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Mendocino County Today: May 25, 2013

IT TOOK US a while to figure out the specific nature of the scam at the North Coast Railroad Authority. There’s no way a railroad that runs almost no trains can be financially viable even if they rent their silent right of way to their own “operator,” Northwestern Pacific Inc. Which also doesn't run trains except for a token run once in a while with a little feed grain or the occasional miscellaneous freight between Windsor and San Rafael.

HERE'S THE SCAM: THE NCRA gets federal money for maintaining and even upgrading track for trains that will never run on those tracks. The NCRA is a pseudo-agency used by the NWP to launder the federal and state track maintenance money to NWP. NCRA tells people they’re going to run a freight service some day. SMART (Sonoma-Marin Area Rapid Transit) tells people they’re going to run a commuter rail line some day. They’re not, of course, because there’s nowhere near enough sustaining freight or ridership to do either. But that doesn’t matter because as long as NCRA maintains the fiction that trains will run some day, they can keep getting money from the feds and the state to repay the track maintenance loans they got from NWP — with substantial interest; the same money NWP loaned NCRA to give right back to NWP to do the “maintenance” which is paid back with interest when the state and federal reimbursement money comes in later. NCRA itself skims enough out of the federal and state track maintenance money via “rental” from the NWP which is nothing more than a share in the interest money that NCRA was charged by NWP.

IT’S JUST CONVOLUTED ENOUGH to keep most bureaucrats and the public in the dark about what’s really going on. And it all depends on the complete and utter fantasy that there will be an economically viable train service running some day. And that’s why the NCRA (and most of its captive “board of directors”) is so dead set against abandoning those fantasies — even though, as a practical matter, they know there will never be a viable train service on the abandoned line.

IT’S BRILLIANT, when you think about it. As long as the feds, the state and most of the public falls for this choo-choo sucker play, NCRA can keep chugging along indefinitely fixing and upgrading tracks for a mythical railroad. (— Mark Scaramella)

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SF MOMA STRIKES AGAIN. Crissy Field is the large expanse of field and grass on San Francisco Bay, a bracing vista of green, a cluster at its west end of stately old structures left over from the days the Presidio was a functioning Army base, the whole of it looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge. The black-clad pseuds at MOMA look at all this natural beauty and see major eyesore potential which, of course, they call art, and plunk down eight separately huge collections of randomly placed steel, one of the monstrosities phallically aimed at the Bridge. It's insulting, really, and shouldn't be permitted. But there they are, the worst public art in the city since the Vaillancourt Fountain at Justin Herman Plaza. The Vaillancourt is still there. These things at Crissy Field will foul the natural beauty of the area for two years.

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THUGS AND REEFER. Gil Kerlikowske has been Obama's “director of national drug control policy” since 2009. Kerlikowske, a former Seattle police chief, said Thursday that there's a strong correlation between drug use and crime. He said that his studies revealed that 54% of the people arrested for one thing or another tested positive for marijuana, with cocaine and crank running a strong second. Mr. K said that his office has concluded that federal drug policy should be assumed to be more of a public health problem and approached from that assumption rather than being addressed primarily as a criminal justice problem. He said “it means abandoning simplistic bumper sticker approaches, such as boiling the issue down to a ‘war on drugs’ or outright legalization.”

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LATE LAST MONTH The Mendo Board of Supervisors discussed possible capital expenditures in the near future which had been put off for several years due to budget restrictions. Among the items in the pipeline is an upgrade of the county’s antiquated assessor’s parcel tracking system on which all the property taxes and associated assessments are maintained. Mendocino County has about 56,000 parcels (not all of them developed, of course) with a total assessed value of about $9 billion (for an average assessed value of about $170k). According to Assessor-Recorder Susan Ranochak, the computer and software maintaining the parcel database were originally obtained from Sutter County in the 1960s. It was updated to some extent in the 1970s and again in the 1980s. It went “live” in 1996 (apparently meaning that staffers and the public could access the data with computer terminals at the Assessor’s office which Mendo got for free from another county who abandoned them when the other county upgraded more than 15 years ago). “It’s an obsolete system,” said Ranochak, stating the obvious albeit belatedly. “If it fails, I don’t know what would happen. We no longer have staff to maintain the software. Younger [computer] staff members know nothing about it and have to spend time learning an obsolete system. Until now our Information Technology people did a great job keeping it up, but the only person familiar with the system retired last year. In addition, too much information is in people’s heads, not in the computer system. It would take a year or two before any new property tax system could be implemented. We need to start the RFP (Request for Proposals) process to see what’s out there.” Supervisor Pinches suggested that some of the recently improved Teeter Plan proceeds be spent on the computer upgrade, but his fellow Board members were reluctant to slow down the Teeter Debt payback plan which has been relatively successful so far. Auditor Meredith Ford added, “We have one person in our office with lots of parcel spreadsheets. It’s hard to keep up on parcels and all the associated activity. A supplemental run we had to produce recently blew up in middle and we had to finish the run with manual attention.” Supervisor John McCowen, who has been pushing the County to “deTeeter” some of the unsalable tax defaulted parcels in Brooktrails to save the County some money, added, “We only heard about this when we dug into Teeter. Now we hear about it. It sounds like there was a significant disconnect. Where was it? I don't know. It’s a big disappointment to be at this point [with very little choice and not much time]. We can't afford to continue to use the obsolete system, and all the extra staff time. It puts a stress on several offices, and we have to do it with reduced staff at the same time. We can't afford to put it off any longer. The timing of the replacement depends on financing. Plus it will take more staff time to develop and implement a new system.” McCowen noted that a new system should be similar to systems in use in other counties in the state, but Ranochak pointed out that there would still be “lots of RFP work to do; then staff would have to decide how to tailor it for Mendocino County. That could take months. Then we’d have to go through demos and testing.” Supervisor Carre Brown reminded staff that the County should make sure they don’t get into the kinds of trouble Marin County had with their huge accounting system upgrade fiasco.

SUPERVISOR BROWN IS RIGHT to be concerned. According to a January 2013 Marin Independent Journal story: “High-tech experts who had been following the County of Marin's legal battle over a $30 million computer problem were left wondering what happened after county officials — who spent $5 million in legal fees — announced a $3.9 million settlement last week with no public explanation. Dropped in the deal crafted behind closed doors were all claims against Deloitte Consulting LLP, software giant SAP and former county Auditor Ernest Culver, who managed the computer project for the county before quitting to join SAP in 2007. The county board, claiming fraud, racketeering, bribery and other wrongdoing, filed two high-profile lawsuits in 2010, saying the county was ripped off when a sophisticated fiscal accounting system failed to work right. Officials later decided to scrap the inefficient system that a grand jury calculated had cost taxpayers $28.6 million by 2009. It remains ‘stable’ and in use while officials determine what system to buy next. Although officials contended for more than a year that their case was strong despite setbacks in court, the county bailed out last week and officials declined comment, with elected leaders citing a settlement gag order.”

MS. RANOCHAK suggested that the County begin to prepare an RFP which can be done without specifically committing capital equipment funds. That funding decision can wait until August when next year’s budget is finalized.

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SFI CE 2011PLEASE TUNE IN TO KMUD on Thursday, May 30th at 7 p.m. for the Sanctuary Forest quarterly radio hour. Lands Program Director Noah Levy and board member Galen Doherty will be discussing Sanctuary Forest’s Conservation Easement program, with a focus on working forest conservation easements as a tool for keeping local forestlands in long-term sustainable production. We’ll discuss what conservation easements are, and will hear from owners of easement-protected properties about how they used this tool to secure their own stewardship vision for their property. Finally, we’ll discuss the Lost Coast Redwood and Salmon Initiative, our current project to place nearly 5000 acres of forestland—including the lands formerly known as Buddhaville—under a new working forest conservation easement. Please join us for an exciting and important conversation about land management, conservation and restoration, and protecting properties in perpetuity. (Sanctuary Forest is a land trust whose mission is to conserve the Mattole River watershed and surrounding areas for wildlife habitat and aesthetic, spiritual and intrinsic values, in cooperation with our diverse community.)

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THREE FRACKING MORATORIUM BILLS pass Resources Committee, then referred to Appropriations suspense file

by Dan Bacher

Despite intense political pressure by the oil industry, the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on April 29 approved three bills proposing to halt fracking (hydraulic fracturing), a controversial method of oil and natural gas extraction, in California.

Fracking opponents fear that increased water diversions destined for the peripheral tunnels proposed under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) will be used for expanding fracking in Monterey Shale deposits in the San Joaquin Valley and coastal areas. The construction of the tunnels is expected to hasten the extinction of Central Valley Chinook salmon, Delta smelt and other fish species.

The three bills were referred to the Appropriations Committee suspense file on May 15. (http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml)

"We are extremely optimistic that these bills will keep moving forward,” said Kassie Seigel of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They can do so as one year or as two year bills. We're doing everything we can to push them forward and we'll know more on the status of the legislation at the end of this month.”

Richard Bloom’s A.B. 1301, Holly Mitchell’s A.B. 1323 and Adrin Nazarian’s A.B. 649 would place a moratorium on fracking while threats posed by the controversial practice to California’s environment and public health are studied, according to a news release from Food and Water Watch.

The Appropriations Committee is deciding on these three bills and four other fracking-related bills by Friday, May 24. You can contact your legislator by going to: http://org.salsalabs.com/o/2155/p/dia/action3/common/public/index.sjs?action_KEY=13490

A.B. 1301, A.B. 1323 and A.B. 649 are strongly opposed by the Western States Petroleum Association, headed by their President Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the former Chair of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create so-called “marine protected areas” on the South Coast.

In an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 12, Reheis-Boyd disputed claims by environmental and consumer groups that fracking in California is “destructive and unregulated.”

“In truth, hydraulic fracturing has been used in California for 60-plus years, is not destructive and has never been linked to any environmental harm here. The process is and has been closely regulated. California's well construction and testing regulations that protect our groundwater are the strictest in the nation,” she wrote. (http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/article/Fracking-has-viable-future-in-California-4506267.php)

Groups cite lack of regulations and monitoring

A.B. 1301 author Assemblyman Richard Bloom and fracking opponents strongly dispute Reheis-Boyd’s claims that fracking is environmentally sustainable and is already adequately regulated.

"Fracking operations have skyrocketed throughout the country and in California as new technologies have enabled the extraction of oil and natural gas deposits from previously unreachable geological formations,” said Bloom. “However, fracking uses and produces highly toxic chemicals that can pose serious threats to public health and the environment.” (http://asmdc.org/members/a50/news-room/e-newsletters/legislative-update)

"The threat is significant enough that 14 states have now enacted legislation restricting or banning the practice until safeguards are in place. Currently, California does not regulate or monitor fracking despite holding the largest oil reserve in the continental United States, the Monterey Shale,” he explained.

Food & Water Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity and Clean Water Action are sponsors of A.B. 1301. The California Nurses Association, Breast Cancer Action, Family Farm Defenders and more than 100 other health, labor, environmental and social justice organizations support the bill.

Oil and gas wells have been fracked in at least nine California counties without fracking-specific regulation or even monitoring by state oil and gas officials, according to Food and Water Watch. Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, employs huge volumes of water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals — including known carcinogens — to blast open rock formations and release previously inaccessible fossil fuels.

"From the food that California farmers grow today to the long-term future of our state’s water resources and air, California’s economy and vital resources hang in the balance if we allow fracking to continue in California,” said Kristin Lynch, Pacific region director for Food & Water Watch

“These bills will protect the air we breathe and the water we drink from cancer-causing chemicals and other fracking pollutants,” said Kassie Siegel. “That’s why a fracking moratorium is supported by nurses, farmers and so many others concerned about our state’s health and environment.”

Fracking linked to pollution

Siegel said fracking is linked to air and water pollution and releases large amounts of methane, a dangerously potent greenhouse gas. About 25 percent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer, according to scientists with the Endocrine Disruption Exchange.

Andrew Grinberg of Clean Water Action also applauded the Assembly Natural Resources Committee vote.

“This vote is an important step in the effort to protect California from the dangers of fracking,” said Grinberg. “This committee gets it that the state needs to slow down and assess the many threats to our air, water, climate and communities of extreme oil extraction.”

Grinberg said fracking pollutes the air by releasing dangerous petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene, toluene and xylene. It can also increase levels of ground-level ozone, a key risk factor for asthma and other respiratory illness.

According to a Colorado School of Public Health study, air pollution caused by fracking contributes to the risk of asthma, cancer, and other health problems in people living near fracked wells, A.B. 649, A.B. 1301 and A.B. 1323 will next go to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Fracking uses large volumes of water

The huge volume of water used and contaminated by fracking is a critical issue for California, especially when Governor Jerry Brown is rushing the construction of the peripheral tunnels to export water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to corporate agribusiness and oil companies.

Lynch cited a new report from the Western Organization of Resource Councils that estimates that fracking consumes about 7 billion gallons of water in four western states where fracking has become widespread.

The report, titled “Gone for Good,” warns that water consumption by the oil and gas industry “simply cannot be sustained.”

The current amount of water used for fracking in California is not currently known. In a post on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) website on March 210, Richard Stapler, Deputy Secretary for Communications of the California Natural Resources Agency, claimed that only 8 acre feet of water is used every year for hydraulic fracturing in California, in an apparent attempt to minimize the amount of water employed for fracking. (http://baydeltaconservationplan.com/blog/blog/13-03-20/Oil_Water.aspx_)

Yet in a footnote at the bottom, Stapler states, “For reference, you could multiply the average of 87,375 gallons with every injection well in the state (about 25,000) and still come up with a relatively small amount of water -- 6,721 acre feet, or water for about 27,000 average families for a year.”

Stapler never responded to my email inquiry over the enormous discrepancy in the water he claims is used for fracking per year– 8 acre feet of water in one section of his article and 6,721 acre feet in another.

One thing is for certain - oil companies use big quantities in their current oil drilling operations in Kern County, although the amount specifically used in fracking operations is hard to pinpoint. Much of this water this comes through the State Water Project's California Aqueduct and the Central Valley Water Project's Delta-Mendota Canal, spurring increasing conflicts between local farmers and oil companies over available water. (http://yubanet.com/california/Dan-Bacher-Water-for-fracking-8-acre-feet-6-721-acre-feet-or-much-much-more.php)

"In the time since steamflooding was pioneered here in the fields of Kern County in the 1960s, oil companies statewide have pumped roughly 2.8 trillion gallons of fresh water—or, in the parlance of agriculture, nearly 9 million acre-feet—underground in pursuit of the region's tarry oil,” according to Jeremy Miller's 2011 investigative piece, “The Colonization of Kern County,” in Orion Magazine. “Essentially, enough water has been injected into the oil fields here over the last forty years to create a lake one foot deep covering more than thirteen thousand square miles—nearly twice the surface area of Lake Ontario.” (http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6047)

Background: the increasing power of big oil in California

The drive by the oil and natural gas industry to frack California is highlighted by recent disturbing developments that reveal the enormous power of Big Oil in the state.

In yet one more example of the revolving door between government and huge corporations that defines politics in California now, State Senator Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield) on February 22 suddenly announced his resignation from office in order to take a “government affairs” position at Chevron.

Rubio went to work for Chevron just two months after alleged “marine protected areas,” overseen by the President of the Western States Petroleum Association, a coastal real estate developer, a marina corporation executive and other corporate interests, went into effect on California’s North Coast.

These “marine protected areas,” created under the privately funded Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative, fail to protect the ocean from fracking, oil drilling, pollution, wind and wave energy projects, military testing and all human impacts other than fishing and gathering.

In a big scandal largely ignored by the mainstream media, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association, not only chaired the Marine Life Protection Act Blue Ribbon Task Force to create so-called “marine protected areas” on the South Coast, but also served on the task forces to create “marine reserves” on the North Coast, North Central Coast and South Coast.

“It’s clear that government and petroleum officials want to ‘frack’ in the very same areas Reheis-Boyd was appointed to oversee as a ‘guardian’ of marine habitat protection for the MLPA ‘Initiative,’” said David Gurney, independent journalist and co-chair of the Ocean Protection Coalition, in his report on the opening of new lease-sales for fracking. (http://noyonews.net/?p=8215)

“What’s becoming obvious is that Reheis-Boyd’s expedient presence on the ‘Blue Ribbon Task Force’ for the MLPAI was a ploy for the oil industry to make sure no restrictions applied against drilling or fracking in or around so-called marine protected areas,” Gurney emphasized.

The current push by the oil industry to expand fracking in California, build the Keystone XL Pipeline and eviscerate environmental laws was facilitated by state officials and MLPA Initiative advocates, who greenwashed the key role Reheis-Boyd and the oil industry played in creating marine protected areas that don’t protect the ocean.

Reheis-Boyd apparently used her role as a state marine “protection” official to increase her network of influence in California politics to the point where the Western States Petroleum Association has become the most powerful corporate lobby in California. (http://www.californiaprogressreport.com/site/lawsuit-filed-against-fracking-oil-lobbyist-says-its-safe)

Oil and gas companies spend more than $100 million a year to buy access to lawmakers in Washington and Sacramento, according to Stop Fooling California (http://www.stopfoolingca.org), an online and social media public education and awareness campaign that highlights oil companies’ efforts to mislead and confuse Californians. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) alone has spent more than $16 million lobbying in Sacramento since 2009.

As the oil industry expands its role in California politics and environmental processes, you can bet that they are going to use every avenue they can to get more water for fracking, including taking Delta water through the twin tunnels proposed under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

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