Archive for June, 2012

Peace Camp 2012, and thoughts of Bolivia

June 28, 2012

In 2003, when the Bush administration began the drumbeat for war in Iraq, concerned residents of San Pedro, CA began to hold street corner vigils for peace. Their passion led them to create a nonprofit, San Pedro Neighbors for Peace and Justice, and one of their first projects was to help young people start peace clubs in local high schools as a response and act of resistance to the pervasive military recruiting on-campus.

Every summer, the adult Neighbors take more than a dozen kids for a weeklong camping trip in the Santa Monica mountains. I was so happy when Kirstin Summers got in touch a couple of weeks ago to invite me to camp. Yesterday was my third trip up to the Circle X Ranch to offer a political theatre workshop to the high school and college age participants–some theatre games and exercises, a bit of Theater of the Oppressed, and a chance for them to play around with ideas for Flash Theater skits they can use to take political theater all over town.

I loved the kids’ lively imaginations (and the extra boost to their performances from Kirstin and Neighbor Chris Venn) and it’s always fascinating to find out what issues concern the young people most. This year, they raised LGBT rights–which I might have predicted, based on past workshops; and the evils of the tobacco industry, and whether Bible study clubs should be allowed in public schools–two subjects I had not expected.

During lunch, people wanted to hear about Bolivia and the political situation there. So I babbled on a bit, but only today heard from a friend there. I had written asking about the police strike in Cochabamba and Oruro, two places I had visited in February, as it’s so hard to get reliable info here. From what my friend said, the police are quite justified in asking for a raise as they are paid so little, they can’t support their families (and, I would add, when you don’t pay your cops, you’re just asking for corruption, esp in a country where coca is grown but has tried to avoid being part of the trafficking economy). The difficulty is that any action, any criticism of the Evo Morales government ends up being used by the rightwing that has tried to undermine him and destroy the socialist government ever since he was elected. While I was there, it was clear that many people in the traditional wealthy white elite can’t accept Morales or the new constitution that guarantees equal rights regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, or disability. With President Fernando Lugo just deposed in a bloodless coup in Paraguay, my friend is very nervous about social unrest giving ammunition to the right in Bolivia.

My thoughts are with Bolivia tonight. Paraguay, too, of course, but in Bolivia with much loved friends.

Culver City to the Inglewood Oil Field: Frack You!

June 15, 2012

Just up in LA Progressive:

by Diane Lefer

Since I don’t ordinarily attend Chamber of Commerce meetings or Tea Party gatherings, I’m not used to hearing hundreds of people object to new regulations for industry, but when the California Department of Conservation sent representatives from the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to Culver City on June 12 for a workshop seeking input on how to regulate fracking, the community response was close to unanimous: Don’t regulate!

What the standing-room-only and overflow crowd of several hundred people wanted instead was a total ban.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, makes it possible to exploit oil and gas resources that were formerly too difficult or expensive to reach — factors which, until recently, left California’s oil fields in a state of decline. Today, horizontal drilling techniques make it possible to access distant sources. Then, the high-pressure injection of water mixed with chemicals forces the oil or gas up to where it can be pumped or skimmed off the surface, but the process is controversial enough that it has been entirely banned by the State of Vermont and the whole country of France.

Fracking is already taking place in California though the locations, extent and frequency are unknown.

Culver City mayor Andy Weissman called for a moratorium until DOGGR could assure the community that fracking poses no threat to air quality, water quality, ground movement, or public health. Culver City would act alone, he said, but the municipality had been told only DOGGR had the authority. Besides, the problem is multi-jurisdictional and regional. Culver City is concerned about accidents and negative impacts from the 1,000-acre Inglewood Oil Field, Weissman explained, but has no say over what happens in the 90% of the field lying in unincorporated LA County.


Residents of Culver City, Baldwin Hills, and adjacent areas already know what it’s like to cope with polluted air and noxious odors, sinkholes, cracks in their houses, contamination with toxic sludge (like that which closed the popular Boneyard Dog Park for months), and memories of disasters including the breached Baldwin Hills dam that flooded the area killing five and destroying 277 homes, said Gary Gless of Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community. In recent years, after PXP (Plains Exploration and Production Company) acquired the field and ramped up production, he said, the area has seen increased rates of cancer and lung disease. Not to mention anxiety over drilling around the Newport-Inglewood fault.

Risks and impact reported elsewhere in the country include seismic activity in Ohio and water contaminated with toxins in Wyoming. The oil and gas industry says there is no evidence for any of this or, as a supporter said on Tuesday, opponents to fracking were influenced by “political science rather than real science.”

Forbes was happy to report that the EPA determined fracking was not the cause of Ohio’s tremors but also reported that the seismic activity was attributed to injection of wastewater into deep disposal wells. (Much of the recent increase in volume of such waste came from drilling and fracking.) And where is the “real science” to come from? For example, in Pennsylvania — the state most affected so far by fracking, physicians treating patients for toxic exposure have had to sign confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements before gas and oil companies would reveal the chemicals added to water in the process. This information cannot be communicated to patients or public health agencies, making it impossible to conduct epidemiological studies. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act of 2005 created the so-called Halliburton loophole, exempting chemicals and other fluids injected during the fracking process from provisions meant to protect the public.

Industry representatives spoke up to remind everyone of the importance of the oil industry and energy security while local residents argued that any dependence on fossil fuels leaves us insecure and headed for climate change disaster.

Uncertainty should mandate caution. “The harm can be incalculable,” Weissman said. “There are no do-overs.”

When Jim Waterhouse of Citizens Climate Lobby asked, “How many people feel regulation can work?”, only one hand went up though there were several industry representatives in attendance — either shy, discreet, or, as Nick Ortiz of the Western States Petroleum Association later told us, they believe existing regulations are already “robust.”

So “robust” that now, without new regulations, said Jason Marshall, DOGGR’s chief deputy director, the State can’t even require the industry to report where they are fracking and what chemicals they are using. All reporting is now voluntary.

Even if mandated, reports would be compiled by FracFocus, a clearinghouse that activists deride because many of the commissioners who oversee the program are industry executives or lobbyists.

Regulation, argued community members, would give fracking legitimacy or, as one resident put it, decide in how orderly a manner we can go about destroying the environment. And no matter how restrictive regulations might be, without the resources for inspection and enforcement and with minimal consequences for violations, regulations promise a degree of protection they cannot provide.

But a woman who leases her land to an oil company insisted the residents’ complaints were about drilling, not fracking.

Exactly. “How can we trust you on fracking,” Patricia McPherson, president of Grassroots Coalition, challenged DOGGR, “when we can’t get you to regulate regular oil fields?”

Other reasons for distrust: According to DOGGR, the process which has become so controversial on the East Coast is very different from what occurs or will occur in California. In the East, fracking is used to extract gas from shale. Here, we don’t have shale. (What about the Monterey shale that extends from the north right down through the LA basin and which is already being exploited?) In California, we were told, oil is extracted, not the riskier process for gas. (But Bloomberg recently reported that Jerry Brown is considering opening the state to fracking “to increase natural-gas production.”)

The simple diagrams and schematics DOGGR displayed reminded one speaker “of nothing more than Colin Powell in front of the United Nations,” while former mayor Steve Gourley was indignant that the DOGGR reps had not brought a map of Culver City showing the affected areas or apparently ever walked through the Inglewood Oil Field to see the contamination firsthand. Another former mayor, Gary Silbiger, called on the community to organize and plan a protest trip to Sacramento.

Some speakers were appreciative that DOGGR was listening — it seemed for the first time — to community members and not only to industry representatives and lobbyists. But why were only seven meetings planned? None for Carson, said Latrice Carter where the community has been frustrated over the environmental problems caused by Occidental Petroleum and wasn’t notified of the Culver City event. According to Yvonne Watson, PXP is drilling in the Montebello Hills and has a history of failing to maintain records of leaks. And why are the meetings only in English when so many oil operations are located in immigrant communities?

But perhaps of greatest concern: how much authority does DOGGR actually have? Officially, the division’s responsibility is for the permitting process for new wells, setting standards for well casings, and plugging abandoned wells that are idle and hazardous. Air
quality and water quality are issues for other State agencies.

“I leave these meetings with my head hurting because I feel like it’s all smoke and mirrors.” said Ronda Brown, at-large representative of Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Development Council. What she wanted to know was, does DOGGR actually have the authority not just to write regulations but to ban fracking altogether.

Marshall’s answer was a surprise: “Yes, we do have the authority to ban fracking.” But he added, “We start at the supposition that these practices can be regulated safely, but if we discover through this process that it can’t be, yes we can ban.”

Gathering evidence, then, is crucial. He thanked the registered nurse who provided medical journal articles about fracking and he urged people who know of other studies to send the information to him. He was realistic, however. There would also be input from industry and lobbyists and legislators. If DOGGR did decide to impose a ban, they would have to show evidence to the Office of Administrative Law and prove the ban was reasonable. If approved at that step, the proposed ban would be posted for more public comment. A final draft would also have to be approved. The earliest anything could be implemented would be at least a year from
now.

Our legislature also has the authority to ban fracking, unlikely as that seems, given California’s repeated failure to impose a levy on oil and gas extraction. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “31 states specifically levy taxes on the extraction of oil and gas….Between 10.5 percent and 74.3 percent of total state tax revenue came from severance taxes in at least six states—Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wyoming.”

Attempts to bring California in line have so far been blocked year after year either by the legislature or by governor’s veto. (Jerry Brown, while presiding over unprecedented cuts to education and having just rejected the legislature’s proposed budget, sending it
back for more drastic cuts to human services, says he opposes such a levy as the companies already pay corporate tax and their employees pay income tax.)

The Culver City meeting was scheduled to end at 9 PM but Marshall kept the mike open for an additional hour and a half so all who
wished to speak had two minutes to do so. He noted that the Culver City meeting was not the only one so far to draw an overflow, concerned, and passionate anti-fracking crowd.

If the seven DOGGR meetings–inadequate as they seem to some–help build a movement, the voices of so many citizens may help the legislature and governor find the political will to resist industry demands and impose a moratorium if not an outright ban.

DOGGR was in Long Beach on Wednesday. Still to come: Salinas (June 27), Santa Maria (July 11), and Sacramento (July 25). Whether or not you attend a meeting, Marshall says he will read recommendations and concerns in the body of an email or by attached Word document sent to comments@conservation.ca.gov.

What Ray Bradbury Taught Me about Censorship and Freedom

June 15, 2012

My guest blog for All Things Writing, thanks to Mary Ann Loesch. (also, the link is here.)

The master is gone. I’ve been thinking about Ray Bradbury all week and I’m sure you have been too. Is there a writer or a reader anywhere who does not respond to Fahrenheit 451?

In Bradbury’s novel, not only are books burned but newspapers disappear due to public indifference. People are instead entranced with their “parlor walls,” the flat screen TV’s that Bradbury imagined back in 1953 that can now represent the internet and Wii and all the virtual worlds that have usurped the role of books. But to me, the “walls” carried me back to the immigration detention center where I was a volunteer interpreter for people held for months, even years, awaiting their hearings. Books and magazines were prohibited while TV sets blared at full volume all day.

And I thought about a friend who was convicted at age 16 for a stupid youthful incident in which no human being or any living creature was injured in any way. After being sentenced 35-years-to-life, he spent a year in solitary, supposedly for his own protection–and inmates in solitary were not allowed to have books. A wonderful person on the outside Xeroxed entire novels and put three double-sided pages in the mail every day, in envelopes thin enough that they would not be confiscated. Reading novels in 6-page installments was what kept my friend sane.

I have other true stories like this and it has always been a struggle to get any of it into print. (Talk about censorship: the media is barred from California prisons and detention centers.)

But Ray Bradbury was able to offer a scathing critique of our society and see it not only published but a bestseller. David Ulin, Los Angeles Times book critic, suggested perhaps writing genre fiction–in Bradbury’s case, science fiction–gave an author more freedom.

Yes! I thought of my late friend, Ted Gottfried (aka Ted Mark), who wrote dirty books from the Sixties up until around (coincidence?) 1984. Ted believed teenage boys were gonna learn about sex from porn and he wanted them to learn healthy attitudes, especially respect for women. In the Man from O.R.G.Y. series, Steve Victor travels the world solving sexual problems, always taking the advice of his feminist girlfriend, Stephanie Greenwillow. Along the way, Ted’s books addressed every controversial issue of the day. As long as there was arousal material on every page, the publisher didn’t care if Ted expressed his opinions.

Ted’s porn career came to an end when smut went visual: dirty movies and then the internet. As Bradbury understood, you don’t have to burn books to make them disappear. I wish Ted could have still been writing books during the era of AIDS. He could have saved lives by making safe sex very sexy.

I think Ted would have enjoyed my new novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry described as “A sexy, funny, tender-hearted puzzler about a young woman sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” And I realized my NYC noir–my genre novel–says more about race and class and says it more overtly than anything else I’ve had published.

Is genre the only way to write uncensored fiction? Maybe it’s just that you can’t write a genre novel without telling a good story. And when you tell a good story you have freedom.

Today, Live in The Nervous Breakdown

June 6, 2012

Thank you, Gina Frangello and Leah Tallon for featuring me and an excerpt from Nobody Wakes Up Pretty. Here’s the link