Analysis: Recent California newspaper editorials


June 17

The Redding Record Searchlight: Railroads should beef up safety on crude oil runs

Firefighters and other emergency responders from six North State counties gathered Wednesday at one of the Union Pacific Railroad's most treacherous curves, the infamous Cantara Loop in Siskiyou County.

At the site where in 1991 a derailed tanker spewed 20,000 gallons of a toxic herbicide into the Sacramento River — the worst inland waters environmental disaster in California history — the loop is typecast for exercise.

The emergency crews will be simulating another derailment — only in this scenario the leaking tankers will be carrying crude oil, the current big headache in the transportation industry.

The exercise is coming none too soon. Vast quantities of crude oil, by some accounts up to a million barrels a day, are being pumped from the Bakken Shale oil fields in North Dakota and are being shipped by rail to refineries across North America. In 2012 only about a million barrels of crude oil entered California by rail, but last year the rail shipments increased to 3.6 million barrels. State officials estimate that in two years the shipments will increase to 150 million barrels. One barrel contains 42 gallons of crude.

There are no pipelines from the Bakken fields. The only way to get that crude to refineries in Richmond and Benicia and Southern California is by rail. One of the major routes is the Union Pacific line from the north through Siskiyou County, Redding and the Sacramento River Canyon to the Bay Area refineries.

It would be one thing if we could believe the crude could be shipped safely. But derailments are all too common and hauling tankers crammed with crude is something akin to transporting time bombs through the heart of Redding and dozens of other communities up and down the state. More crude oil was spilled in railroad accidents last year than over a span of four decades, according to a report issued last week.

You can't blame folks for worrying about those shipments. We know what it's like to go through a major derailment and hazmat spill. We also know there was another derailment in the Cantara Loop last year and in January four boxcars derailed north of Redding near Pollard Flat.

Those were lucky incidents with no toxic spills, but sooner or later there's bound to be something worse — like the inferno that killed 47 people in southern Quebec last year when tank cars carrying Bakken crude exploded.

Experts say crude oil has never been a major concern until recent years. They believe part of the problem may be aging, thin-skinned tanker cars being used to help with the big increase in shipments, subpar tracks and other equipment. Recently the U.S. Department of Transportation warned that Bakken crude may be "more flammable than traditional heavy crude."

Whatever is responsible for the explosions, officials on many levels are scurrying to keep up and prepare for the vast increase in oil shipments. There's legislation in Sacramento that could impose some new rules, like requiring the railroads to notify states of what hazardous materials they're shipping and when.

The railroads retort that they're beholden to federal laws, not state legislation. We don't care whose laws they're required to follow. Someone should require the railroads to report their cargo and schedules to the state and cities through which they pass. Federal inspections of tracks, bridges and tankers should be increased.

The state budget approved by lawmakers Sunday night includes a 6.5-cent per barrel fee on crude oil delivered by rail. The fee, suggested by Gov. Jerry Brown, will be used for hazardous material spill training and cleanup. That's a positive step.

There are other signs that the railroads, though they tout their safety records, realize more spills or explosions are almost inevitable.

They're paying for three-day training sessions in Colorado for firefighters to help them prepare for crude oil fires and tank ruptures. Redding's Fire Department will send six employees to a July class and at least one more to a session in November.

Those training sessions are a good sign. But the railroads should invest rail and other improvements and new tankers to avoid ever having to put that training into play.


June 18

Placerville Mountain Democrat: Bass Lake transfer

By Mountain Democrat

On June 9 the El Dorado Irrigation District finally concluded a sales agreement with the Rescue Union School District for 58 acres adjacent to Bass Lake. The school district also gets the lake.

For the record, EID discontinued using the lake in 2009 and in October 2011 declared it surplus property.

EID had most recently used Bass Lake to store imported water to supplement the recycled water system in the summer when actual recycled water runs short. But, "Due to complaints of clogging and concrete staining from recycled water end users, the district discontinued this use in about 2009."

Bass Lake originally was the terminus for the Eureka Ditch system and it was expanded during the 1975-77 drought. There is even a water treatment plant long since abandoned and no longer meeting state standards. EID transferred about 6,000 acre-feet of pre-1914 water rights via Weber Creek to Folsom Lake, where it is pumped up to El Dorado Hills along with additional contract water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. So EID has left Bass Lake to fill and fluctuate in accordance with the laws of nature since 2009.

How did EID come to sell 58 acres plus the lake to Rescue Union School District instead of a subdivision developer?

No. 1, it's the law. The Government Code requires "the district to first offer to sell or lease most properties to certain government agencies for certain purposes," according to the staff report prepared by EID General Counsel Tom Cumpston.

No. 2, "the El Dorado Hills Specific Plan limits the property to recreational or open-space use," Cumpston wrote.

So, that's how Rescue Union School District is buying land for a future school site and a lake for nature studies and perhaps even sailing and canoeing classes.

Did EID get its money's worth out of the deal? It appears it did. The district hired an appraiser who considered six recent comparable sales of vacant lands between four and 23 miles distant from the Bass Lake property. By excluding the lake, PCS Appraisal Service valued the property at $260,000. EID sold it for $300,000. That is $40,000 above the appraisal and leaves the school district with the lease of a Little League Field.

EID Director Greg Prada voted against the sale, indicating he would have preferred the district had tried for a higher price. It's a legitimate point. Nevertheless, there are three negatives against the property: the law requiring the district sell to a public agency; the land already included a Little League field lease; the El Dorado Hills Specific Plan prevents any residential or commercial development.

Finally, the wider benefit to the whole community is to have a school site in hand without having to pay for land already designated for residential subdivision.

Bass Lake is 70 acres when full. Altogether EID owns 151.7 acres. EID will retain 25 acres that is used as a corporation yard. Rescue Union School District gets about 58 acres adjacent to county-owned land. Rescue also gets the lake, the dam and 60 acre-feet of pre-1914 water rights. The 4-1 board vote sets in motion a 120-day due diligence period for Rescue. Deadline for closing is Jan. 30, 2015. Rescue pays for title insurance, recording fees, survey costs and one-half of the escrow fees. EID will handle transfer taxes, though the property should be exempt from that, according to Cumpston.

Rescue and Buckeye school districts are the only ones that are expected to grow, since they both split El Dorado Hills between each other. EID got a reasonable price for the property and the lake and enabled a higher and better use of surplus property. We commend the board and staff for completing a mutually beneficial deal.


June 14

Napa Valley Register: Development at Justin-Siena

Mark us as skeptical on Justin-Siena High School's plan to develop six spare acres along Solano Avenue to bolster its scholarship fund.

There is no question that Justin-Siena is an asset to Napa, and it is clear that the school faces unusual fundraising challenges in its effort to be sustainable. Unlike older and well-established private schools and colleges, it has a relatively young alumni base — dating back only into the 1960s. And despite the popular perception that the school caters to a wealthy clientele, a full third of the school's students are on some form of tuition assistance.

But even after a detailed meeting with school officials, we wonder if the best way to solidify the school's financial position is to build a 78,000-square-foot shopping center near one of the city's most frustrating intersections, the complicated series of lights at Highway 29, Solano and Trower avenues.

The school will certainly have a high bar to prove that this development makes as much sense for the city and the surrounding neighborhood as they claim it does for the school.

Traffic will be the key question. At the best of times, the stoplights are slow and awkwardly located, making it a long wait to get across the freeway. At the worst of times, the intersection is a lengthy snarl in all directions that is best avoided. The school and the consultants preparing the environmental impact report on the development will need to take a hard look at the consequences of adding a shopping center a few hundred yards north of this intersection.

But there are other troubling issues, not least of which is the fact that this would be the first major strip mall to face onto Highway 29 in the city. Unlike in neighboring American Canyon, the commercial development along the highway in Napa is small or oriented away from the highway. Often it is screened by trees and landscaping. While the parking lot will not feed directly onto the highway, the new shopping center will face onto the highway just at the point that the scenery begins to open up to the signature vineyard and mountain vistas of Napa Valley.

Perhaps it is true that the school needs to develop some land to secure its future, but the city and neighbors are right to ask tough questions. Is this the only option? Is this even the best option? Could the same end be achieved with a less traffic-intensive use, such as a residential development or even dorm space for the school's foray into boarding students, many of whom are foreigners paying a premium, a potentially lucrative way to boost the school's bottom line?

We urge the school, as well, to be mindful of the neighbors and take seriously the organized opposition to the development. Whether or not they represent a majority of neighbors, these opponents raise legitimate concerns and will have to live with the consequences of Justin-Siena's decisions. School administrators admit that they have been reluctant to have public meetings, saying it is so early in the process that they don't have many answers to give to neighbors. We suggest that the school look at it a different way, and hold meetings with the public now to better understand the concerns and desires of their neighbors.

And for the city, we urge that planners and elected officials give serious consideration to the cumulative effects of development. No one shopping center, housing complex, or school is likely to ruin the quality of life in a neighborhood, but the slow accumulation of small problems can lead to a big problem later, as anyone who drives through the Highway 29 intersection regularly today can already testify.


June 10

The Bakersfield Californian: Ask a Texan: Maybe Perry's way has merit

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a California fixation, but at least he's willing to admit it. As governor of Texas, he's looking to lure away as many California businesses as possible, and he's doing it at a rate that should alarm every politician in the Golden State. Having Toyota relocate its U.S. headquarters from Torrance to Plano is his biggest coup thus far, and Perry has made a run at several others, including some in Kern County's burgeoning space industries.

Then there's the rhetoric: California is over-taxed, over-regulated, over-governed and decidedly bad for business, he says. So, when Perry comes to California he knows that he's going to be portrayed as a pirate — looting and pillaging as many of California's most successful businesses as he can manage.

While Perry is content to lure businesses away with tax incentives, affordable housing and a distribution-friendly, mid-continent location, he's not the California hater that many believe him to be. In fact, he's the first to admit that he loves the state for its beauty, its innovation and the wine.

So, how does Perry remedy this perception that he's only here to take? He spins it like this: Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Legislature should be grateful for the wakeup call. Perry suggests it's time to acknowledge that California can't continue placing onerous regulatory burdens on businesses.

Whether you agree with his practices or not, Perry makes some good points. He is certainly right about the virtues of competition. Texas swagger is all about positioning the state as a global leader in energy, technology, education and agriculture. Perry will even tell you that the state is rivaling New York when it comes to arts. Doubt that could be true? Listen to the Texas governor run down the list of museums and performing arts centers that the Lone Star State has opened in the past decade.

Heady words.

Of course, Perry doesn't share these words of advice purely out of the goodness of his heart. He makes it clear that his list of retirement options — he concludes his third and final term as governor in seven months — includes the possibility of another run for president in 2016. Clearly, no candidate can ignore California — the country's richest electoral prize — not even the governor of the country's second-richest electoral prize. Maybe that's why, during a visit to The Californian's editorial offices on June 10, he made many conciliatory comments about this state.

During his meeting here, Perry showed two sides of himself: job thief and California booster. It may be hard for many of us to reconcile these images, but this is indisputable. The advice of a savvy outsider is not to be dismissed.

Rick Perry, a rural Texan to the core, is the ultimate California outsider, to be sure. And though his pillaging nature and whimsical gamesmanship might irk some — and it should — his challenge to this state's way of conducting business is worthy of study and reflection.

We Californians do a lot of things well. We are innovators, engineers and opinion leaders. We have produced more than a few leaders of distinction. And in many ways, the maxim that as California goes, so goes the nation, still resonates.

But in California's quest to keep business happily ensconced in this state, a Texan may have some useful perspective.


June 15

Imperial Valley Press: Water report might be drawing eyes our way

An aggressive water management and conservation report by academics and environmental think tanks claims that 14 million acre-feet of water can be recycled, reclaimed or conserved a year, a figure that is more than double the water deficit California finds itself in at the moment, if large-scale efficiency projects are put in place across all sectors.

It's a bold report, that leaves no area of the water-using public — and private users — unaffected by potential conservation measures in its best-case scenario, paying particular attention to farming, which the report states takes up 80 percent of the water used in the state.

What the report fails to acknowledge, though, is yes, with unprecedented levels of efficiency in place in an ideal situation, the water would be made available. But to whom and how? Would there not have to be a sharing mechanism in place for the Utopian plan to work and get California out of its historic drought?

And what does that plan look like to us?

Imperial County has the largest draw on the Colorado River, through historical precedent and because of a robust and vital agriculture industry. Yet any water to be reclaimed in a perfect equation would be reclaimed for our usage, at least that usage over and above what is stipulated in the Quantification Settlement Agreement and water transfer with San Diego and coastal communities.

We believe the report foresees a slice of the world in which there are no tense relations between water agencies, where outside interests aren't watching closely the use of water by Imperial County farmers and resenting quietly how the Valley can be operating in a business-as-usual environment while the rest of the state takes dry and pained breaths.

It's realistic to think water agencies up and down the state, federal resource monitors and even interconnected basin states read this report and had a moment where they thought of Imperial County and its large water allotment, and either sighed or sneered.

But it's inevitable that we get a double-take today, as farmers in the Central Valley can do nothing, their fields fallow by emergency not by choice, their animals dying and suffering and their bank accounts showing the effects. It's inevitable that we get sideways glances and the chatter starts to rise again as a state rebounding from financial ruin also looks to jump start development, construction, industry, all of which needs water.

Still, we don't do ourselves any favors when efficiency programs take so long to get rolling, when farmers and the Imperial Irrigation District can't always get on the same page in beginning on-farm and system-wide conservation plans that should have been up and running years ago.

Some of these things are related, and some are not. But when the reports come hot and heavy, like they are in a time of 100-year drought conditions, it's good to be aware who is watching, why and what we can do to divert their gazes.

THE ISSUE: Report eyes ways to end drought in California

WE SAY: The report fails to come up with how to distribute conserved water.


Jun. 18

Los Angeles Times: Some sanity on California's death row

The decision by California prison officials to create a 40-unit psychiatric hospital for death row inmates at San Quentin is as welcome as it is ironic.

Why is it welcome? According to a federal court-appointed mental health monitor, 37 of more than 720 condemned men on San Quentin's death row are so mentally ill that they require 24-hour inpatient care.

Everyone should agree that the state has a moral responsibility to treat the human beings in its care — even murderers — humanely.

That includes inmates such as Justin Helzer, who thought his brother was God and helped him kill five people. In prison, Helzer, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic and delusional, jabbed pens through the sockets of his own eyes and deep into his brain. He survived that 2010 suicide attempt, but after being returned to his cell and promising to take his drugs and attend therapy, he kept trying to kill himself. His fourth try worked; he hanged himself last year with a bed sheet.

Death row has no facility for treating such prisoners; the condemned men at San Quentin currently receive minimal and wholly inadequate treatment. While it is understandable that many Californians feel little or no sympathy for people like Helzer who have committed heinous crimes, everyone should agree that the state has a moral responsibility to treat the human beings in its care — even murderers — humanely. That applies not only to their physical health but to their mental health as well. Locking the mentally ill into cells without treatment is medieval.

Yet the ironies are also obvious in seeking to restore mentally ill death row prisoners to a minimal level of sanity in order to kill them. It may be legally necessary, because federal courts have ruled it unconstitutional to execute people who are unaware of what is happening to them, but it is a strange idea. As one death penalty expert observed, "It is a measure of American greatness and American silliness at the same time." Besides, how sane can a man be when he is always expecting to be executed (although the sentence may not actually be carried out for 20 or 25 years, if ever)? Whose psyche wouldn't suffer in such a house of horrors?

And so the absurdities roll on. California executions have been on hold since 2006 because the state has been unable to come up with a constitutional way to kill people. Those who would be best at it — doctors and nurses — usually refuse to take part in the system for moral reasons, and pharmaceutical companies often won't provide the killing drugs.

The death penalty is bad public policy and should be abolished. It is inconsistently applied, subject to manipulation and error, and morally wrong. For the state to kill a person as punishment for killing someone else is a macabre inversion of "do as I say, not as I do." Capital punishment is also terribly expensive, and even its deterrent effects have been widely questioned.

But as long as we're stuck with this insane practice, we must treat the condemned humanely and with basic dignity. To do so is to meet our fundamental responsibility as a civilized society.

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