asphalt dreams

Today the baby and I skipped our morning walk to Bus Stop coffee downtown and instead, our whole family attended Jared Huffman’s public forum on the new Dutra Asphalt plant under review for siting at the southern entrance to the City of Petaluma.

This lovely plant would be located alongside native wetland plants, on the Petaluma river, across from Schollenberger Park, the new wetlands park, an Egret rookery, within noise and emissions reach of many schools, and within one of the largest intact marshes in the United States—the largest in the San Francisco estuary system.

If this isn’t reason enough to oppose this plant, then probably nothing will convince you otherwise. The forum, though, is pretty astounding. Huffman had the best intentions, I am sure, when he organized this forum for the people to voice their concerns about the asphalt plant. Could he have forseen that they would actually show up? The room is about three times too small for the actual numbers of people who have arrived. Not to mention the lack of coffee and bagels that I find a little disturbing, considering this is a 9am weekend event, but I digress.

I am not able to enter the actual room that the event is in because it is full. They open up some side doors so the overflow crowd can “hear” the event. I never see Jared Huffman and can’t make out a single word. Since I can’t participate in the forum itself, I make use of the time by chatting with friends and interviewing random people with pro-dutra stickers. The very first woman I ask “why are you for the asphalt plant?”, defensivly looks away and says “it provides jobs.” I say, “There are lots of other jobs, is there anything else?” and she says, “It provides local asphalt, and jobs.” I say “Is that a job you want? Do you have a job there?” and she says “I have members who do.” “Members of what?” I ask “My organization.” she says and doesn’t elaborate on what organization has asked its members (many of whom apparently work for Dutra) to attend this event in favor of Dutra. She doesn’t appear to know much about the actual issue and doesn’t want to talk about it, although if you are wearing a sticker that says Dutra Yes on it, then, well, maybe you should be open to talking about it. 

I see a girl outside with a Dutra Yes sticker on her sweatshirt. “Why are you pro-asphalt plant” I ask. “I don’t know, my mom made me come, she said we needed bodies.” she says, sounding tired. Probably not the way she wanted to spend her Saturday morning. “It’s not good,” I say, “it’s next to Shollenberger Park and will put around 250 big trucks on the road every day going on and off the freeway (actually the number is between 175 and 750, and I think we know what the actual number will end up being if there is no cap on it, which there isn’t!) and will emit fumes and noise.” “Really?” she says, a look of disgust spreads across her face and she slowly peels off the sticker with two deliberate fingers… “I’m all save-the-earth, I didn’t know.” she says. “You can check out the website if you want for more info.” I tell her. “I’ll totally check it out.” she says.

Another couple of guys I speak with inside are a contrast. One is argumentative, and doesn’t seem to know much about the issue (A theme, to be expected when a corporation rallies people to represent them). “It’s the same plant as they have now.” he says. I look at him, “It’s a much larger plant that is being proposed, actually,” I say, “No it’s not.” he says. OK. “There could be 250 trucks on the road per day with this plant, or more.” I say. “No there won’t.” he says. I love this guy! “Get your facts straight lady,” (yikes, he called me lady! Indeed, the Sons of Italy are setting up for their 1950 nostalgia dinner right around us so maybe some of the era is seeping in) “You don’t see 250 trucks right now.” he says. “That’s because the plant they are proposing is bigger.” I say. ‘No, it’s not.” he says. And there you have it. We are at an impasse. 

The other guy is much more into the conversation and knows many of the facts, although he doesn’t appear to know about the trucks. He also understands the idea of transitioning out of our current economy into another one, but can’t quite make the leap all the way over since he works in the industry somehow. What I gather is that he is afraid of collapsing the current industry and economy. “We can’t survive without trucks” he says. “We didn’t have trucks 100 years ago” I say. “But our system is set up now to depend on them” he says. “Something new will come up to replace them, like these replaced what was there before.” I say. I really want to continue this conversation, the best so far, but I can hear my toddler calling in the background for his mama and so we leave the event for home and playtime. 

This last conversation, of course, is the much larger issue we are getting into here. It is beyond the fact that I don’t want any of us to breathe asphalt fumes, including my little son, beyond not wanting to live in a town with smokestacks violating stated air and noise standards echoing and emitting across the town and greeting you as you arrive from San Francisco, or where the egrets are in danger of losing their nesting grounds because of fumes and noise right next to them. Not to mention how it would suck going on and off the freeway heading south with all those trucks (one every three minutes!). Yes, beyond all those obvious facts, there is the larger issue of the entire industrial complex that this guy is now alluding to.

I know where he is coming from. I understand that it’s an unknown to leave behind what seems to be working and try something else. But can anyone really deny these days that it actually isn’t working? Maybe the part where the company builds a plant and makes asphalt and money is working, sort-of, at least maybe for a short while longer. But um, what about all that other stuff? Like our air, water and land being polluted and depleted. Etc. More asphalt to build more roads when we can’t fix the ones we already have (which are not going unfixed due to a shortage of asphalt). More trucks trucking things around that we “need” when these “needs” are depleting our land, air and water. But, yes, hard to leave it behind, this old way of doing things. But we have done it before. I am sure the wagon makers and horseshoers were pissed when the car started coming in. And, even more similar to our current situation, the entire south thought their industry would collapse without slavery, but that had to go too.

It takes some serious consciousness to come up with a new plan instead of just letting the old one fall apart first and then try to pick up the pieces. The first part of which is saying that certain things are not acceptable anymore and phasing them out completely and allowing new ways to replace them.
People like to freak out that if we transition to something else it has to be some sort of rustic existence where everything is hard and we have spears, jitneys, wear fur loincloths and have none of the modern day comforts. While this of course, isn’t what people actually mean when they talk about transition to a new sustainable culture, (although jitneys are kindof cool) we might acknowledge that some of these modern day comforts are really not that comfortable anyway. These things have made us heavier, less healthy, more isolated from our communities, among other things. A serious transition addresses many issues. It has already begun in so many ways. (see right here in Petaluma for some local inspiration!)

A new plan includes alternative transportation like rail, buses, bikes, and walking, living within the means of the asphalt plants we already have and then phasing them out completely in favor of new ways. I know I know, “then we wouldn’t have any roads!” I can hear the people bellowing. We might notice that we have way too many roads already and can’t even take care of those (ie, the “pothole problem” in Petaluma). Step one: alternative transportation: focus on creating ways for people to get around without cars, and so those without driver’s licenses, like the elderly and the kids, can get around too. Then the roads won’t be trashed so fast and we won’t need as much asphalt in the beginning. Later we might not need any asphalt. We do not want to head in the wrong direction by approving more asphalt plants, we are wanting to head in the RIGHT direction by decreasing our consumption of detrimental materials. If not now during this key time, before the plant even exists, WHEN?

The truth is, we don’t always know where we will end up and I know people like to be in control. I think this is the real issue. We want to know where we are going, even if it is straight off a cliff. But it doesn’t have to be off a cliff. We can create the reality we want to live in and it is not magical thinking to do so. It takes specific local actions like not approving a new asphalt plant for a start.
If you want to know more about this issue–

In the meantime, a few small things about the asphalt plant:
1) the city of Petaluma, the Sierra Club and LOTS of others oppose the plant. Sonoma county is forcing us to have it at this point.
2) It would exceed noise levels allowed by the general plan and just won an amendment to the plan to go ahead.
3) There would be between 175 and 750 trucks per day going in and out and getting on the freeway.
4) The plant could operate 24/7 80% of the time
5) All their figures are spread out over 12 months, when in reality, most of their work is in the drier 8 months—spring, summer fall, during the times when we want to be outside) so all figures can really be seen as a third more when compacted this way.
6) There are so many more startling facts about this project, go have a read at


local waters

This morning we begin a daylong journey through the petaluma watershed with Daily Acts, a ecology organization based right here in town that leads facinating eco-tours around the north bay. Today’s topic is “water” and when we rise in the morning it is cloudy for the first time in weeks. As the tour starts at the top of the downtown parking garage, giving us an overview of the town and watershed, it starts really raining and keeps on raining as we hear about the source of our city’s drinking water: the Russian and Eel Rivers to the north, from which the water is piped over to us. Petaluma used to receive its water from within its own watershed, in fact, the Adobe creek headwaters (our previous water source) on Sonoma Mountain, on the property known as Lafferty Ranch, are still owned by the city of Petaluma.

We board a never-used-before, brand-new city bus in the rain and ride to Trathan’s house on sixth street right in the center of town, where as a renter in one of three units in a house, he and his wife Mary have transformed the entire yard into a permaculture paradise. Part of the lawn still remains, reminding us of what was once everywhere else. There are hundreds of plants here and it is only early spring but the yard is alive with leaves and flowers. Even in the one-foot wide strip between the sidewalk and the street, all kinds of plants are bursting forth, including peas trailing up a recycled wire fence attached between a phone pole and a tree. Raspberry and blueberry plants peek out of pots, kale, collards, herbs leap out of the ground among edible native plants I recognize from last week’s journey into the wild fields and forests of bolinas. Bees zip up from their hive to look around for something to pollinate, a cat walks lazily by and the compost worm bins are overflowing with beautiful soil.

Trathan’s talks are fun and postive and he is always looking for the upbeat angle. We talk about spirals in nature and the benefits of copper tools, compost and rainwater catchment contours. He explains how taking out a lawn is one of the best things you can do to save water because most of household water usage is on outdoor landscaping. And you don’t need a lawn to have a beautiful (and functional) yard—the way to landscape without too much work is permaculture. Working with nature itself helps you save not only water, but time. Layers of plants from low growing groundcover plants to mid layers like lettuces to bushes to trees, to vines all can exist in one place, stacking functions. Contouring the land creates places for water to meander and rest and sink back in to the earth instead of rushing into the street and storm drain where it then has to be treated at the wastewater plant. From Dave, a Petaluma water department city employee, we learn how to read our water meters at home and how to check for leaks which account for 12-15% of water usage in almost every house—eek!

As the drops begin again like a blessing from the sky, we ride our city eco-bus to the next stop, a straw bale house with solar panels, native landscaping, and a pond in back to catch water. The more we talk about water, the more comes from the sky—it is pouring in torrents now relentlessly, and we cheer it on and gather under overhangs.

It is like a modern day rain dance, a ritual based on our current contemporary culture. What are the ancient rain dances if not communities praising and relating with water, talking about where it comes from, the benefits of it and giving gratitude for it. All of us coming together to praise the importance of water today and talking about conserving and respecting it and making every drop meaningful is actually the same thing and meaningful for us—and the skys open.

We end out at schollenberger park near the wastewater plant, where a new trail has been started off to the south that will connect schollenberger with the new wastewater treatment wetlands park. The wastewater will be treated as it goes through through spiral forms, UV light and a marsh that is also an environmental art project by artist Patricia Johanson. This wetlands park will be an educational public resource, (will not have the odor of wastewater) and will expand the already enjoyed shollenberger park.

As the tour comes to a close, the skys begin to clear and I still wonder about saving water when our savings just end up enabling the city to approve more subdivisions. But I am more aware that the path of conservation is simultaneous with the path of awareness about our ecological environment. I can see for the first time that we can possibly conserve happily and abundantly while we also work on ways to measure those water savings and then let the savings stay in the river, not to be used except by the large salmon that used to swim in the Russian River, so many salmon that the river ran silver during spawning season, many years ago.