Newsletter: How did a plane end up dropping jet fuel on an L.A. playground?

An empty playground at Park Avenue Elementary School in Cudahy after jet fuel was dumped on students playing on the playground.
An empty playground at Park Avenue Elementary School in Cudahy after jet fuel was dumped on students playing on the playground. Students and school staff were treated for injuries, including skin irritation, by emergency services.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, Jan. 15, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

The Shanghai-bound plane had only been in the air for a few minutes when it abruptly veered off course on Tuesday morning, turning north over the Pacific Ocean toward Malibu. The Delta jetliner would eventually make an emergency landing back at Los Angeles International Airport just 25 minutes after takeoff.

But first it would take a looping route over the San Fernando Valley and through southeastern Los Angeles County before the plane made an emergency fuel dump that rained down on Cudahy’s Park Avenue Elementary. Twenty children and 11 adults were treated for minor injuries at the school.


[Read the story: “Jet fuel dumped on schoolchildren sparks questions, outrage” in the Los Angeles Times]

“I saw an airplane and I thought smoke was coming out,” sixth-grader Miguel Cervantes told my colleague Eastside reporter Andrew Campa. “Then when it got closer, I knew it was gas because a little bit fell on me.”

Students were also affected at several elementary schools in South Gate, just south of Cudahy. A total of 60 patients were treated, at least 20 of whom were children.

Why was the fuel dumped?

Fuel dumping is a very infrequent practice, and one that is used only in case of emergencies or if pilots have to lessen the load of the plane to land. When it does happen, pilots try and dump fuel over water or at higher altitudes, so the fuel can atomize and disperse before it hits the ground.

[Read the story: “Why did Delta jet shower fuel on schoolchildren? Experts call it rare and concerning” in the Los Angeles Times]

Why the incident hit a nerve in this community

With the area’s proximity to heavy industry and the 710 corridor (where goods move from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach to freight rail yards), the communities of southeast L.A. County have long battled environmental injustices.

And Cudahy’s Park Avenue Elementary School had faced environmental issues long before jet fuel rained down on the playground. As my colleagues write in their story, the school itself was built on an old city dump site that contained petroleum-contaminated soil and several pockets of tar-like petroleum sludge. The school was closed for an eight-month period in the 1990s, after tar-like petroleum sludge began to seep up from the ground.

“Why is it always our communities having to deal with the brunt of these issues?” Elizabeth Alcantar, the city’s newly appointed mayor, told a Times reporter.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

L.A. Metro has a plan to fix plummeting ridership: More buses and fewer stops on major streets. If approved, the plan would be the first overhaul of the region’s bus network in more than 25 years. Riders would see changes on the street by the end of next year. Los Angeles Times

The California primary remains up for grabs. Seven weeks before the state’s March 3 primary, a poll found that no single candidate was dominating the field among Democratic voters in the state. Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are essentially in a three-way race for California, with Sanders slightly leading the pack. Los Angeles Times

Four members of the Bay Area group Moms 4 Housing were arrested before dawn on Tuesday morning when law enforcement served an eviction notice on a home in West Oakland where a group of women had been living in a vacant home since November. Los Angeles Times


A sweeping proposal by the Trump administration to help Los Angeles’ growing homeless population may come with strings attached, raising questions about whether a deal can be worked out between the city and the White House. Los Angeles Times

Three USC senior athletics officials are out. Steve Lopes, who’d long been considered second in command, was among the three officials USC fired. Los Angeles Times

L.A. City Council’s first Latina president took the helm at Tuesday’s meeting. In a speech at City Hall, Nury Martinez announced new proposals to reexamine Los Angeles’ strategy on homelessness. Los Angeles Times

Nury Martinez receives flowers from her 10-year-old daughter Isabelle Guzman after Martinez addressed the crowded City Council chambers Tuesday for the first time as council president.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Where to find the best café de olla in L.A., plus some fascinating history on my personal favorite coffee drink. LAist

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A U.S. judge ruled that the Trump administration is operating within its authority when separating families stopped at the Mexico border, rejecting arguments that it was quietly returning to widespread practices that drew international condemnation. Los Angeles Times


Six candidates took the stage in Des Moines. Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate. Los Angeles Times

A new Trump administration policy will make it harder to bring wage theft lawsuits, but not in California. The new rule will have no effect on California businesses because “our laws are more protective” of workers, according to a California Labor Department spokeswoman. Los Angeles Times

The Senate is expected to begin impeachment preparations Thursday and start trial next week. The trial is expected to last at least two weeks and to consume much of Washington’s attention. Los Angeles Times


How to navigate California’s county jails: A guide for inmates and their loved ones. ProPublica and the Sacramento Bee asked lawyers, civil rights activists and dozens of former inmates and their family members for advice. ProPublica

The Nia Wilson murder trial will remain in Alameda County. A judge ruled against a defense bid to move the trial of the man accused of killing Wilson out of the county. San Francisco Chronicle


An Australia in flames tries to cope with an “animal apocalypse.” Could California be next? Los Angeles Times

More than a year after a young wolf was fatally shot in a windswept corner of northeast California, its death remains unsolved. The wolf’s death underlines the deep and growing conflict between wildlife advocates and the state’s ranchers, disheartened by legal and livestock losses. Mercury News


Rental prices aren’t just rising on the coast: Average rent hit a new high in Modesto, and the average cost for apartments across Stanislaus County has soared by more than 60% since 2012. Modesto Bee

How to deal with that guy wearing a giant backpack on BART and other San Francisco etiquette dilemmas, according to “Judge” John Hodgman. SFGate

“There is something weirdly punk rock about it … you’re just doing stand-up in someone’s house.” This monthly comedy “club” operates out of the backyard of a Long Beach home. Long Beach Press-Telegram


Los Angeles: sunny, 68. San Diego: sunny, 64. San Francisco: cloudy, 54. San Jose: cloudy, 58. Sacramento: cloudy, 53. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from Anita Coleman:

Bright bougainvillea dotted the 101 Freeway median as we drove into Southern California. My 2-year-old squirming in my arms, I, who’d grown up by the beach in south India, self-deprived of the ocean for four years of grad school in the Midwest, now feasted on transcendent ocean views. Compound walls hid the Montecito homes just like [in] my Indian neighborhood, but where Elliott’s Beach is tranquil, here the land kissed the seas in ecstasy and agony creating mountains and valleys. We’d come for my husband’s job. Within weeks, I had one too as librarian at Cate School, Carpinteria. My California dream began in heaven.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.