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As Rising Seas Disrupt Toxic Sites, Communities of Color Are at Most Risk

As rising seas threaten to flood hundreds of toxic sites along the California coast, the risk of flood-related contamination will fall disproportionately on the state’s most marginalized communities, finds a new study published Tuesday by researchers at UC Berkeley, UCLA and Climate Central. San Mateo and Alameda counties are projected to host the most at-risk hazardous sites by 2050, but by 2100, Orange County is projected to surpass both as oil and gas wells there and in Los Angeles County face rising coastal flood risks.

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By the end of the century, coastal flooding threatens to inundate hundreds of toxic sites in California, including oil refineries, industrial facilities, sewage treatment plants and cleanup sites, putting communities like Richmond, Calif., at greater risk of hazardous exposure. (Flickr photo by Scott Hess)
By the end of the century, coastal flooding threatens to inundate hundreds of toxic sites in California, including oil refineries, industrial facilities, sewage treatment plants and cleanup sites, putting communities like Richmond, Calif., at greater risk of hazardous exposure. (Flickr photo by Scott Hess)

By Kara Manke
UC Berkeley News

As rising seas threaten to flood hundreds of toxic sites along the California coast, the risk of flood-related contamination will fall disproportionately on the state’s most marginalized communities, finds a new study published Tuesday by researchers at UC Berkeley, UCLA and Climate Central.

San Mateo and Alameda counties are projected to host the most at-risk hazardous sites by 2050, but by 2100, Orange County is projected to surpass both as oil and gas wells there and in Los Angeles County face rising coastal flood risks.

Under California’s high-risk aversion scenario, which projects that sea levels could rise by more than 6 feet by the end of the century, the study identified 736 facilities at risk of coastal flooding and an additional 173 with projected groundwater encroachment.

Residents living within 1 kilometer of at-risk sites were more likely than others to be people of color, to be living below the poverty line, to be unemployed or to experience another form of social disadvantage such as linguistic isolation.

As part of the study, the researchers also released a new interactive online tool in English and Spanish that allows users to map toxic sites that are at risk of coastal flooding, either by county or by individual facility.

A map of hazardous sites at risk of coastal flooding in the San Francisco Bay Area, generated by the new coastal risk screening tool available on the Climate Central website. The colored overlay indicates the poverty level of nearby communities. (Image courtesy Climate Central)

A map of hazardous sites at risk of coastal flooding in the San Francisco Bay Area, generated by the new coastal risk screening tool available on the Climate Central website. The colored overlay indicates the poverty level of nearby communities. (Image courtesy Climate Central)

Users can also overlay indicators of nearby residents’ social vulnerability, including the percentage of people who are living below the poverty line, who are experiencing unemployment, or who don’t have a high school degree.

“Sea level rise is like a slow-moving storm that we can anticipate and prepare for,” said Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor of public health and of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley and senior author of the paper. “As California invests in community resilience to climate change, it is essential that considerations of environmental justice are at the fore.”

Low-income communities and communities of color already face disproportionate exposure to myriad environmental pollutants, and the threat of additional exposures from sea-level rise will only exacerbate these inequities.

Compared to their neighbors, socially vulnerable residents can also face more challenges to evacuate during a flood and often experience social stressors that can make them more susceptible to the health impacts of pollutant exposures.

“Again, climate change amplifies inequality,” said lead author Lara Cushing, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “Sea level rise will present additional risks of contaminant releases to communities already living with pollution sources in their backyards.”

The study was conducted as part of the Toxic Tides project, which brought together a multidisciplinary research team with community advocacy organizations to understand how rising seas would impact hazardous sites, including refineries, industrial facilities, sewage treatment plants and cleanup sites.

The team released a preliminary set of data and an earlier version of the online mapping tool in November 2021; the new, peer-reviewed study, which appears in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, includes additional analysis about the environmental justice implications of the findings.

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Grocery Inflation Causes Food Banks to be the Default for Families in Oakland

Steve Morris, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO, explained that while the pandemic certainly had an effect on food increases, there is not one single factor for a rise in food prices. He said events like the Ukraine-Russian war, the avian influenza epidemic that raised the price of eggs, and climate change are also key factors.

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Photo: iStock image.
Photo: iStock image.

By Magaly Muñoz

During the past three years, the US has seen the largest increase in food prices since the 1980s. In response to this crisis, community food banks have emerged to provide much-needed assistance to families in need.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that national food prices have increased 11% from 2021 to 2022, when the average yearly increase was previously 2%. The San Francisco Bay Area saw a 12% increase from 2021 to 2022.

Steve Morris, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at GAO, explained that while the pandemic certainly had an effect on food increases, there is not one single factor for a rise in food prices. He said events like the Ukraine-Russian war, the avian influenza epidemic that raised the price of eggs, and climate change are also key factors.

While still maintaining that elevated prices will persist for the foreseeable future, Morris anticipates a decrease of 8% in food price increases.

He also stated that while the average person may spend 10% of their income on groceries, a low-income family may spend 30%, making the inflation in food prices that much harsher.

“Higher food prices can put people in a position where they have to make some tough choices between ‘can they go to the grocery store and buy food’ or ‘do they have to spend it on other necessities like home or health care or other things,’” Morris said.

Michael Altfest is the Director of Community Engagement and Marketing for Alameda County (AC) Food Bank, the primary food distributor in the county with over 400 community partners that receive frequent donations.

Altfest shared that from 2019 to 2023, the number of pounds of food distributed to their community partners has doubled. In 2019, the food bank distributed 32.5 million pounds of food, while in 2021 during the height of the pandemic, they distributed 58.1 million pounds. This year they are on pace to distribute almost 60 million pounds of food.

“If we’re on pace this year to provide more than we did in the pandemic, I think that says a lot about what the state of hunger is right now,” Altfest said.

During the height of the pandemic, state and federal government relief programs helped families offset significant expenses like groceries. These programs included the child tax credit increase that put anywhere from $2,000 up to $3,600 back into qualifying families pockets when filing their yearly taxes.

Another program that directly targeted food insecurity, was the increase in funds for SNAP or CalFresh. These government programs provide food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people to help them maintain adequate nutrition and health. But earlier this spring, funding was cut from the state program CalFresh and families saw at least a $95 decrease in their assistance.

“Every single person talks about the cost of living in Alameda County, every single person. The cost of rent, the cost of food, those are things that come up every single time without fail,” Altfest shared.

One of AC Food Bank’s community partners is Homies Empowerment, a non-profit in Oakland that was established as a means to support youth and the community through a positive lens.

Selena Duarte, the FREEdom Store Coordinator, said the organization’s initiative to help families with food provision began in May of 2020 when their original store was filled only with books and students told them that while it was nice to have things to read, “they can’t eat books,” showing the team at Homies Empowerment that there were bigger needs in the community that they had to address.

Since then, the organization has expanded its services. They now provide groceries every Tuesday, have established the FREEdom Farm where they grow produce that gets distributed in their make-shift store, offer hot breakfast to 40 students and their families five days a week, and much more.

Duarte said that they serve almost 400 families a week and they are continuing to expand their food services due to the increasing number of people coming to them seeking help to reduce their spending on groceries. She recognized that although people say that the “pandemic is over”, she knows that the stress that families are experiencing is still very real.

“The next phase is really becoming a sustainable community food hub, where literally we can grow, share, cook, and store our food here in the community and for the community,” Duarte said.

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Bay Area

PG&E Increases Rates While Bay Area Households Are Struggling to Stay Afloat

Prior to the pandemic, less than 2% of callers were asking for utility assistance, but in the last year that percentage has grown to 8.2%, according to Eden I&R data. Oakland made up 40% of the calls to 211, with Black and Latino individuals and single parents making up the majority of the callers. Female callers made up over double that of male callers and most ranged from 25 to 64 years old.

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PG&E is increasing utility rates for Californians causing the cost of living to rise as millions of residents struggle to pay their bills. Photo: iStock image.
PG&E is increasing utility rates for Californians causing the cost of living to rise as millions of residents struggle to pay their bills. Photo: iStock image.

By Magaly Muñoz

The cost of living is growing as millions of California customers will soon start to see the effects of PG&E raising their rates after a case ruling that will hike up monthly utility bills and ultimately raise the cost of living for struggling residents.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) agreed in November to a request by the electric company for $13.5 billion for wildfire system enhancement and undergrounding, vegetation management, and capacity upgrades.

Starting Jan. 1, residents will see a nearly $33 increase in their upcoming electric and natural gas bill.

Mark Toney, Executive Director of The Utility Reform Network (TURN), an advocacy group, said that low-income families would be most affected by the change.

“I like to say we want the most green for the least green, and the cost of ‘greening the grid’ should not be cutting off low-income families of color from the grid because the monthly bills are too doggone high,” Toney said.

Toney said he was worried that if the cost of utilities continues to increase, some families would be unable to make their payments and would therefore, lose power.

If families choose cost-saving alternatives like using candles, the potential for a fire rises if families with small children accidentally knock something over and don’t put it out in time. People also rely on medical devices for health-related reasons to be hooked up for long periods of time, which could contribute to high costs in electricity bills.

Some Bay Area residents are already struggling to pay their utility bills.

Longtime Oakland resident, Rev. Dr. Barbara Jim-George has found herself using odd, potentially dangerous, alternatives to using her central heat, such as leaving open a hot oven to warm her living room because her apartment is “like a walk-in freezer.”

The CDC has warned against using this method to heat up your home as it can disperse dangerous pollutants and gasses, like carbon monoxide, and worsen already existing lung diseases.

“I can leave something sitting out on my table at night and it’s just fine as it would be in the refrigerator,” Jim-George said.

She had retired from her job in 2014 and was living on a tight budget for a few years until she found herself back at work in 2018 because her social security checks weren’t enough to pay bills.

As the cold and rainy weeks persist, the reverend anticipates a higher utility bill in the mail soon.

Jim-George shared that she had a cousin who lost their home in the Camp Fire of 2018, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, and blamed PG&E for not learning from these tragedies to do what was best for customers.

“They [PG&E] should have buried lines long ago because we’re eating the cost for [their mistakes]. I think it’s negligent on their side to not have had the foresight to understand the issues beforehand,” Jim-George said.

While the reverend is one of many who will have to resort to budgets and taking on second jobs in order to keep up with high housing bills, organizations across the area have seen a large intake of housing and emergency needs for decades, increasing with the effects of the pandemic in the last four years.

The need for utility assistance has grown exponentially, with four times the amount of calls coming in about families who have been without energy or are months behind in bills and are at risk of losing power in their homes.

“Housing [and related needs] remains our top concern for callers calling 211,” Allison DeJung said.

DeJung is the Executive Director of Eden I&R, which operates the calls and messages from 211 Bay Area- a multilingual 24/7 information hotline that connects callers with resources in Alameda County.

She said that in the last fiscal year, her team received over 69,000 calls and they made about 113,000 referrals to programs and organizations in the county for issues related to housing, utilities, food assistance and more.

Prior to the pandemic, less than 2% of callers were asking for utility assistance, but in the last year that percentage has grown to 8.2%, according to Eden I&R data. Oakland made up 40% of the calls to 211, with Black and Latino individuals and single parents making up the majority of the callers. Female callers made up over double that of male callers and most ranged from 25 to 64 years old.

DeJung said most callers looking for help paying their utility services were connected to Spectrum Community Services.

Spectrum is a nonprofit organization that has financially assisted low-income families and individuals through utility, water, and food aid since 1971.

Last year they received nearly 10,000 applications for their Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which helps households pay overdue energy bills. The organization was only able to help 5,000 of those applicants.

Black households, similar to data from Eden I&R, were the majority of applicants for utility assistance at Spectrum, along with the majority of assistance coming from Oakland residents.

Lara Calvert, Executive Director of Spectrum Community Services, said the lack of funding is the primary reason they have to turn away applicants.

Assistance can be granted once every 12 months, with a cap of $3000 in overdue bills. Calvert said the large cap is what also contributes to helping less people every year because if multiple people apply for large quantities of assistance, funding runs out quicker.

Spectrum prioritizes households that have people who are over 60, anybody who’s disabled in the home, people who have children five years or younger, as well as people with a higher overall energy burden for their home.

A high energy burden is when a family’s energy or utility bills take up the majority of a household’s monthly income, making it difficult to maintain a sustainable quality of life.

Calvert shared that although the beginning of the pandemic brought more attention to the organization, 2023 was the largest year for residents asking for assistance from the program and it doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down soon.

“We are anticipating continuing to have a large number of people seeking assistance this year that will far outstrip our amount of money that we have to give out,” Calvert said.

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Activism

Oakland Post: Week of July 10 – 16, 2024

The printed Weekly Edition of the Oakland Post: Week of July 10 – 16, 2024

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