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Lithium gold rush in Imperial County

 October 13, 2022 at 5:00 AM PDT

Good Morning, I’m John Carroll, in for Debbie Cruz….it’s Thursday, October 13th.

An investigation is underway after hundreds of students at a local high school show flu-like symptoms. More on that next. But first... let’s do the headlines….

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THE AGENCY DEALING WITH SAN DIEGO COUNTY’S HOMELESS CRISIS HAS UNVEILED A NEW PLAN WITH AN AMBITIOUS GOAL: TO END HOMELESSNESS FOR VETERANS, FAMILIES AND SENIORS… IN FIVE YEARS.

OFFICIALS FROM THE COUNTY’S REGIONAL TASK FORCE ON HOMELESSNESS, SAY THE PLAN COMBINES THE BEST OF FEDERAL, STATE AND LOCAL PRACTICES AND STRATEGIES.

THEY SAY WHAT’S NEEDED IS A SYSTEM THAT’S READY TO HELP PEOPLE IN CRISIS – ON DAY ONE.

THE TASK FORCE WILL ALSO FOCUS ON PREVENTION STRATEGIES TO STEM THE FLOW OF THE NEXT WAVE OF HOMELESSNESS.

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Soil and groundwater contaminated by petroleum near the Mission Valley Terminal have been cleaned after decades of work.

That’s according to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Releases from the tanks and distribution operations polluted groundwater in the 19-80s.

The releases then migrated beneath the parking lot of the former Qualcomm Stadium and the San Diego River.

The petroleum contaminants were discovered in groundwater monitoring wells in 19-92, but cleanup efforts didn’t begin until 2005.

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If you’re in the market for a house, it may be a good time to buy soon.

According to a forecast released yesterday by the California Association of Realtors, we can expect a weaker housing market next year.

Their report cites an ongoing battle against inflation, keeping interest rates high and less buyer demand.

The forecast says existing single-family home sales are expected to drop more than seven-percent next year.

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From KPBS, you’re listening to San Diego News Now. Stay with me for more of the local news you need.

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Hundreds of students at a local high school have come down with flu-like symptoms.

KPBS Education reporter M.G. Perez says the County Health department is now investigating.

Hundreds of students at Patrick Henry High School in Del Cerro were out sick complaining of a sore throat, cough, wheezing, and body aches. San Diego County Health officials are investigating a potential outbreak of the flu or another respiratory virus. Many of the students who are sick attended the Patrick Henry Homecoming game and dance last weekend …without wearing masks or social distancing. Dr. Howard Taras is the San Diego Unified district physician. “If it’s not COVID, why have so many individuals at one party and one game been able to get this.” The Centers for Disease Control have already predicted a much worse flu season than last year. The Health Department is investigating similar outbreaks at other schools around the County. MGP KPBS News

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Imperial County is one of California’s poorest counties.

But today, people there are expecting a gold rush… and the gold is a lightweight metal called Lithium.

In the first of a two-part series, KPBS science and technology reporter Thomas Fudge has the story of how it will be mined and who will benefit from it.

The geothermal plant run by San Diego based EnergySource looks like a refinery, sitting on the flat desert land of the Imperial Valley. Since it was built in the town of Calipatria in 2006, it has produced geothermal energy by extracting searing hot water from below ground. But that underground lake has something more than heat. It’s loaded with minerals ready to be mined, including manganese, zinc and lithium. But it’s lithium that has spawned a gold rush as the demand for lithium car batteries heads for the stratosphere. Eric Spomer is the CEO of EnergySource. “We started out looking at manganese, zinc and lithium.But it became clear pretty quickly that all anybody wanted to talk about was lithium.” Spomer says their business plan has always envisioned a mining operation. Now that the focus is lithium, they are planning to build a 1 billion dollar expansion,,,  to pull that now-precious metal from the same salty brine water that has been generating geothermal energy. EnergySource isn’t the only game in town. Berkshire Hathaway Energy and Australia-based Controlled Thermal Resources are also planning to mine lithium in Imperial County. They’ll be using a new technical process called Direct Lithium Extraction. “This is exciting because we have this giant source for lithium,” Bill Tong is a professor of chemistry and vice provost at San Diego State. He has been studying lithium for more than 30 years. He says the mining of lithium is a national concern, since deposits of the metal are mined in China and South America. “If we are successful in extracting and producing and using them, we can be independent. We don’t have to rely on other countries.” Direct Lithium Extraction, or DLE, is a new method that Tong agrees is more environmentally friendly than established ways of mining lithium. Until now lithium has been taken from open pit mines and evaporation pounds, where brine water is left to dry up, leaving the lithium behind.  In describing DLE, done with EnergySouce’s proprietary technology, Spomer puts it like this. “It’s the cleanest lithium source in the world, and that’s not hyperbole. Compared to evaporation ponds, or hard rock mining, the carbon footprint is almost zero, the physical footprint is very small in comparison, and the water use is very low.” Spomer says using DLE mining, at the EnergySource plant, means that hot brine is funneled to the surface where it will be run through their extraction equipment. The lithium rich water is pushed through a filter, which attracts the lithium ion and lets everything else pass through. People in the business say the beauty of mining lithium at a geothermal plant is that the brine water is ultimately pumped back below ground, returning to  the water table. And energy use is very efficient due to the abundant supply of geothermal power produced by the very same plant. For all its promise, Spomer admits that DLE technology has only been proven in pilot projects. Some might say that indicates it’s untested. Spomer, who expects the EnergySource plant to produce 20,000 tons of lithium a year, sees it another way.  “On a real commercial scale doing pure DLE, this will be groundbreaking.” EnergySource hopes to begin construction of their lithium mining facility by the end of the year, and start extracting the metal in 2025. While the large-scale, environmentally friendly extraction of lithium has yet to be seen, people in Imperial County are excited about this promise. Maria Nava Froelich is the mayor pro tem of Calipatria. She calls lithium the new California gold. “We think it’s a game changer for our community. We think it’s going to bring a lot of jobs, community benefits. We do support the excise tax.” Tomorrow, we’ll learn more about the state tax on lithium and who stands to benefit from the new gold rush in Imperial County. SOQ.

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THE NAVY SAYS IT’S TAKEN ADMINISTRATIVE ACTION AGAINST THREE OFFICERS… AFTER THE DEATH OF A NAVY SEAL CANDIDATE IN CORONADO.

KPBS REPORTER JACOB AERE SAYS THE NAVY INVESTIGATION OF HIS DEATH HAS LED TO SOME CHANGES FOR THE SEALS’ RIGOROUS SELECTION COURSE.

THE NAVY SAYS IT’S INVESTIGATING THE ACTIONS OF THREE OFFICERS … AFTER SAILOR KYLE MULLEN COLLAPSED AND DIED OF ACUTE PNEUMONIA JUST HOURS AFTER COMPLETING THE GRUELING HELL WEEK TEST THAT’S PART OF QUALIFYING FOR THE NAVY SEALS. IN A PRESS RELEASE THE NAVAL SPECIAL WARFARE COMMAND SAID: “BASED ON THE RESULTS OF THE INVESTIGATION, NSWC CONCLUDED THE DEATH OF MULLEN WAS IN THE LINE OF DUTY, NOT DUE TO HIS OWN MISCONDUCT.” COMMANDERS DID NOT DIRECTLY BLAME THE OFFICERS FOR THE DEATH OF MULLEN, AND NO ONE HAS BEEN FIRED … BUT A NAVY INVESTIGATION INTO HIS DEATH HAS CAUSED A NUMBER OF CHANGES IN HOW SAILORS ARE MONITORED DURING THE HELL WEEK TEST. IT ALSO PROMPTED THE COMMAND TO EXPAND TESTING FOR PERFORMANCE-ENHANCING DRUGS. JA KPBS NEWS.

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After a barrage of complaints in August, Customs and Border Protection paused their plans to replace a gate at Friendship Park with a 30-foot border wall.

The agency is now reviewing public comments to decide whether to move forward with that project.

KPBS Border reporter Gustavo Solis has more.

“So our fear is that this proposal, the construction of 30-foot walls, would effectively render Friendship Park closed to the public.” That’a John Fanestil with Friends of Friendship Park. On Wednesday, he stood  in front of CBP headquarters in Chula Vista with letters signed by hundreds of people opposed to the wall. The agency’s stated reason behind building this wall is public safety. But Fanstil is quick to point out that none of the volunteers who work at Friendship Park have ever been injured. And increasing the wall’s height from 17-feet to 30 feat has led to a spike in series injuries to undocumented immigrants who’ve attempted to scale it. “That’s the official rationale for this project – public health and safety. Sadly, if 30-foot walls are imposed, there will be greater threats to health and safety.” Friendship Park is the only place along the 2,000-mile  U.S.-Mexico border where people from either side can see each other without actually crossing the border. This is the only way some cross-border families can see each other in person. CBP is expected to have a final decision on the future of Friendship Park by the end of this year. Gustavo Solis, KPBS News.

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Coming up.... We have a COVID update from a local health expert. We’ll have that and more, next, just after the break.

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The number of people who have been vaccinated with the omicron-specific booster shot remains low across the country… and at the same time new variants of COVID-19 are emerging.

This week L-A officials announced they detected a few cases of a new variant called B-A 2-point-75-point-2.

It’s one that Dr. Anthony Fauci has called “suspicious.”

Dr. Eric Topol is the director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla.

He spoke with KPBS Midday Edition host Jade Hindmon.

That was Dr. Eric Topol… The director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, speaking with KPBS Midday Edition host Jade Hindmon.

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THE FIRST WOMAN TO SERVE AS PRESIDENT OF S-D-S-U HAS DIED.

SALLY ROUSH WAS APPOINTED INTERIM PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY IN 20-17.

DURING HER YEAR IN THE JOB, SHE HELPED LEAD THE EFFORT TO EXPAND THE SCHOOL INTO MISSION VALLEY, ON THE SITE OF THE FORMER QUALCOMM STADIUM.

SHE SPOKE TO KPBS ABOUT IT... SAYING HER OBJECTIVE WAS TO DEVELOP THE SITE INTO A COMMUNITY AND REGIONAL ASSET.

"THERE'S A HIGHER GOOD TO BE ACHIEVED THERE IF THE UNIVERSITY IS PART OF THE DEVELOPMENT, TO EXPAND OUR GROWTH OVER THE DECADES TO COME. WE DON'T THINK IN TERMS OF TWO OR THREE YEARS ON SOMETHING LIKE THIS, WE THINK IN TERMS OF 120 YEARS THAT WE'VE ALREADY BEEN A UNIVERSITY AND THE NEXT 120." 

THAT DEVELOPMENT BECAME WHAT WE KNOW TODAY AS SNAPDRAGON STADIUM... AND WORK ON THE MISSION VALLEY CAMPUS IS UNDERWAY.

S-D-S-U SAYS ROUSH ALSO INTRODUCED A MORE CULTURALLY SENSITIVE REPRESENTATION OF THE UNIVERSITY’S HISTORIC AZTEC IDENTITY.

ROUSH WAS IN HOSPICE CARE FOR CANCER WHEN SHE DIED FRIDAY.

SHE WAS 75.

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CLIMATE ADVOCATES MADE IT TOUGHER FOR SEMPRA ENERGY EMPLOYEES TO GET TO WORK YESTERDAY MORNING (WEDNESDAY).

ABOUT A DOZEN PROTESTERS BLOCKED THE ENTRANCE TO THE COMPANY’S PARKING GARAGE AT SEMPRA’S DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO HEADQUARTERS.

SAN DIEGO 350'S PHIL PETRIE (PEA-TREE) SAYS SEMPRA NEEDS TO STOP DEALING IN FOSSIL FUELS BECAUSE OF THE IMPACT ON CLIMATE CHANGE.

“THEY WANT TO POSITION THEMSELVES AS A TRULY SUSTAINABLE TRANSITION COMPANY AS WE TRANSITION TO CLEAN ENERGY, BUT THAT’S REALLY NOT THE CASE.  THEY MOSTLY DEAL IN METHANE.  AND METHANE IS AN EXTREMELY POTENT GREENHOUSE GAS.  SO METHANE CAUSES CLIMATE CHANGE AND THEY ARE STILL CAUSING CLIMATE CHANGE AND WE NEED TO STOP THAT.”  

PROTESTERS SAY LOCAL RESIDENTS ARE FEELING THE IMPACT OF A DROUGHT THAT IS MORE INTENSE BECAUSE OF CLIMATE CHANGE… AND THEY SAY THE COMPANY’S ENERGY RATES ARE TOO HIGH, WITH ONE-IN-FOUR FAMILIES UNABLE TO PAY THEIR POWER BILLS.

WHEN REACHED FOR COMMENT, SEMPRA ENERGY EMAILED K-P-B-S SAYING, "THE FACT IS, SUSTAINABILITY IS AT THE CORE OF OUR BUSINESS STRATEGY.”

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There are seven statewide propositions on your ballot this fall.

With the details you need to cast an informed vote, here’s Joe Hong with your “Prop in a Minute” explainer from CalMatters.

He explains Proposition 28.

Proposition 28 would beef up funding for arts education in school districts – especially those with more low-income students. Today, California requires that all public school students get some form of art instruction. But the quality of education can vary based on where you live. This measure won’t raise taxes, but it will affect the budget. Right now, California guarantees that about 40 percent of the state’s general fund goes to education. Prop. 28 would add 1 percent to that and dedicate it to arts instruction. For next year, that comes out to about an additional 1 billion dollars.So far, no one has spent money to oppose the measure. So vote yes if you want California to give more money to schools for art and music. And vote no if you don’t. In Sacramento, I’m Joe Hong. 

You can find explainers on all of this year’s ballot propositions at CalMatters-dot-org.

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That’s it for the podcast today. As always you can find more San Diego news online at KPBS dot org. There you can also listen in or watch the meeting today of the House committee investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol. It starts at 10 a-m. I’m John Carroll. Thanks for listening and have a great day.

Residents of Imperial County are hoping for a Lithium gold rush. In other news, the San Diego County Health department is now investigating an outbreak at a local high school after hundreds of students came down with flu-like symptoms. Plus, we have a COVID update from a local health expert.