SPRAY MISTY FOR ME: When it comes to cannabis, I’ve been accused by all the warring parties of being knee-deep in the hip pocket of the other side. Personally, I’ve always considered myself an agnostic where cannabis is concerned. Translated, that means I try to avoid the crazies. The problem here is that everyone’s crazy. After watching the county supes in action two weeks ago — on yet another appeal about an expanded greenhouse operation in Carpinteria — maybe I am too.
At issue was whether the greenhouse in question — owned by scions of the Van Wingerden Dutch greenhouse empire for which the Carpinteria Valley has long been famous — should have to be equipped with state-of-the-art regenerative carbon scrubbers to deal with any of the piercingly intrusive odors such greenhouses are known to emanate from time to time. That was the one condition insisted upon by the county’s Planning Commission when it approved this eight-acre project — located at 5980 Casitas Pass Road and dubbed with the blandly bucolic name “Valley Crest” — this June. And that’s the one condition the Van Wingerdens and their operator — the refreshingly bucolic-named Headwaters — objected to. It was something, they insisted, up with which they simply could not put.
By all reckonings, carbon filtration scrubbers, as they are known, qualify as the best-available odor-control technology where cannabis odors are concerned. Regenerative scrubbers are even better.
But the Van Wingerden scions and their consultants insisted the site was uniquely situated to be as far from all residentially zoned properties as was humanly possible. This, they argued, rendered carbon scrubbers overkill. In their stead, they boasted, they had the latest and greatest in vapor control. Their system would spray a steady stream of essential oils, water, and who knows what else into the air surrounding the greenhouse to chemically castrate the odors caused by cannabis. In fact, their Fogco system — made by the company Benzaco — would change the very chemical composition of the cannabis so that it no longer stank. This too, the supervisors were told, qualified as Best Available Control Technology.
For the supervisors, this was a totally discretionary call. They could go either way. In baseball terms, it was a “tie-goes-to-the-base-runner” proposition. The only question here was whom the supervisors deemed a base runner.
For the record, I’ve been covering cannabis long enough to have heard the exact same accolades of efficiency and effectiveness heaped upon the Byers vapor control system, which was supposed to do everything that Fogco now promises to do. Based on the level of odor complaints still roiling the bucolic bliss of the Carpinteria Valley, one can safely surmise the Byers System was not the great hit its champions promised. Given that the claims are so identical, maybe a degree of caution is called for.
No evidence of such skepticism was evident.
Then there were the residents who lived near Valley Crest who showed up to testify. Ever since Headwaters has been spraying the Fogco system, they complained, their lives — formerly ones of bucolic bliss as well — had become a living hell. Dr. William Hahn — who showed up sporting a white, flowing Sansum Clinic lab coat — testified he lived just 315 feet from Valley Crest. Ever since the Van Wingerdens began spraying Fogco’s vapors, he said, his wife and tenants have reported headaches, nausea, fatigue, and respiratory distress. Yes, he conceded, none of the spray’s constituent chemicals show up on the Dirty Dozen list of toxic chemicals, but that doesn’t mean they can’t cause problems. DDT and Roundup — both known poisons — were once also decreed safe by the Powers that Be, too.
To the extent there are any scientific studies, he added, there was only one. It involved all of 10 rats being subjected to vapor exposure for four continuous hours. That none of the rats died, Dr. Hahn argued, hardly proved the chemical soup was safe to swim in.
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Glaringly absent from Dr. Hahn was a stethoscope draped professionally from his neck or slung sportily over one shoulder. He and his wife and tenant occupy land zoned for ag, so the county’s cannabis ordinance offers them no protections or recourse. Likewise for the students at nearby Cate School, who are occasionally bombarded with errant cannabis fumes.
Supervisor Das Williams noted that carbon scrubbers require massive quantities of electricity, adding that Southern California Edison (SCE) has been notoriously and flagrantly unavailable for the infrastructure upgrades necessary to provide the juice required. The condition, he said, might not be implementable. It sounds like a serious concern. We are at the outer limits of SCE’s sphere of influence, and reliability can be problematic. But Planning Commissioner Michael Cooney said he’d never heard this issue raised in all the hearings and all the staff reports. Not once. In fact, he said, he never heard it until the Van Wingerdens took their case to the supervisors and Williams brought it up. Lisa Plowman, the county’s planning czar, likewise said she had no information indicating SCE needed to upgrade its infrastructure to accommodate carbon-scrubbing technology. According to Plowman, no less than 10 cannabis operations are currently using carbon scrubbers or have agreed to do so in the future. One wonders why they can do it, but Valley Crest cannot. All but one is in the Carpinteria area. Planning Commissioner Cooney added that the Planning Commission just approved an upgrade to SCE’s transfer station located near Santa Barbara High School to improve reliability. Williams said he knows it takes at least a year to get the upgrades necessary from the utility company. Maybe so. But the condition the Planning Commission wanted would have given Valley Crest 12 months to install it.
Compounding my sense of cognitive dissonance, at the very same meeting — in fact, it was the next item on the agenda — the supes took a proud and historic stand against allowing natural gas stoves, water heaters, and their ilk in new construction and remodels. This was our way to do our small part to address the “existential threat” of climate change. All those stoves and water heaters, the supervisors affirmed, would now be heated by electricity instead. Wow, I wondered. If there’s not enough juice in the system for a few carbon scrubbers, how can SCE accommodate the increase in demand such a natural gas ban would trigger? None of the supervisors in support addressed this question. Supervisor Bob Nelson, who opposed it, made note of the discrepancy with as much rueful irony as he could muster. But even he banged the gong lightly. Only Michael Chiacos of the Community Environmental Council addressed the question head-on. Even during the peak of our recent heat wave, he noted, there were no brownouts or blackouts. In the past two years, he said, the state has experienced just two rolling blackouts. And they were short-lived in duration.
Houston, do we have a capacity problem or not? I still don’t know.
In watching the cannabis wars these past five years, I’ve heard the county supervisors protest there’s nothing they could do when confronted by one screaming mob of odor-addled neighbors after the next. This time, there was something they could have done. They could have sent a message.
I remember in the beginning when the so-called responsible growers talked of the importance of being good neighbors. All growers, they said, had to be all in. “Nobody can be allowed to fart in the elevator,” I remember one prominent grower assuring me. “No one could pee in the swimming pool.”
I got news for you. Maybe the elevator doesn’t stink. But it still smells. How bad is it? If you live there, it’s just enough to drive you crazy.