Environment Report: City's Big Lead Revelation Doesn't Seem to Be Impacting Schools - Voice of San Diego

Science/Environment UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Environment Report: City's Big Lead Revelation Doesn't Seem to Be Impacting Schools

The state’s outgoing fire chief urges officials to stop building in fire-prone areas, government-run energy agencies are subsidizing rates to stay competitive and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

Classrooms at Perkins Elementary School come equipped with water fountains for students. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When schools officials began to find lead in drinking water at several San Diego schools in 2016, parents from across the region scrambled to understand the danger posed to their children by the toxic metal.

At the time, we thought the lead was coming from inside schools because the city of San Diego sounded certain that its pipes were no longer made of lead. But it turns out, as we reported last week along with NBC San Diego, the city does not know what 192,000 of its water pipes are made of. Nor does it know what 16,000 pipe fittings are made of.

This means some pipes could be made of lead.

San Diego Unified, which has been doing more and more testing of school water quality, keeps finding trace amounts of lead in some water. Last week, for instance, it found lead coming from several taps at Ocean Beach Elementary and Garfield Elementary. Parents at Ocean Beach got a flier telling them to send a filled reusable water bottle to school every day with their child — a sign of the strange times we live in. One of the wealthiest cities in American can’t guarantee its citizens safe drinking water.

Still, school officials believe they can trace their lead problems back to plumbing inside schools rather than problems with the city’s own system. That probably won’t provide much relief to parents, but it does suggest there is not a widespread public health crisis.

“If there was an issue with the city’s water quality, we believe that those issued would be revealed in the district’s water sampling results,” San Diego Unified spokesman Samer Naji said in an email. “Results received by the district from a certified lab have not produced an identifiable pattern that would indicate a systemic issue.”

This matches the results of a federally mandated lead and copper sampling program that the city does every few years. The program has consistently shown that the city’s water is not corrosive, meaning it doesn’t tend to leach lead from pipes. There’s also the county effort to sample children’s blood for lead, which found only one case in which leaded water was a likely culprit between 2009 and 2013.

Outgoing State Fire Chief: Stop Building in Some Fire-Prone Areas

In a series of interviews last week, the outgoing director of Cal Fire, the state’s wildland firefighting agency, said officials must consider banning new construction in some fire-prone areas.

The comments, by Ken Pimlott, a 30-year veteran of the agency, match what some environmentalists and lawmaker have been saying as round after round of devastating fires burn more forests and destroy more homes and lives.

“Folks can say what they want to say, but firefighters are living climate change. It’s staring them in the face every day,” he told the Associated Press.

When he appearing on KPBS, it wasn’t clear how Pimlott’s ideas would apply to new housing projects planned for rural San Diego County.

CCA Subsidies

At least three government-run power-buying agencies now plan to subsidize customers’ rates in order to keep their agencies’ prices competitive with the state’s three major power companies.

One of them is Solana Beach’s Solana Energy Alliance, which may delay paying back the city money it borrowed to launch its power agency. There are about 19 government-run “community choice” agencies in California and Solana Beach’s is the first in San Diego. Local officials created these agencies, known as CCAs, to give themselves more control over energy decisions, largely as a way to fight climate change. Solana Beach blames higher-than-expected energy prices for the delay.

Another CCA, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, is “moving ahead with a plan to absorb an estimated $25 million in added fees that would otherwise fall on the agency’s CleanPowerSF energy customers next year,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The agency cited higher-than-expected “exit fees” that customers must pay when they leave Pacific Gas & Electric to join the CCA.

A third, the Clean Power Alliance in Los Angeles, “would have to cut into its financial reserves to offer those rates while offsetting an additional $125 million in unexpected costs to customers” caused by Southern California Edison’s inability to predict energy prices this summer, the Los Angeles Times reported.

There are a few different ways to read what is going on: The CCAs are not good at predicting their own costs, so they are making adjustments in order to beat the prices charged by the three utilities they are competing with — Edison, PG&E and San Diego Gas & Electric.

The other way of reading the situation is that CCAs are being responsive to the market. Instead of trying to build up their reserves, they are doing everything they can to keep costs low for customers, showing how to be both competitive and responsive. Edison isn’t dipping into its reserves to keep rates low — it’s instead asking ratepayers for more money.

Former Congressman: Close the Border if Sewage Closes Beaches

American officials should consider shutting down the San Ysidro border crossing at night in response to sewage spills from Tijuana, former Rep. Brian Bilbray suggested in a weekend talk show.

Bilbray, a longtime San Diego politician, made an early name for himself by getting into a bulldozer to try to solve the cross-border pollution issues himself.

Those problems remain. A broken pipe in Tijuana caused sewage to flow across the border through the Tijuana River last week. It finally stopped on Friday, the Union-Tribune reported.

Briefly closing the border, Bilbray told NBC 7’s Politically Speaking, “would wake everybody up.”

While there was a lot of attention paid to the temporary border closure last month, Bilbray pointed out that these types of restrictions are not new, even for unrelated issues. Last year, for instance, Tijuana protesters hampered border crossings as they protested a Mexican gasoline tax.

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