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Environment Report: There's So Much Plastic, It's Falling From the Sky

Owners of the ocean water desalination plant in Carlsbad finally get the permits they need, San Francisco considers a full takeover of PG&E and more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

The remnants of a plastic doll lay alongside the Tijuana River. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

It is raining plastic, according to federal researchers.

A new paper by the U.S. Geological Survey finds that plastic is circulating in the atmosphere and falling from the sky near Denver and in Rocky Mountain National Park. Similar research shows that tiny bits of plastic are being blown across the globe, landing in such remote places as the Pyrenees mountains.

Plastic is becoming one of the inescapable facts of our devoured world, like noise pollution and heat.

The attempts to rid cities of plastic pollution are obvious — plastic bags, straws and food container bits are perhaps the most common source of trash at the beach — but the attempts are surprisingly slowing and consistently controversial.

Lately, Imperial Beach, one of the most environmentally progressive communities in the state, has called out the 2016 statewide plastic bag “ban” for what it was: a sham. As we all now know, most stores simply sell thicker plastic bags.

“The reality is we have a fake, statewide plastic bag ban,” Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina said during a recent City Council meeting, according to the Union-Tribune. “Because essentially, the world’s largest corporations who could afford to switch did.”

Earlier this month, Imperial Beach adopted one of the strictest plastics bans in the country. It bans the sale and use of food containers that are made from any material that can’t be composted or recycled, and prohibits the sale and use of plastic utensils and straws.

At the national level, the plastics industry is fighting back against plastics bans, according to a review of industry efforts by the Wall Street Journal.

A close look at the fight, though, shows that people are drawing different battle lines. The plastics industry argues that its bags require less energy to produce than paper bags and that both bags can be recycled.

California has encouraged plastic bag recycling for years, to little avail. Plus, paper bags biodegrade and don’t end up blowing around the world.

Desalination Plant Is Finally Out of Permitting Limbo

For a surprisingly long time, the owners of the ocean water desalination plant in Carlsbad, which provides about 10 percent of the region’s drinking water, have been in permitting limbo.

When it opened in 2015, the plant was able to piggybacks off ocean water withdrawn by an adjacent power plant. That power plant, the Encina Power Station, uses ocean water to cool itself. But when the plant was shut down, the owners of the desalination plant, Poseidon Water, had to create a new intake — or else it would have had no way of getting ocean water into the plant to turn into drinking water. We first wrote about this issue in 2016, less than a year after the plant opened.

It took until two weeks ago for Posiedon to finally get the needed permits from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is concerned about the plant’s effect on nearby marine life that can be sucked into the intake and killed.

The new intake may cost as much as $83 million, about four times what was originally expected. Costs related to the intake are expected to increase water rates by roughly 1 percent, according to the San Diego County Water Authority.

The plant produces about a tenth of the region’s water but, because the treatment process is so expensive, that water is about a quarter of the region’s water supply costs.

San Francisco Considers Full Takeover of PG&E

Across the state, local governments are starting their own agencies to buy and sell power. The city of San Diego is looking to form one of these “community choice” energy agencies.

But some environmentalists argue the only way for communities to have complete control over their energy future is if governments also own the power lines and other electricity infrastructure. This fight is playing out in San Diego, though it’s unclear if the idea has much political support, since it could mean shredding the business model of San Diego Gas & Electric, one of the region’s largest employers.

In San Francisco, though, the idea is being taken seriously, in part because the city is served by Pacific Gas & Electric, which is one of the most troubled and disliked utilities in the country.

In Other News

  • The Union-Tribune reports on the bones of 5,000 or so indigenous people who have been kept inside the Museum of Man. Now, the museum is expected to return as many of those remains as it can to their descendants, like San Diego-area Indian tribes. “It’s a process,” Emily Burgueno, a Kumeyaay from the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, told the paper. “Just because they are cooperating now doesn’t mean it’s sunshine and stars.”
  • San Diego-based Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas unit failed to investigate previous problems at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage site, according to an investigation of a major leak. (Associated Press)
  • Federal environmental regulators are planning to change how they calculate the effects of air pollution on human health, making it easier to justify rollbacks of air quality regulations. (New York Times)
  • A San Diego man is doing everything he can to save a species of fir tree, but climate change is making it harder for the trees to survive here. (BBC)

From the Actual Environment

I am constantly surprised by how varied climates are in San Diego. About an hour outside of town, on the edge of the desert in Laguna Meadow, are tadpole-filled ponds.

A pond in Laguna Meadow / Photo by Ry Rivard
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