Groups push to make California a haven for abortion rights

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) – California must prepare for an influx of women seeking abortions in the liberal state if the U.S. Supreme Court ends the constitutional right to the procedure, dozens of women’s health and rights groups said in a report released on Wednesday.

The report by the Future of Abortion Council is aimed at positioning California as place where women from conservative states can get abortions. It comes as the Supreme Court considers overturning or weakening its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized the procedure nationwide.

Last week, the conservative-dominated court signaled a willingness to dramatically curtail abortion rights in America and possibly overturn Roe during oral arguments for a Mississippi case.

“It is imperative that California take the lead, live up to its proclamation as a ‘Reproductive Freedom State,’ and be ready to serve anyone who seeks abortion services,” Democrat Toni Atkins, president pro tem of the state Senate, wrote in a letter introducing the report.

The council made more than 40 recommendations, including a call for the state to fund programs to train additional abortion providers and legal protections for women from states where abortion becomes illegal.

Twenty-six states are certain or likely to ban abortions if the court limits or overturns Roe, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies abortion rights.

More than 40 health care providers, women’s rights groups and Democratic politicians formed the council in September after the Supreme Court refused to block a Texas law that effectively bans abortion at about six weeks and allows people to sue doctors or others who have helped a woman end a pregnancy after fetal cardiac activity can be detected.

The Guttmacher Institute predicted in September that as many as 1.4 million women may drive in to California for abortion services if neighboring states outlaw or severely limit access to the procedure. That estimate doesn’t include women who might fly to the West Coast for abortions.

When the new Texas law took effect in September, Planned Parenthood clinics in California began treating two to three Texans per day, said Brandon Richards, a spokesperson for the clinics.

“We started to see an immediate impact on our health centers in California,” Richards said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)

U.S. EPA allocates billions in water funding from infrastructure law to states

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday released over $7 billion to state governments and tribes to upgrade drinking and waste water systems, the first allotment of clean water funds that was approved in the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last month.

The installment is part of $44 billion in clean water funds that will be dispersed over five years through a federal-state partnership program. The Biden administration has touted the benefits for states that will flow from the $1 trillion infrastructure law, which President Joe Biden signed on Nov. 15 after months of congressional negotiations.

The $1 trillion in infrastructure spending features what the EPA describes as the “single-largest investment in U.S. water infrastructure ever.”

Over half of the $7.4 billion in state revolving funds (SRFs) that the agency will allocate to states for 2022 will be available as grants or principal forgiveness loans that are meant to make it easier for underserved urban and rural communities to access.

“Billions of dollars are about to start flowing to states and it is critical that EPA partners with states, Tribes, and territories to ensure the benefits of these investments are delivered in the most equitable way,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

He urged that the money be used to “correct longstanding environmental and economic injustices across America.”

EPA Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox will soon issue national program guidance from the EPA’s Office of Water to help agencies best use the billions that will become available.

SRFs, which provide low-cost federal financing, have been used for decades by states to invest in their water infrastructure but many vulnerable and poor communities facing water challenges have not historically accessed their fair share of funds. Regan said he wants the new flow of money from the infrastructure bill will correct the disparities.

California, Texas and New York – the biggest states – will receive the largest share of SRF funds.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

First known U.S. Omicron case found in fully vaccinated overseas traveler

By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday identified its first known case of Omicron, discovered in a fully vaccinated patient who traveled to South Africa, as scientists continue to study the risks the new COVID variant could pose.

Public health officials said the infected person, who had mild symptoms, returned to the United States from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive seven days later.

That patient was fully vaccinated but did not have a booster shot, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, who briefed reporters at the White House.

The person is in self-quarantine and all of the patient’s close contacts have tested negative so far, he said.

Key questions remain about the new variant, which has rattled markets amid signs it may spread quickly and evade some of the defenses provided by vaccines. It has been found in two dozen countries, including Spain, Canada, Britain, Austria and Portugal.

Fauci said it could take two weeks or more to gain insight into how easily the variant spreads from person to person, how severe is the disease it causes and whether it can bypass the protections provided by vaccines currently available.

“We don’t have enough information right now,” said Fauci, who serves as an adviser to President Joe Biden, adding that the variant’s molecular profile “suggests that it might be more transmissible, and that it might elude some of the protection of vaccines, but we don’t know that now… We have to be prepared that there’s going to be a diminution in protection.”

For days, U.S. health officials have said the new variant -first detected in southern Africa and announced on Nov. 25 – was likely already in the United States as dozens of other countries also detected its presence.

“This new variant is a cause for concern but not a cause for panic,” Biden said on Wednesday before the Omicron case was announced. A spokesperson, Jen Psaki, said he the president had been briefed by his team on the first known case.

The United States has barred nearly all foreigners who have been in one of eight southern African countries. On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) directed airlines to disclose names and other information of passengers who have been to those countries.

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt, Ahmed Aboulenein and Nandita Bose in Washington, and Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva and Lisa Shumaker)

California farm town lurches from no water to polluted water

By Daniel Trotta

TEVISTON, Calif. (Reuters) – The San Joaquin Valley farm town of Teviston has two wells. One went dry and the other is contaminated.

The one functioning well failed just at the start of summer, depriving the hot and dusty hamlet of running water for weeks. With temperatures routinely soaring above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius), farm workers bathed with buckets after laboring in the nearby vineyards and almond orchards.

Even as officials restored a modicum of pressure with trucked-in water, and after the well was repaired, the hardships have endured. Teviston’s 400 to 700 people – figures fluctuate with the agricultural season – have received bottled drinking water since the well failed in June.

But for years, probably decades, the water coming from Teviston taps has been laced with the carcinogen 1,2,3-Trichloropropane, or 1,2,3-TCP, the legacy of pesticides.

The Western U.S. drought, the most severe in 125 years of record-keeping, is exacting a further toll on communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley, where people living on the edge of farmland gather many of the crops but little of the largesse from California’s $50 billion agricultural industry.

For Esperanza Guerrero, 35, a Mexican immigrant and homemaker whose husband works at a dairy farm, the poor water quality poses additional dangers for her 16-year-old daughter, who can drink only purified water because of a gastrointestinal ailment.

“It’s very stressful as a mother to know that if for any reason she should wash a piece of fruit (with tap water) and eat it, she’s going down,” Guerrero said while picking up bottled water from the community depot.

Teviston, devoid of any retail or commercial business, won a $3 million settlement in June from pesticide producers Dow Chemical Company and Shell Oil Company and distributors that will pay for a water treatment plant.

Dow declined to comment on Teviston, but said there was “no merit” to allegations in similar lawsuits brought by other local jurisdictions in the San Joaquin Valley.

“The plaintiffs’ claims in these cases are based on a California water quality standard that went into effect in 2018, several decades after the product formulations in question were discontinued. To the extent TCP was present in past product formulations, it would have been at levels so low as to pose no environmental risk,” the company said in a statement.

Shell declined to comment on active litigation.

The settlement will help Teviston resolve the dilemma of having to choose between safe or affordable water, said Todd Robins, an attorney with San Francisco-based Robins Borghei LLP who has represented other towns like Teviston in similar lawsuits.

The arid, forbidding land of the San Joaquin Valley has been transformed into one of the most fertile plains in the world by farmers, politicians and engineers who changed the course of mighty rivers and brought water hundreds of miles to a valley so broad and flat that in most directions the fields meet sky.

The drought has made both surface and ground water scarce.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates canals moving surface water from Northern California further south, has cut allotments to farmers this year: first to a mere 5% of normal, then down to zero.

That increased demand on the aquifers. Growers who operate their own wells are lowering the water table for neighboring towns like Teviston that depend on well water.

Outside the valley, many environmentalists criticize growers. The people of Teviston don’t paint them as the enemy.

“We need the farms. Without the farms, we don’t have any work,” said Frank Galaviz, a director on the town council who has emerged as Teviston’s leading water advocate.

THE ENEMY BELOW

Historically, the farms have faced another nemesis besides drought.

Beneath the ground, tiny worms called nematodes infest roots. For decades, through the 1980’s, growers injected their soil with the since-discontinued pesticides Telone, made by Dow, and D-D, made by Shell, according to Robins, who has pieced together the history of 1,2,3-TCP contamination through about 70 lawsuits against both companies.

By the 1990’s health officials established that TCP was carcinogenic and would linger in the water table for a lifetime unless removed by filtration. California’s TCP problem is concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley, state data show.

Telone and D-D were essentially a byproduct of other chemical processes that would have been disposed of were it not found to be an effective pesticide, enabling the companies to offload the byproduct by selling it to farmers, Robins said.

“It’s a dirty secret,” Robins said, adding that Dow’s reformulated Telone II became more effective once TCP and other impurities were removed.

While Teviston awaits a treatment plant, its TCP levels remain above safe levels. In May, testing showed the TCP level was nearly three times the maximum acceptable level, and in March it was more than seven times the limit, according to the state’s Safe Drinking Water Information System. In September, Teviston showed a negligible amount, an outlier that experts said could be skewed by the new well or the extreme drought.

Teviston’s marginalization dates back nearly a century, when Black workers arrived to work white-owned cotton farms. While the farmers had sought the Black workers, the workers were unwelcome in white towns, and they formed a tent city that became Teviston. Over the years the workforce became immigrant Mexican, another politically disadvantaged class, and white family farms were supplanted by corporations operating ever larger tracts of factory farms.

Dorris Brooks, an African American woman who lives at the end of Teviston’s water line, said past efforts to improve well water have only resulted in temporary relief.

“You can see there’s actually sludge that comes out of the tap,” Brooks said.

Brooks, who moved to Teviston as an adult 43 years ago, questioned whether the settlement was just.

“That company got away with for messing up the water and the people’s lives,” Brooks said. “There’s sick people here.”

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta. Editing by Donna Bryson and Diane Craft)

California ports, key to U.S. supply chain, among world’s least efficient

By Lisa Baertlein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Southern California’s Los Angeles and Long Beach ports handle the most ocean cargo of any ports in the United States, but are some of the least efficient in the world, according to a ranking by the World Bank and IHS Markit.

In a review of 351 container ports around the globe, Los Angeles was ranked 328, behind Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam and Alaska’s Dutch Harbor. The adjacent port of Long Beach came in even lower, at 333, behind Turkey’s Nemrut Bay and Kenya’s Mombasa, the groups said in their inaugural Container Port Performance Index published in May.

The total number of ships waiting to unload outside the two adjacent ports hit a new all-time record of 100 on Monday. Americans’ purchases of imported goods have jumped to levels the U.S. supply chain infrastructure can’t handle, causing delivery delays and snarls.

Top port honors went to Japan’s Yokohama and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on the ranking. Finishing out the top five were Chiwan, part of Shenzhen’s port in Guangdong Province; South China’s Guangzhou port; and Taiwan’s Kaoshiung port.

Ports in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa dominated the top 50 spots, while just four U.S. ports cracked the top 100 – Philadelphia (83), the Port of Virginia (85), New York & New Jersey (89) and Charleston, South Carolina (95).

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted trade around the globe, snarling trade and exposing the frailty of a supply chain built for predictable, just-in-time movement of goods.

The United States is the world’s biggest consumer, importing goods valued at roughly $2.5 trillion a year. President Joe Biden is fighting for massive federal funding to modernize crumbling infrastructure – including seaports. Government control, 24/7 operations and automation help make many non-U.S. ports more efficient.

Biden is pushing port executives, labor union leaders and major retailers like Walmart to attack shipping hurdles that are driving up the price of goods and raising the risk of product shortages during the all-important holiday season.

Southern California port executives are coaxing terminal operators, importers, truckers, railroads, dock workers and warehouse owners to adopt 24/7 operations in a bid to clear clogs that have backed up dozens of ships offshore and delayed deliveries to stores and e-commerce fulfillment centers.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Heather Timmons and Diane Craft)

U.S. Coast Guard boards ship in connection with California oil spill

(Reuters) – The U.S. Coast Guard boarded a container ship on Saturday in the Port of Long Beach that dragged its anchor close to a subsea pipeline found to be the source of an oil spill off Orange County, California, it said in a press release.

The spill released some 3,000 barrels (126,000 gallons) of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, killing wildlife, blackening the coastline and forcing officials to close beaches south of Los Angeles.

In its statement, the Coast Guard said an investigation had determined that the MSC DANIT was involved in the anchor-dragging incident “during a heavy weather event” that impacted Long Beach and Los Angeles ports in January.

As a result, it said, MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A., which operates the vessel, and Dordellas Finance Corporation, the ship’s owner, have been designated by the Coast Guard as parties of interest in the investigation.

The designation allows the companies to be represented by counsel, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and call witnesses who are relevant to the investigation, the Coast Guard said.

MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Dordellas Finance Corporation could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Coast Guard said the investigation was ongoing and that “multiple pipeline scenarios” as well as additional vessels of interest continue to be investigated.

Amplify Energy, which owns the pipeline, has said it was “pulled like a bowstring” about 105 feet (32 meters) from where it should have been.

(Reporting by Sheila Dang in Dallas; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

U.S. Supreme Court again protects police accused of excessive force

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday granted requests by police officers in separate cases from California and Oklahoma for legal protection under a doctrine called “qualified immunity” from lawsuits accusing them of using excessive force.

The justices overturned a lower court’s decision allowing a trial in a lawsuit against officers Josh Girdner and Brandon Vick over the fatal shooting of a hammer-wielding man in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

They also overturned a lower court’s decision to deny a request by Union City, California police officer Daniel Rivas-Villegas for qualified immunity in a lawsuit accusing him of using excessive force while handcuffing a suspect.

The brief rulings favoring the police in the two cases were unsigned, with no public dissents among the justices. They were issued in cases that were decided without oral arguments.

The qualified immunity defense protects police and other government officials from civil litigation in certain circumstances, permitting lawsuits only when an individual’s “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights have been violated.

The decisions on Monday indicate that the justices still think lower courts are denying qualified immunity too frequently in excessive force cases involving police, having previously chided appeals courts on that issue in recent years.

Reuters in 2020 published an investigation that revealed how qualified immunity, with the Supreme Court’s continual refinements, has made it easier for police officers to kill or injure civilians with impunity.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

Planes, fire crews tackling wildfire near Reagan ranch in California

By Brad Brooks

(Reuters) -California firefighters took advantage of a break in strong winds on Wednesday to get aircraft aloft and dump retardant on a fast-moving wildfire that was within a half mile of former President Ronald Reagan’s ranch, officials said.

A crew of roughly 1,500 firefighters have so far successfully steered the Alisal fire away from the Reagan ranch, where the former U.S. leader hosted the likes of Queen Elizabeth and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, said Andrew Madsen, a spokesman for Los Padres National Forest, where the blaze is centered.

“There are forecasts of high winds tonight, and we’re trying to get as much as we can done before then,” Madsen said.

The crews are also working to keep the fire away from a shuttered Exxon Mobil facility in Las Flores canyon, he added. The company said in an emailed statement that it was closely monitoring the fire and there were no injuries at the facilities or damages to the facilities, which have been shut since 2015.

The fire, which broke out on Monday about 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Santa Barbara in a sparsely populated corner of southern California, has grown to 15,500 acres (6,272 hectares) and remains just 5% contained, Madsen said.

Firefighters had hoped to take advantage of the lack of high winds to increase the containment line, Madsen said, but by evening they had not made any ground on the percentage.

The Alisal fire quickly grew on Tuesday amid strong winds, shutting down a section of a major highway and commuter train lines. California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Wednesday the state had secured federal funds to reimburse 75% of local and state costs related to fighting the blaze.

California is on pace to suffer more burnt acreage this year than last, the worst fire season on record when 4.2 million acres went up in flames – an area the size of Hawaii.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Additional reporting by Sabrina Valle in Houston; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Leslie Adler)

California port where spill occurred had numerous ships waiting to unload

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nichola Groom

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (Reuters) – Ships in record numbers have jammed the port complex near this weekend’s oil spill in California, according to port data, as investigators look into whether a ship’s anchor could have hit a pipeline to cause the leak.

More than 3,000 barrels of oil leaked into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California over the weekend, killing wildlife, damaging sensitive environmental areas and closing beaches. Officials are investigating whether an anchor could have hit the pipeline, owned by Amplify Energy Corp of Houston.

An anchor strike is a plausible explanation, said two former Amplify employees who asked not to be named. They noted that anchor strikes have dented or scratched offshore pipelines before.

There were certainly more anchors in the area due to supply chain bottlenecks as consumer demand has rebounded from the depths of the pandemic. As of Tuesday morning, there were 63 container ships in San Pedro Bay waiting to unload at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. On Sept. 19, a COVID-era record 97 ships were backed up.

Prior to the pandemic, there was typically no more than one container ship at anchor in the bay, according to Captain Kip Louttit of the Marine Exchange, who added that anchorages around the port have been full for the last year.

“All ships were anchored where they were supposed to be,” Louttit said of the vessel backup.

The spill closed numerous beaches and has killed wildlife in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. On Monday, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said a separate investigation is being conducted to determine the cause, and that Amplify could face civil and criminal liability.

Environmental watchdog group SkyTruth said satellite imagery from Oct. 1, the day before the spill was reported, shows cargo ships anchored near the area where the pipeline runs, according to government maps. The closest, however, was about 450 meters away from the pipeline, SkyTruth President John Amos said.

“That seems like a comfortably long distance to separate that pipeline from that ship, but one thing I don’t know is how accurate is this government data on exactly where this pipeline sits on the seafloor,” Amos said in an interview.

The pipeline runs along the ocean floor from the Elly platform, located in 255 feet of water, then heads toward port. Some sections are buried and some are above the sand.

The company and contractors patrol the pipeline by boat about once a week, with workers looking for clues of a possible spill, leak or anomaly. Chemical analysts test the product coming out of the pipeline for iron, which could indicate corrosion or metal loss in the line.

Metal devices called “smart pigs” are run through the pipeline about every three years to check for anomalies. The last such test was conducted in 2019, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher said at a news conference Monday.

Huntington Beach, about 40 miles (65 km) south of Los Angeles, had 13 square miles (34 square km) of ocean and portions of its coastline “covered in oil,” said Mayor Kim Carr. The town, which advertises itself as Surf City USA, is one of the rare places in Southern California where oil platforms are visible from the beach.

Angry residents blasted what they called a slow initial response to the spill. Already, one lawsuit has been filed against Amplify by a local DJ, Peter Moses Gutierrez Jr.

Some 23 oil and gas production facilities operate in federal waters off the California coast, according to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Amplify’s Beta Offshore unit has three, including the Elly offshore platform, where the pipeline was connected.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom, Jessica Resnick Ault, Lisa Baertlein and Daniel Trotta; Editing by David Gregorio)

Investigators probing cause of major California offshore oil spill

HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (Reuters) -Federal and state investigators on Monday were probing what caused some 126,000 gallons of crude oil to leak into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.

Huntington Beach, about 40 miles (65 km) south of Los Angeles, was hit hardest with some 13 square miles (34 square km) of ocean and portions of its coastline “covered in oil,” said Mayor Kim Carr.

The oil appeared to come from a production platform operated by Beta Offshore, a California subsidiary of Houston-based offshore crude oil producer Amplify Energy Corporation. Amplify on Monday did not immediately return a call seeking information.

Federal officials have stepped up their scrutiny of aging and idled offshore energy pipelines. Energy companies have built 40,000 miles (64,000 km) of oil and gas pipelines in federal offshore waters since the 1940s.

Regulators have failed to address the risks from idled pipelines, platforms and other infrastructure on the sea floor, the watchdog U.S. Government Accountability Office said this year.

“As pipelines age, they are more susceptible to damage from corrosion, mudslides and sea floor erosion,” GAO said.

Martyn Willsher, an Amplify executive, said on Sunday a pipeline carrying oil from the platform had been shut off and its remaining oil suctioned out. Divers were trying to determine where and why the spill occurred, he said.

Officials deployed 2,050 feet (625 meters) of protective booms, which help contain and slow the oil flows, and about 3,150 gallons had been recovered on Sunday, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen and Gene Blevins; Editing by Howard Goller)