California may test all young kids for lead exposure

Three months after a Reuters study of national lead exposure data showed eight communities in California faced worse contamination than Flint, Michigan – the poster city for U.S. lead risks –Assemblyman Bill Quirk is moving to address the potential public health crisis. The Hayward Democrat has introduced a bill that would require all children from 6 months to 6 years old to be tested for lead contamination.

Early exposure to lead has long been associated with cognitive problems. Writing last year in Mother Jones, Irvine journalist Kevin Drum said such exposure has been linked to lower IQs, violent crime and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. The gradual increase in IQ across the world has been linked to new laws against lead-based paint and piping.

But in California, state law only requires lead testing for children who live in or frequently visit buildings built before the crackdown on lead-based paint began in the 1970s and for those who get benefits under government welfare programs.

“Given the ages of California’s infrastructure, lead exposure risks are ubiquitous,” Quirk told Kaiser Health News. “The current screening process only tests certain children. Better data can help us better identify clusters and arm the state with a thorough, more comprehensive response.”

In Flint, national media have focused for two years on the problems with water supplies created when Flint city leaders stopped using water piped in from Detroit’s water system to save money by using cheaper water from the polluted Flint River and other local sources. That led to a public health emergency being declared after the supply change apparently sent the number of children with elevated exposure to lead in blood tests soaring to 5 percent, twice the national norm. In December, Congress appropriated $120 million to help Flint deal with the problem. …

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High Speed Rail On Track to Incur Billions in Cost Overruns

high speed rail trainHigh-speed rail continues to be an expensive, sick joke for California. Under the current plan, it is no longer “high-speed” and projected costs, which seem to change almost daily, appear to be doubling.

In the latest news, the nascent California high-speed rail system is running $50 million over budget for a two-mile stretch in Fresno.

Let that sink in for a moment.

$50 million, over budget, for just a two mile stretch.

Let’s see, HSR has a $50,000,000 cost over run on 2 miles of a 32 mile job. Does that mean we can expect total cost overrun of $25 million per mile times 32 miles or $800,000,000?

Better yet, let’s extrapolate that to the entire project. You know, the one sold to voters. According to High Speed Rail Authority itself, over 800 miles of track are needed. So, at $25 million of cost overruns per mile, that works out to $20,000,000,000. That’s $20 billion in cost overruns!

In just 3 years, from the original passage of Proposition 1A authorizing about $10 billion in High Speed Rail bonds, the estimated cost for high-speed rail had gone from $40 billion to $98 billion, the amount that independent expert analysis had predicted prior to the bond’s being approved.

Responding to public outrage, the High-Speed Rail Authority came up with a plan costing “only” $68 billion. The new “blended” system would combine high and low speed rail, doubling the travel times as well as ticket prices.

Fearing a voter revolt, the High-Speed Rail Authority rushed to break ground, hoping that once they dug a hole, the pet project of Gov. Brown and the majority of Sacramento lawmakers, who receive backing from construction contractors and labor unions that expect to be the primary beneficiaries of billions of dollars of public spending, would be safe from outside interference.

By beginning a first segment between Merced and Fresno, the rail authority engaged in the classic Willie Brown strategy. The former Assembly Speaker, in a moment of candor, once told the San Francisco Chronicle, “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Constant cost overruns and a lack of accountability plague California’s infrastructure projects. Perhaps, as a public service, it should be required that Brown’s words be reprinted in every ballot summary for every construction bond placed before the voters.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

Endargered Fox Could Halt High-Speed Rail in Its Tracks

The California High-Speed Rail Authority faces a new obstacle on its railroad track to construction: the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. The environmentalist group Defenders of Wildlife labels it “one of the most endangered animals in California.”kit fox

On Jan. 26, the Sacramento office of the Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior sent the CHSRA a letter about the kit fox’ habitat in the project’s 29-mile-long Construction Package 1. The letter charged the CHSRA and the Federal Railroad Authority with causing “the loss of nine acres of suitable habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox, located outside the project footprint … and the destruction of a potential San Joaquin kit fox den.”

The nine-acre land take violated the federal Endangered Species Act “and its implementing regulations.”

The contractor allegedly expanded outside the approved footprint of the Merced-to-Fresno Section for staging building materials and machinery. These project-related activities included:

  • “grading the first few inches of soil to level the surface”;
  • “installation of earthen berms for containment and stormwater pollution control”;
  • “installation of road base and other measures for dust control”;
  • “installation of a perimeter fence for security”;
  • “mobilization of equipment and materials.”

The CHSRA is working under a tight time frame to spend the $3.5 billion in federal money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and any delay would be unwelcome at this stage.

The CHSRA must turn in to federal authorities its bills for the project by March 2017, six months before the Sept. 2017 deadline to spend all the money. So the deadline now is just over two years away.

‘Better job’

CHSRA spokesperson Lisa Marie Alley told the Fresno Bee the kit fox issue was a minor problem. “I think this is an example,” she said, “in undertaking one of the largest infrastructure projects in decades in this country, to make sure that we’re streamlining and coordinating with all of our partners. We are looking for ways to do a better job in the future.”

And the Los Angeles Times reported that, despite the FWS letter, “the effect of the violations may be limited. The wildlife service said that the rail authority and its partners had initiated a formal consultation on the project, which was the ‘appropriate’ action, and that no fines were being considered.”

The kit fox habitat also could be moved to a different location by the CHSRA, “which wildlife service officials deemed adequate in an email exchange over the weekend.”

Rushed project

But opponents saw the FWS letter as a major problem for the project. Aaron Fukuda is a key litigant in a new lawsuit against the project and co-founder of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability.

“When you rush a project,” he said, “you don’t have your plans ready, you use shoddy engineering and you hire the least technically competent contractor you get these sorts of incidents, which I believe is simply the first of numerous to take place. The Authority will try and minimize the importance of this. However, it clearly highlights the rough road ahead.” 

Doug Carstens is an attorney suing the CHSRA for filing an insufficient environmental report for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the project. He said:

“In the Authority’s haste to begin construction, they and their contractors have violated the federal Endangered Species Act.  Without a permit, they destroyed nine acres of suitable habitat, including collapsing a potential San Joaquin kit fox den without a permit.  The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service should be commended for calling on them to comply with the ESA and reinitiate consultation.  But the Authority never should have let the damage happen.” 

Validation

Jason Holder is an attorney who represented litigants challenging the environmental reports for the Merced-to-Fresno section of the project. Now he represents Kern County in pending litigation on the Fresno-to-Bakersfield Section concerning the environmental reports. He said:

“The notification letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service validates what close observers of the HSR Project have been saying for several years now — that you cannot conduct legally sufficient environmental impact analysis based on only a ’15 percent’ level of design

“The Rail Authority’s ‘design-build’ approach, where the agency completes only a general level of design for purposes of environmental review and permitting and the contractor refines the design post-approval, is simply inadequate. 

“Commenters noted during the EIR/EIS [Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement] process for the Merced to Fresno Section that the vague level of project design precludes full assessment of its environmental impacts.  They pointed out that the design omitted critical details, including, among other things, the specific locations of construction staging areas.  Now, the ramifications of the inadequate level of design are beginning to come to light.  Here, because the Authority did not identify staging areas, the contractor selected the two sites with no agency guidance or oversight. The result: a major violation of the federal Endangered Species Act and the potential to further delay Project construction.”   

Holder concluded, “This is a case where the proverbial chicken, or here the endangered kit fox, has come home to roost.”

Penalties 

If the critics are right and the charges of environmental violations are severe, the penalties imposed on the project could be severe. The Endangered Species Handbook of the Animal Welfare Institute detailed:

“Stiff penalties may be imposed for violations of the Endangered Species Act.  Felonies may be punished with fines up to $50,000 and/or one year imprisonment for crimes involving endangered species, and $25,000 and/or six months imprisonment for crimes involving threatened species.  Misdemeanors or civil penalties are punishable by fines up to $25,000 for crimes involving endangered species and $1
2,000 for crimes involving threatened species.  A maximum of $1,000 can be assessed for unintentional violations.  Rewards of up to $2,500 are paid for information leading to convictions.”
 

However it turns out, the FWS letter is another twist in the long and winding road of attempting to start the controversial project.

Originally published on CalWatchdog.com

Gov. Brown, officials gather in Fresno to launch high-speed rail construction

As reported by the Fresno Bee:

With California Gov. Jerry Brown leading the way, a ceremony Tuesday in downtown Fresno marked the start of construction on the high-speed rail project, more than six years after voters approved a $9.9 billion bond act that will help fund the system.

Rather than donning hard hats and shovels, however, Brown and other dignitaries signed ceremonial pieces of steel rails to signal that the project is underway. The invitation-only ceremony took place at the future site of Fresno’s high-speed rail station on the northeast corner of Tulare and G streets, while a small but boisterous gathering of protesters punctuated the event with occasional shouts and chants.

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