California's New Enviro Chief Talks Alternative Pesticides, Recycling Reform and Trump ‘Upside-Down Days'

Jared Blumenfeld at Sonoma Land Trust event in 2015. ( (Sonoma Land Trust))

In a wide-ranging interview with KQED, California's newly confirmed top environmental regulator says ensuring safe, affordable drinking water for all Californians is one of his top priorities; China's rejection of previously accepted waste materials is a "crisis" that requires reforming the recycling process; and that the same innovation the state has brought to addressing climate change needs to be applied to developing alternative, safer pesticides.

And he also had a thing or two to say about the Trump adminisration.

Jared Blumenfeld, California's new secretary for environmental protection, has a long environmental resume. Earlier in his career he worked for the National Resources Defense Council,  headed San Francisco's Department of the Environment, and was the Pacific Southwest regional administrator for the federal EPA under President Obama. Blumenfeld spoke this week with KQED Science's Craig  Miller. The following excerpts from the interview have been edited for length and clarity.

Craig Miller: What are your top priorities right now?

Jared Blumenfeld: A million Californians don't have access to safe and affordable drinking water. It's shocking. That's partly because of pollution from things like pesticides, all the way through naturally occurring arsenic and even things like uranium. So we're working very hard with the Legislature to make sure we get the money needed to start addressing this in a systematic way.

Obviously climate change remains a very, very singular and large focus of this administration.  Whether it's drought or forest fire, it's not some far-off projection of what might happen in the future; we're facing the consequences of climate change right now. And so I think how we build communities that are resilient to fires, and how we think about rising sea levels is something top of mind for this governor, [though we're also] spending as much time looking at how to continue reducing greenhouse gas emissions, how to increase the sale of electric vehicles, how to make sure we get more renewable energy.

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The state has a very ambitious goal of getting to carbon neutrality by 2045. Is that doable

It has to be doable. Not only have we set very ambitious targets and goals, but we have incredible professionals across the board that are working to implement these strategies up and down the state. So the mechanics of making sure that our climate goals become reality are really powerful, and carbon trade would be an example of that.

California's ability to regulate the auto manufacturers for tailpipe emissions is the kind of things that really sets California apart, and as the governor recently said, we're kind of implementing the Green New Deal already. There's a huge upside for our businesses when you look at the number of solar installers, when you look at the number of folks who are doing conservation, and even, in the San Francisco Bay, people who are doing things like wetland restoration.

What's the biggest obstacle?

Unfortunately the biggest obstacle we have is in Washington, D.C., because I think California has set a marker that has threatened many industries that don't want to transform. So the Trump administration is pushing back very hard, rolling back environmental standards left, right and center.

One particular concern relates to the clean car rule. In the Obama Administration, there was a goal to get 54 miles to the gallon [by 2025]. The Trump Administration said we should just freeze it at around 2020 levels. That would have a huge impact on California reaching its 2030 climate goals. Most of our greenhouse gas emissions --  as well as air pollution, we can't forget -- comes from automobiles and trucks.

Do you now consider yourself a soldier in the so-called resistance against your old organization, the federal EPA?

You know, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created by President Nixon. CalEPA was signed into law by Republican Pete Wilson. The California Environmental Quality Act was signed into law by Gov. Reagan. So, this is an important bipartisan issue, and we've got in this kind of crazy binary that Democrats care about the environment and Republicans don't. That's simply not true, when I go around the state and talk to people of all political persuasions.

Everyone cares if their kids have asthma, everyone cares if the air isn't clean enough to breathe. Just this last summer, wildfires aside, L.A. had 80 days when they did not meet the federal Clean Air Act standards. So it's a concern to everyone and yet it's been overly politicized. Our goal is to find areas of collaboration and cooperation where they exist, but at the same time if our standards and our environmental protections are attacked, we're going to defend them.

When the Trump Administration comes in and makes a mockery of the laws that we have and says today's Upside Down Day, it's kind of absurd. I think the thing that reassures me the most is that most of the things the Trump Administration has done on the environment that are kind of re-imagining what the law actually says get overturned by the courts pretty quickly.

In terms of recycling, China has said, basically, they don't want all the stuff we've been shipping from our blue bins. What does that do to California's recycling program?

San Francisco has the highest recycling rate of any city in the nation. But some of that recycling was built on the back of sending exports to China that really weren't that recyclable; the law in California is a bit odd in that it says anything that's exported can be counted as recycled, even if we don't know what happens to it.

So this [action by China] is helping us clean up our act. It is a real crisis, because the financial model that we had of sending stuff to China that we then hoped would be recycled has come to an end, and it means that we need cleaner recycled products.

One of the issues is that they will still take paper or metal or plastic if the recycled material is clean, but what they're finding is the paper actually includes glass, which makes it unrecyclable, or the metal contains plastic. They're saying no more of this.

Also, we did a really poor job of  is buying products that have recycled content in them. We're really good at saying, yeah, let's put all that stuff in the blue bin; we're much less good at saying let's make sure that water bottle or piece of paper has a high recycled content, which then would allow us to have a market for it.

We're working closely with different legislators and talking about ideas on packaging and minimum recycled content.

We recently saw the resignation of the state's top pesticide regulator. Does that signal a change in direction for an agency that's come under fire for being too lax?

I think a lot of people in our cities forget just how important agriculture is to the state, how many crops are grown and consumed all over the country. I spend a lot of time in the Central Valley and the farmers I meet care deeply about the environment. They're out getting their hands dirty every day, and on climate change, they're really the first responders, seeing the seasons change and different pests coming.

So pesticides need to be managed properly because farmworkers and communities around them are really impacted by some very toxic chemicals.

For the Department of Pesticide Regulation, we're getting to a stage where we understand we need to invest more in healthier alternatives. We can't simply be in the process of just hearing that the pesticide that we thought was safe is actually harming communities, harming pollinators.

I think in the same way that we have being innovators in everything from recycling to climate change, we haven't been with pesticides. This is an area we're going to spend time looking at.

So you're saying DPR needs to take a more aggressive stance?

It's less about an aggressive stance and it's more about changing the frame that we look at pesticides, saying what alternatives exist? How long does it take for an alternative to get through the system? It can take 10 years for a pesticide to get approved, and communities and farmers can't wait that long. How do we work with farmers and environmental justice communities to get less harmful solutions quicker to the table?

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