered a case her firm settled that involved a defendant who drilled water wells but did not properly divert and treat toxic chemicals pulled out of the aquifer that killed fish in a nearby stream.

As part of the settlement, a SEP was hired to provide classes for technicians on safe and environmentally compliant ways of drilling water wells. “The classes were directly relevant to the harm that was caused,” she said, adding they prevented future toxic spills.

Johnson Meszaros said in some instances, a SEP is hired to perform actions that address the harms. But the Supplemental Environmental Projects approved by DTSC in the Quemetco case, she said, “Is not doing a thing that would directly result in reduced emissions or impacts from the facility.”

The DTSC has said the SEPs are “environmentally beneficial projects” that are part of an enforcement action. Nature For All has said it will help develop leaders “who care for and deserve access to nature and safe spaces.”

But many in the community say educating the community about the possible dangers of living near the City of Industry plant is work that has already been done.

In September 2019, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health sent nurses door-to-door to alert people of the dangers of lead exposure, and conducted voluntary blood testing for lead. The agency developed a brochure on ways residents can protect themselves from lead called “Living With Quemetco,” said Rebecca Overmyer-Velazquez, coordinator with the local Coalition group.

Attempts to involve nonprofit groups to educate, inform or bring awareness doesn’t sit well with the Coalition members. “It is totally greenwashing,” Overmyer-Velazquez said. “They (DTSC) comes off looking good by funding these nonprofits.”

Susan Phillips, professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College and director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability, has led efforts to stop or slow down development of warehouses in the Inland Empire on grounds that they add to air pollution and truck traffic.

Phillips said fighting cities, developers and state environmental agencies is often a losing battle. “All the settlements we’ve had don’t come close to mitigation for the project. They just shave the edges off it. It is disheartening for community members.”

But after more than two years of efforts, she has some advice for those living near Quemetco. “Our adage is fighting is winning. It is about continuing the fight.”

Are Southern California Students And Teachers Breathing Clean Air?

Tina Andres hates the red light. And this time, it’s not even blinking. It’s just solid red, as in, change-the-filter-now red.

The air purifier in teacher Andres’ classroom at MacArthur Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana was installed in 2021. But the first time the light went red no new filters could be found, a result of supply chain woes. Now, about two months after installing a replacement, the warning signal is back.

Andres, a sixth-grade math teacher who’s taught in the same class, Room 7, for 30 years, said the air problem isn’t just about COVID-19.

“We have mold issues,” she said. “There are issues like this all over the county. Some of these schools are old.

“Teachers just want to know that the air quality is good,” she added.

An air filter is seen in a first-grade class on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, at Resurrection School in Los Angeles. Indoor air quality has been an increasing focus for the past three decades, but took off during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Pasadena Star-News/SCNG)

Teachers at MacArthur Intermediate in Santa Ana got new air purifiers during the pandemic. But when their red lights popped up indicating a need to change the filter, there were no replacements to be found. This air purifier in Room 7 at MacArthur saw its filter replaced during the winter holiday. It’s back to red. Photo taken on Friday, Dec. 3, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Tina Andres)

The issue isn’t trivial, or misunderstood. Studies have linked dirty air inside of schools — particularly in communities with dirty air outside of schools — to a variety of health conditions and learning delays. It’s also known that a proven, cost-effective way to clean up school air is to improve a school’s ventilation system.

California has been a leader in recognizing this. Even before COVID-19 prompted everybody to think about ventilation, California imposed rules aimed at making sure new school buildings offered clean air. And on Jan. 1, California became the first state to require every school, regardless of age, to assess and, if feasible, to upgrade their ventilation systems.

The mandate has come after billions of state and federal dollars, mostly related to the pandemic, were made available to schools to improve their air quality. Los Angeles Unified now spends about $20 million a year to inspect and maintain more than 115,000 air filtration systems.

Still, a new national study from the Environmental Law Institute suggests it isn’t enough. California, as with other states, has substantial room for improvement when it comes to making school air safe, the study found.

The study cites many of the issues also raised by Andres, as well as other teachers, parents and environmental advocates.

For starters, there’s no centralized agency to oversee school indoor air quality. State and local air quality districts focus on outdoor air, so questions about indoor air often bounce between various state departments and local agencies. School districts are left to inspect and police themselves.

Also, loopholes in the new state law allow many schools — particularly older campuses, which often serve the neediest students — to avoid meeting the new standards if they don’t have heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC systems, at all, or if their systems aren’t strong enough to push air through upgraded filters. A number of Southern California school districts reached for comment on this story, from Big Bear to Pomona to East Whitter, either didn’t respond or simply said they had no news to share about work to improve ventilation.

Meanwhile, international health groups are calling for indoor air rules even more strict than what’s called for in California’s new law. To get there, districts would need to boost ventilation and add tools, such as portable air purifiers, in all classrooms — something few have done.

Now, as funding and concern about COVID-19 fades, school plans to fix the problem are starting to fall by the wayside.

Some $50 million in federal funding that L.A. Unified School District budgeted for portable air purifiers a couple years ago has been reassigned, according to Rebecca Schenker, who has two kids in the district and helps lead a group called LAUSD Parents for Covid-Safe Schools. She hasn’t been able to find out how that money will now be spent.

Her fear is that, as the COVID-19 emergency declaration ends and people move on, the funding, equipment and knowledge gained over the past three years won’t translate into long-term efforts to clean up school air — despite ongoing problems with absenteeism and air pollution.

“The need to figure out how to move forward in this world, after the trauma of COVID and damage, is real,” Schenker said. “But I think we’re saying in our coalition that we can’t do that by forgetting the lessons we learned during the pandemic. And while we’re not in a pandemic mode, we know more about how to take care of our communities. And we know we have the tools.”

Long-standing need While California has set standards for outdoor air quality since the late 1950s, public policy didn’t expand to include indoor air quality in earnest until the early 1990s. That’s when the Environmental Law Institute started studying classroom ventilation, said Tobie Bernstein, a senior attorney with the group and director of its Indoor Environments Program.

“There was considerable evidence of potential adverse impacts of poor ventilation and indoor air quality,” Bernstein said.

Students and teachers in schools with poor ventilation are more likely to miss school and report health issues related to respiratory and viral infections, asthma symptoms and airborne diseases such as chickenpox and influenza, according to research by Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program. Meanwhile, studies by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and others show that better ventilation in schools also leads to better academic performance.

When Southern California Gas distributed portable air purifiers to all classrooms within five miles of a massive leak at the company’s Aliso Canyon storage in 2015, Michael Gilraine, an economics professor at New York University, saw an opportunity. He launched a study comparing student achievement in schools that didn’t get air filters and those that did, and he found substantial improvements in math and English scores for students breathing cleaner air.

“The results indicate that air filter installation is a highly cost-effective policy to raise student achievement,” Gilraine’s study says. “And, given that underprivileged students attend schools in highly polluted areas, one that can reduce the pervasive test score gaps that plague public education.”

Much of Southern California is plagued by poor outdoor air quality throughout the year, from Inland Empire schools near heavily trafficked freeways to Los Angeles County schools near the busy ports to all schools near airports. When outdoor air quality gets particularly bad, air quality officials recommend keeping kids inside. But Heejung Jung, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Riverside who studies air quality, has seen firsthand how problematic that is in schools without active ventilation systems.

Jung recalled measuring air quality of a classroom in Riverside some years back. Even with doors and windows closed, but no ventilation system, Jung said the concentration of harmful particles was 70% as high inside the classroom as it was outside.

Lower income school districts are most likely to have faulty, failing or nonexistent ventilation systems. At the same time, people of color are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions, such as asthma, that make them more vulnerable to pollutants in their classrooms, turning ventilation into a social justice issue.

Though fixing school ventilation isn’t cheap, advocates believe the investment of a few dollars per student more than pays for itself.

Schenker cites studies that more than 100,000 absences in LAUSD each year are attributed to asthma symptoms. Since schools get paid based on student attendance, that’s costing the district upwards of $4 million a year, which health research suggests could be improved by improving ventilation. Another California study estimated that poor ventilation was linked to at least 3% of absences, which cost the state $33 million each year.

In 2019, such research prompted California to become the first state to require HVAC filters for all new school construction at a level known as MERV 13, with dense enough filtration to catch at least 75% of particles in the air as small as 1 micron, or about a tenth the size of a droplet of mist.

But in January 2020, researchers published a study in the journal Building and Environment that found that there were problems with even newly installed HVAC equipment in more than half of the classrooms they looked at. Theresa Pistochini, a co-author of the study who helps lead UC Davis’ Energy Efficiency Institute and Western Cooling Efficiency Center, said that while those numbers were very concerning to her team, it was initially tough to get traction because teachers and students weren’t recognizing the effects.

“When you’re in a building that’s underventilated, you can’t really tell,” she said.

Then came spring 2020.

The COVID-19 factor As COVID-19 raged, and protection measures such as mask wearing and vaccinations became divisive, improving ventilation jumped out as relatively simple, non-intrusive way to significantly reduce the risk of transmission. Suddenly, the maintenance problems and other recommendations that Pistochini and her team had raised were getting attention.

Seventh-grade students at Pacific Pathways Prep Middle School in Sacramento, Calif. work on CR-Box filters that will go to low-income patients at the COPD clinic at UC Davis in collaboration with Dr. Brooks Kuhn. The outreach on Friday, March 3, 2023 was part of an ongoing effort to teach air quality principles and build awareness about ventilation. (Photos by Paul Fortunato of UC Davis)

Seventh-grade students at Pacific Pathways Prep Middle School in Sacramento, Calif. work on CR-Box filters that will go to low-income patients at the COPD clinic at UC Davis in collaboration with Dr. Brooks Kuhn. The outreach on Friday, March 3, 2023 was part of an ongoing effort to teach air quality principles and build awareness about ventilation. (Photos by Paul Fortunato of UC Davis)

Seventh-grade students at Pacific Pathways Prep Middle School in Sacramento, Calif. work on CR-Box filters that will go to low-income patients at the COPD clinic at UC Davis in collaboration with Dr. Brooks Kuhn. The outreach on Friday, March 3, 2023 was part of an ongoing effort to teach air quality principles and build awareness about ventilation. (Photos by Paul Fortunato of UC Davis)

The simplest way to improve air quality in classrooms, of course, is to open doors and windows. But there are classes across Southern California where that’s not possible. Also, everything from temperature to noise to public safety make the open-door-and-window policy less than ideal.

The second fix is to install stand-alone air cleaners, like the one in Andres’ class, in all classrooms and gathering spaces. Such devices can work, Pistochini said, because they can filter the smallest particles. But for portable air cleaners to be effective, they need to be sized right for the space, filters need to be regularly changed and they need to be turned on each day. That leaves a lot of room for user error.

That’s why the third fix is the one Pistochini focuses on — installing solid HVAC systems that bring in outdoor air, condition and filter it, and expel poor air out of the classroom.

There are schools in districts across Southern California, including in Torrance Unified and Westminster, that don’t have full HVAC systems in place. Westminster recently tapped a $76 million bond measure to start to tackle that issue. Manuel Cardoso, assistant superintendent for business services, said five of the district’s 16 schools now have new air HVAC systems, while nine others are nearly done or scheduled for similar upgrades in the summer. Two others, he said, have temporary HVAC systems.

For districts with existing HVAC systems, most had been running MERV 6 or 8 filters, which don’t work well against COVID-19 transmission. That’s why Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, last year introduced Assembly Bill 2232. The bill, which took effect Jan. 1, requires all California schools to evaluate their ventilation systems and upgrade to MERV 13 filtration if “feasible.” Otherwise, they have to install the highest MERV level filtration their systems can take.

While that law does give districts wiggle room to decide whether their systems can handle MERV 13 filtration, Pistochini said most HVAC systems can pivot to MERV 13.

But Jesse Chavarria, assistant superintendent of administrative services for Anaheim Elementary School District, said not only were MERV 13 hard to find at one point during the pandemic, he said they also didn’t work in older HVAC units in the district.

“In those situations, the law says we have to find ways to find the same air quality,” Chavarria said. “So we used three-ply filters and sprayed them with an antimicrobial agent used by hospitals.”

Orange Unified also is treating all its HVAC units, which have MERV 8 filters, with an antimicrobial solution — in addition to buying portable air purifiers with HEPA filters, said district spokeswoman Hanna Brake.

Paying for progress While some districts already were working to upgrade their HVAC systems and filtration, both AB 2232 and the recent flood of state and federal funding for improvements kicked those efforts into high gear.

“Covid was a bad thing but getting the Covid funds did help out in terms of improving the ventilation systems,” said Chavarria, from the Anaheim Elementary district.

Most California schools now have access to a pool of money specifically designated for HVAC work. Through a program called CalSHAPE, created in 2020 by Assembly Bill 814, schools can apply for a share of $584 million in grants. To date, about $382 million has been doled out for ventilation projects, with applications for the latest round of funding open through March 31.

That’s on top of $190.5 billion in federal funds approved by Congress to help schools cope with the pandemic. The California Department of Education said that as of Feb. 15, school districts in the state were planning to use $1.6 billion of that money for 951 approved HVAC projects.

L.A. Unified installed MERV 13 filters across 80 million square feet of buildings and classrooms. At the onset of COVID-19, the district also programmed HVAC systems to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when heating or cooling is not required. And they used $2.4 million to buy 2,750 portable HEPA air-cleaning devices, which can be deployed during COVID-19 surges or if an HVAC system goes down.

Riverside Unified School District used ESSER funds to do HVAC replacement at two high schools, four middle schools and nine elementary schools, according to district spokesperson Diana Meza. The district also added MERV 13 filters in all classrooms and now changes them quarterly.

In Capistrano Unified, Orange County’s largest school district, spokesman Ryan Burris said ESSER funds were used to upgrade all HVAC systems to MERV 13 rated filters. In cases where ventilation still was not meeting minimum standards, he said the district purchased stand-alone units to supplement ventilation rates. The district also received CalSHAPE funds to assess HVAC systems at all sites and plans to apply for additional grant money through that program to replace systems that were found deficient.

San Bernardino City Unified School District used a combination of ESSER and district general funds to purchase HEPA filter units, assess HVAC systems and upgrade the HVAC filters, spokesperson Corina Borsuk said. As a result of those efforts, she said many of the district’s classrooms now exceed the international ventilation exchange rate guidelines.

“It’s not enough to just purchase equipment and leave it at that,” Borsuk said. “We want to make sure we are making a measurable difference for our students’ health and make sure that the investment of public funds is getting results.” So she said the district also contracted with an industrial hygienist to perform pre- and post-tests on air samples for all classrooms.

More work needed Air sampling and circulation testing is key, according to Michael Bailey with the national parent group Indoor Air Care Advocates. When asked what they’re doing to improve air quality in schools, he said many districts focus on upgrades they’ve made to HVAC filtration or how many air purifiers they’ve added.

But, Bailey said, knowing that doesn’t indicate “how much clean air they’re providing.”

One way California is working on that is by requiring schools that receive money through CalSHAPE to install carbon dioxide monitors in all classrooms, which will alert staff and students if CO2 levels go above 1,100 parts per million. And if that happens more than once a week, the school will have to adjust ventilation rates. (The 2022 law, AB 2232, also requires new and altered school buildings to install CO2 monitors.)

Pistochini praised those efforts, since it gives teachers and students and parents hard data. Otherwise, districts are left to police themselves.

“What’s at stake here is exposure to respiratory infectious disease, exposure to indoor chemical sources, and exposure to outdoor pollution. And children are our most sensitive population. So if there’s ever a place we’re gonna get this right, let’s do it in a school and through a third-party inspection system.”

Other states already do that. West Virginia, for example, hires HVAC technicians to conduct inspections, per the Environmental Law Institute report. And if we can have regular inspections for every restaurant in the state, Pistochini said surely we can do the same for schools.

At Santa Ana Unified, teacher Andres said she and her colleagues want to see more information from the district.

“I want to see regular testing and reports of air quality given to teachers about their rooms, and we want some assurances that these air purifiers are working and that they’re going to be regularly maintained,” said Andres, a member of the school’s safety committee.

Otherwise, she said, “There’s this big huge thing in your room that’s worthless.”

Roar Of Charter Planes Over San Fernando Valley Has Residents Mad And Worried

By Delilah Brumer, Correspondent

Throughout their 33 years of calling “the pocket” home, Bill Jackson and Linda Jackson have seen air shows, summer picnics and many friendly neighbors come and go.

Living in the group of houses immediately west of the Van Nuys Airport, they’ve felt, smelled and heard the effects of worsening air and noise pollution — but the Jacksons say they aren’t going anywhere.

“We’re constantly aware of the fumes, and sometimes it’s just stifling,” said Bill Jackson, who is retired. “It’s sort of a combination of that and the noise being so constant. But we bought this house to live in forever and it’s a great neighborhood. I don’t want to walk away from that.”

The Van Nuys Airport is one of the busiest general aviation airports in the world, with more than 280,000 flight operations conducted in 2022. Unlike commercial airports, the vast majority of flights at Van Nuys Airport are private or chartered. They can fly at any time, day or night, and passengers are not screened by the Transportation Security Administration.

The growing charter flights have increasingly disrupted Lake Balboa and the areas around it, residents say, yet the most recent environmental report about the airport’s impact on communities in San Fernando Valley was conducted 18 years ago.

“There’s an increased noise [level],” said Karen Fritschi, who lives only a few hundred feet from the airport. “It used to just be very small jets and planes with propellers. Now it’s bigger planes and when they take off at night, they wake people up.”

Sue Steinberg, who has lived only a couple hundred feet away from the Van Nuys Airport for 20 years, said, “I use this analogy of, like if you live next to a skate park and it’s fine, but then some people with a lot of money come in and want a monster truck park. That’s what it’s been like living next to the airport.”

Run by Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the airport is in the process of conducting its Van Nuys Vision Study, whose purpose is to help the Los Angeles City Planning Department in its process of updating land-use plans that are more than three decades old.

Charter jets leave a busy Van Nuys airport hours before the Super Bowl starts in AZ Sunday, Van Nuys CA, Feb 12, 2023. The airport estimated 150 jets were heading to AZ for the game Saturday and Sunday. (Photo by Gene Blevins/Contributing Photographer)

Neighborhood activists Suzanne Gutierrez and Sue Steinberg are upset about the surge in charter flights and increased air traffic generated at Van Nuys Airport.(Photo by Andy Holzman, Contributing Photographer)

Charter jets leave a busy Van Nuys airport hours before the super bowl starts in AZ Sunday, Van Nuys CA, Feb 12, 2023. The airport estimated 150 jets were heading to AZ for the game Saturday and Sunday. (Photo by Gene Blevins/Contributing Photographer)

“LAWA initiated the Vision Study because it has been over 30 years since the last comprehensive planning effort,” for the airport, said Dae Levine, LAWA’s acting director of communications and marketing. “The Vision Study project will … share a vision for VNY that reflects any updates to the land use arrangement that facilitate emerging aviation technologies, sustainability goals and compatibility with the community.”

In order to engage with the community about the Vision Study, LAWA hosted a virtual open house on Feb. 22.

But some residents among the 149 participants who called in said the public was not allowed to react to, or pose questions about, the talks given by airport officials — which had instead been promoted as an open house.

LAWA representatives, including Van Nuys Airport Manager Paul Herrera, presented information about the airport’s background and plans. After the presentations, LAWA hosted a question and answer section.

While LAWA officials did answer some questions from the public at the Zoom presentation, the questions had to be submitted before the event — with no opportunity for follow-up or discussion.

Some participants were upset that LAWA disabled the Zoom chat feature, preventing residents from making written comments or asking questions that all the other participants could see in chat, and comment on.

“I knew they were going to promote it as a community engaged event that LAWA did, when in reality it’s not engagement if there’s no dialogue back and forth,” said Suzanne Gutierrez-Hedges, an attendee of LAWA’s open house, who lives directly west of the Van Nuys Airport.

“It’s very disappointing. It’s frustrating that they manipulate people,” Gutierrez-Hedges said.

Levine defended the one-way format, saying it allowed LAWA to “reach out directly to the broader community, and the open house provided this opportunity.”

One concern among residents is the frequent departures and landings of charter flights at Van Nuys Airport, which residents say have increased in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic. These flights by private charter companies cost wealthy customers and business people upwards of $1,200 an hour to fly in and out of Van Nuys Airport and let them avoid many downsides of flying commercial.

Neighborhood advocates like Timi Romolini, who co-founded the group SoCal SFV with the goal of “fighting for responsible aviation practices,” say the influx of charter flights comes with substantial health and environmental consequences.

Romolini and some residents of “the pocket” said they’re especially concerned about fumes released by the planes.

“These fumes are penetrating and infiltrating the homes on a daily basis and throughout the day,” Romolini said.

Romolini said she doesn’t know the effect of these fumes—since there hasn’t been an environmental impact study conducted for the Van Nuys Airport in 18 years. The last study, done in 2005 but not published until 2010, was conducted long before some residents say they noticed the worsening pollution problem.

“I feel some resentment that they expanded so tremendously without really giving thought to how it would impact the neighborhood,” Linda Jackson, a retired teacher, said.

LAWA said it doesn’t plan to conduct an environmental impact study for its Van Nuys Vision Study “because it consists of research, facilities inventories and data gathering efforts” and “the Vision Study is not a Master Plan.”

Levine said, “LAWA is not in control of the market-driven increases or decreases in aircraft operations and ensures that the noise management programs are designed to minimize noise independent of the operation levels.”

But many residents are raising concerns about the noise levels caused by Van Nuys Airport. In December, 223 people submitted noise complaints to the airport. LAWA representatives said they work to mitigate noise pollution through their Quieter Nights Program, which “encourages jet aircraft operators to avoid flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. whenever possible” — but that program is voluntary.

“It’s become busier in the last several years,” said Lisa Petrus, co-chair of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council Airport Committee. “Since more people are flying private because of the pandemic, there’s been an increase in airport noise.”

Romolini, Steinberg and Gutierrez-Hedges said they are hopeful about Los Angeles City Council motion 22-1489, which is currently pending in committee. Co-sponsored by councilmembers Bob Blumenfield, Paul Krekorian and Nithya Raman, it would require LAWA to provide detailed descriptions of its environmental reviews, community engagement efforts and projects within 90 days.

“[The motion is] a huge slap in the face to LAWA’s lack of transparency and honesty,” Romolini said.

Advocates including Romolini are also calling for the Los Angeles City Council to pass a moratorium on further aviation developments at the Van Nuys Airport.

The advocates say this is especially necessary since the thousands of people who live in City Council District 6, which includes “the pocket” and much of the area impacted by air traffic, don’t have a city councilmember representing them.

The councilmember who represented the pocket and other neighborhoods near the airport was Nury Martinez. But she stepped down from office last fall amidst a scandal over her racist comments in a backroom meeting that were secretly recorded and leaked to the media.

The Jacksons said they want the Van Nuys Airport to make changes so they and their neighbors can return to their previous quality of life.

“I don’t want the airport to go away,” Bill Jackson said. “I just want it to become a good neighbor.”

Tree Warriors Halt LA Plan To Destroy Up To 13,000 Trees For Sidewalk Repairs

Trees of Los Angeles can let out a deep breath of fresh oxygen after a recent court ruling halted the City of L.A.’s plan to chop down as many as 13,000 shade trees citywide, in the name of sidewalk repairs.

The Los Angeles Superior Court Mitchell Beckloff sided with tree advocates and declared the Environmental Impact Report for the city’s proposed repair program “fundamentally flawed” in late January.

The lawsuit was filed by advocates from Angelenos for Trees and United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles who were distressed by the plan to kill thousands of trees without considering alternative repair methods that would preserve trees.

“We saw that they were proposing to remove over 12,000 trees and we felt that that was excessive. Other cities manage their sidewalk tree conflict easily and for whatever reason L.A. does not,” said said Jeanne McConnell of Angelenos for Trees.

The city argued that its sidewalk repair program and associated tree removals was a justified effort to comply with the Willits settlement — a 2016 class action settlement that requires the city to spend $1.4 billion to improve its sidewalks and walkways for those with disabilities.

“The city decided to prepare a new ordinance, the Sidewalk Repair Program, to protect the urban forest as much as possible while streamlining procedures so as to not hinder implementation of the Willits Settlement,” wrote then-City Attorney Mike Feuer in a July 2022 response to the petition filed against the city.

“As the comprehensive EIR is more than amply supported by substantial evidence, none of Petitioners’ claims have merit,” said the city’s attorneys.

Judge Beckloff, however, disagreed. He ruled that the EIR failed to thoroughly examine the impacts to wildlife and the environmental consequences of trading mature trees for young replacement trees.

His ruling grants trees a temporary reprieve from the chopping block.

Advocates say it’s a good thing for residents, too. The presence of trees in a neighborhood helps cool the temperature, lower electricity bills, clean the air, increase biodiversity and has even been shown to reduce crime, said McConnell.

The city may now appeal the court’s decision, create a new EIR to address the problems identified, or return to the drawing board with a new sidewalk repair plan.

Attorneys Jamie Hall and Sabrina Venskus, who represented the advocates, said they recognize the dire need for sidewalk repairs and hope the city opts to redo the plan.

“They can say ‘You know what? These things that we said were infeasible alternatives, we have now determined that they’re feasible’,” said Hall. “Like maybe meandering the sidewalks (around trees), building sidewalks out of different materials that are more flexible, using more root pruning.”

Tree advocate Joanne D’Antonio pictured with one of the oak trees she helped to preserve near Magnolia Blvd in North Hollywood, CA, Friday, February 10, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG) McConnell said Santa Monica, Pasadena, Ojai, Portland, Seattle, New York are all cities where local governments have managed to balance sidewalk repairs and tree preservation.

In addition to the environmental benefits, advocates also say that there is an economic and racial justice imperative to save trees.

“In low-income communities, street trees play a more important role than they do in communities that have high canopy cover,” said Hall. “If you look to South L.A. or other areas, you’ll see far less green and that’s because there’s more apartment complexes, there’s multi-family units, and also where there are single-family homes there’s not as many trees.”

Environmentalist and tree advocate Lynetta McElroy has been fighting for years to draw attention to the shortage of trees in predominantly Black communities in Los Angeles like her own.

“I am huge on planting trees in every community, especially here in South L.A. where we really need it,” she said.

While this was seen as a victory for trees and community members in South LA, McElroy said the problem has only worsened since then as new apartment complexes replace single family homes and their mature trees and greenery.

“We’ve seen how our State legislators along with developers are working hard to destroy communities and to put up lots of apartments, put up more concrete, thereby removing trees and greenery, which will make South LA a very hot, unlivable and unnatural area,” she said.

Trees play a major role in mitigating the urban heat island effect, in which buildings and paved surfaces trap heat and increase the temperature of a neighborhood.

“It’s been shown that under a tree canopy it can be 30 degrees cooler than the surrounding area,” said McConnell.

Jeanne McConnell with oak trees in North Hollywood, CA, Friday, February 10, 2023. McConnell participated in a lawsuit against the city of LA seeking to halt the planned removal of 13,000 trees in the name of sidewalk repairs. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG) The cooling effect of trees is especially valuable in the San Fernando Valley where McConnell lives and temperatures can be blistering during summer heat waves. Their presence can also help residents decrease their electricity bills by using less air conditioning.

Trees are also helpful in times of intense rainfall like Los Angeles experienced in January.

“When you have trees you’re less likely to have flooding as they capture vast amounts of water in their roots and then give it back to their leaves,” said environmentalist Joanne D’Antonio, adding that these leaves in turn will help clean the air.

D’Antonio is not a formal party in the lawsuit, but is a representative on the City’s Community Forest Advisory Committee. In this role she helped write a letter on the environmental impacts of tree removals, which the court cited in its decision.

CFAC members are particularly worried about the effects of tree removal on local and migratory birds.

“When a tree is removed it’s not ‘mitigation’ to plant two trees, because the birds don’t have the same services of a mature tree while those two trees grow,” said D’Antonio.

The letter from CFAC pointed out that the North American bird population had declined by 30 percent since 1970 and explained that because Los Angeles is “on the Pacific Flyway and trees provide nesting and foraging habitat, preserving (the) urban forest will have a profound impact on attempts at stabilizing bird populations.”

D’Antonio is also a supporter of using alternative sidewalk repair methods to preserve trees.

While the city has shied away from some methods — such as meandering sidewalks around trees — due to their price tag, D’Antonio pointed out that money could be secured for this under the urban forestry program of the new federal infrastructure bill.

“Street trees are the only city infrastructure that actually increases in value over time,” said attorney Sabrina Venskus in a written statement. “The (city’s) EIR pits mature street trees against repaired sidewalks, yet that is a false choice: other cities are able to preserve their mature street trees while ensuring safe sidewalks, and Los Angeles can too if it will make its urban forest infrastructure a priority.”