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As high school auto shops grow scarce nationwide, an SF program prevails

An unlikely trend is unfolding in San Francisco’s public high schools — and it isn’t happening on TikTok.

One of the most popular electives for teens today isn’t robotics, chorus or debate. It’s automotive studies.

“It’s the beginning of a revival,” said George Washington High School auto shop teacher Andre Higginbotham.

Once upon a time, trade programs at high schools were a billed as a way to learn practical skills that would serve teens well in a lucrative mechanics career. But in the early 2000s, many were shut down and turned into academic classrooms, swapping hydraulic lifts and calipers for desks and blackboards.

“Around the ’90s, there was a big push for students to attend traditional (four-year) colleges,” Higginbotham said. “At the same time, we had a generation of shop teachers retiring. For the overwhelming majority of school districts, that pretty much killed most of the trade programs for teens.”

That included Washington High’s auto class, which shuttered in 2006. But in 2008, the San Francisco Unified School District began exploring the idea of reintroducing the course and recruited Higginbotham, a history teacher at the time, to be at the helm.

Nobody knew what to expect when an afterschool pilot program was launched in 2010.

“We had a really small budget and a really small group of kids,” said Higginbotham, a trained mechanic. “The shop was kind of a hodgepodge collection of donated tools and things we scrounged up from other school sites and basements.”

The pilot program was a roaring success — so much so that the school could no longer sustain it as an afterschool program alone. In 2013, the district moved to make it an elective offered during the school day.

Higginbotham and his students even applied for and won a million-dollar grant in 2018 to help modernize its resources and facilities — “huge for a public school program that is, nowadays, rare,” he said. “It was like a movie.”

High school auto shops are becoming a rarity in the Bay Area, despite the fact that dealerships across the state need more service technicians — and that California has an entrenched car culture.

Last month, James Humpheries, service manager at Silveira Chevrolet in Sonoma, told the North Bay Business Journal that he has 11 mechanics and could use at least three more.

Humpheries lamented the demise of the high school auto shop class, given the growing demand and depleting supply of mechanics.

“They are not getting the experience to find out if an auto shop is something they would be interested in at a young age,” Humpheries told the NBBJ.

Rick Greenspan, who has taught the automotive technology program at College of Alameda for over 40 years, told the Examiner “it’s really cool” that an auto shop for teens even exists in the Bay Area. He doesn’t know of any such program in the East Bay.

“In the olden days, all the high schools had some kind of metal shop, wood shop or an automotive shop. All those things have disappeared,” he said.

“There have been more job openings on our bulletin boards than ever” in his four decades of teaching, Greenspan said. “They just can’t find people to fix cars. And it isn’t just cars, think about Amazon warehouses. What happens when a forklift breaks, who fixes the forklift? The people that know a thing or two about automotive technology.”

And while the automotive industry is racing toward zero-emission vehicles, Greenspan asserts that the process of servicing an electric vehicle versus a gas-powered one is “basically the same.”

“If you know how to do an alignment on a 2010 car, and a Tesla comes in that needs an alignment, it’s the same process,” he said. “If you’re an orthopedist, you probably have to learn the basics about bones and cartilage first — the same is true for automotive, especially at the high school level.”

Washington High auto shop students primarily work with donated cars, so makes and models are limited. While Higginbotham said his students do work with electric vehicle engines, he hopes to work with more advanced cars in the future.

“At this point, most of our vehicles are from 2008 to 2016, which is great because we were previously working with dinosaurs from the ’90s,” he said.

Dinosaurs or not, having teens work around two-ton machines makes safety a top priority. Although getting hurt is the “nature of the beast” when working around a 5,000-pound car, “things can go really wrong if you’re not acting responsibly,” Higginbotham said.

But the history-turned-auto teacher said he is constantly reminded of the personal responsibility of his students. The kids know the stakes are high, and they hold each other accountable, he said. In his 16 years of teaching various courses, auto shop is the only classroom in which he has seen such a dynamic.

“This isn’t social studies class where we are trying to persuade kids to learn,” he said. “Here, everyone truly buys in.”

East Bay companies allegedly discharging PFAS into source of drinking water

Environmental advocates are taking legal action to stop the dumping of “forever chemicals” into a source of East Bay drinking water.

This month, the Center for Environmental Health, an Oakland-based environmental watchdog, filed 60-day notices against two metal-plating facilities — Electro-Coatings of California and Teikuro Corporation — for discharging harmful contaminants, known as PFAS, into groundwater wells.

The notices, a precursor to a formal lawsuit, invoke Proposition 65, which prohibits the discharge of hazardous chemicals into known sources of drinking water — including groundwater.

The company’s self-reported data from the sites found the groundwater contained levels of chemical contamination of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that were more than 100 times the EPA’s proposed limits of 4 parts per trillion, CEH said in a press release.

PFAS is an umbrella term for a class of some 15,000 chemicals that have been in use since the 1940s. These chemicals are often resistant to water, stains and heat, making them perfect for flame-retardant clothes or non-stick cookware.

But their imperviousness means PFAS are nearly impossible to break down in the environment, and researchers have linked low levels of exposure to cancer, birth defects, reproductive issues and other health effects.

And now they’re everywhere, said Tracy Woodruff, director of UCSF’s Environmental Research and Translation for Health Center, showing up in soil, waterbodies including San Francisco Bay, air and wildlife. They’ve even found their way into the human bloodstream.

“Studies globally show that everybody in the United States is exposed to these perfluorinated chemicals and they’re found places far from where they’re produced,” said Woodruff.

State and federal leaders have tried to play catch up on curtailing contamination. In 2022, California passed two laws prohibiting the sale of any product containing added PFAS as well as any food packaging containing PFAS.

In November of that year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a lawsuit against 18 manufacturers of PFAS, alleging that the companies failed to inform the public of the potential harm. The EPA’s proposed limits on contamination would apply to six known PFAS chemicals, including the two found in the East Bay wells.

The CEH determined that the chemical discharges have been ongoing since 2020. The source, the group suspects, is a flame suppressant that both companies have used in their daily operations. The goal of litigation like this is to get these companies to move away from using PFAS altogether, said Jimena Diaz Leiva, Science Director at CEH — and to clean up waterways.

“We’re hoping that this was kind of the impetus for a lot more work in coordination, and not just with these facilities, but with state regulators to clean up the many, many, many sources of PFAS contamination in waterways,” she said.

When it comes to drinking water, it’s up to the California Water Board to regulate contaminants like those found by CEH. But the enforcement of regulations has not kept pace with the profusion of chemicals released into the environment. Often, that’s because regulatory bodies lack the bandwidth to monitor compliance that closely, said Lydia Jahl, an associate at the Green Science Policy Institute.

“Basically, what it comes down to is people companies have to do the right thing out of fear of litigation,” said Jahl.

The group’s 60-day notices, filed in partnership with a San Francisco based law firm, require that the two companies immediately control additional discharges of PFAS, clean up the contaminated groundwater and pay a penalty outlined in the state’s health and safety code. Electro-Coatings of California and Teikuro Corporation did not respond to The Examiner’s request for comment at the time of publication.

Still, it remains unclear whether these actions will have a meaningful impact. Cleaning up PFAS is a grueling task — and an expensive one.

Filtration systems can be used, and new research suggests that some of the chemicals, in small quantities, can be broken down. But the testing is in early stages and not ready for any kind of commercial application, according to Jhal.

Ideally, they wouldn’t be used at all, she said.

“You and I can buy a water filter and filter our drinking water,” Jhal said. “But plants and animals — and certainly fish living in the San Francisco Bay — cannot filter the water that’s all around them.”

San Francisco, Walgreens reach historic settlement over opioid crisis

Walgreens will pay San Francisco $230 million for its pharmacies’ role in facilitating the opioid epidemic.

The long-awaited settlement is the largest of its kind with a local government in the country, City Attorney David Chiu announced on Wednesday, and will help fund The City’s efforts to combat addiction and overdoses.

Settlement talks began after a federal judge found last year that Walgreens, a national pharmacy chain based in Illinois, could be held liable for wantonly dispensing prescription opioids in violation of federal law.

“They were more concerned with profit than following their legal obligations,” Chiu said. “They did not give their pharmacists time to conduct due diligence, pressuring their pharmacists to fill, fill, fill.”

In its lawsuit, first filed in 2018, The City alleged that Walgreens’ and other opioid distributors’ failure to rein themselves in helped lead to the epidemic currently playing out in San Francisco homes and — more visibly — on its streets.

San Francisco will be paid over 14 years under the terms of the deal. However, the settlement’s payouts are front-loaded, allowing city leaders to expect a $57 million payout by June 2024.

Walgreens was not the only company identified in the suit, but it was the last to settle. In total, the settlements from the lawsuit have amounted to more than $350 million for The City. The case will now be dismissed.

The City’s initial request from Walgreens was a settlement of $8.1 billion, dozens of times more than the eventual settlement.

After the federal judge’s ruling on Walgreens’ liability last year, Walgreens remained defiant. It remained so


“Walgreens disputes liability and there is no admission of fault in the settlement agreement,” the company said in a statement. “We never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies. The settlement allows us to focus on our mission of reimagining healthcare and well-being for our patients, customers, and communities. Our thoughts are with those impacted by this tragic crisis.”

It remains to be seen how The City will use the settlement funds — a decision that will be made by the mayor and Board of Supervisors.

“San Francisco has been dealing with the impacts of opioids for years, including the need for direct treatment and support for those struggling with addiction. But we’ve also had to deal with associated impacts of opioid addiction such as the need for community ambassadors and other neighborhood support,” Mayor London Breed said Wednesday in a statement. “This funding secured by the City Attorney will help us to maintain and expand key programs in these areas with solutions that we know are working like, treatment beds, dual diagnosis beds, abstinence-based programming, and transitional housing.”

Dr. Grant Colfax, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, touted The City’s efforts to expand treatment services in recent years. Combating criticism that The City fails to meet its goal of providing “treatment on demand,” he stressed that access to medication-assisted-treatment for substance abuse disorder is readily available.

“We have substance-use treatment beds available as we speak,” Colfax said.

The funds from the settlement, Colfax added, will be “critical” support for sustaining The City’s treatment programs.

Many have called on The City to use opioid settlement money to fund a supervised consumption site, where people could use drugs under the watch of a person trained in reversing overdoses.

But Chiu balked, expressing worry that The City could incur liability if it funds such a program, which remains illegal under federal law. He has endorsed the model used in New York City, which allows a private nonprofit to operate two supervised consumption sites without direct (but plenty of indirect) city money.

“There have been many conversations about safe consumption sites and we’ll continue to move things forward,” Chiu said. “Those conversations continue; we’ll see how it goes.”

The City continues to grapple with the consequences of the opioid epidemic about five years after it first filed the lawsuit.

Last year, it opened the Tenderloin Center, which aimed to connect people experiencing homelessness and addiction to treatment and housing. It also served as a de facto supervised consumption site for drug users, the first of its kind in San Francisco, until Mayor London Breed allowed it to close in November.

This year, The City has seen an unprecedented number of fatal accidental drug overdoses, with 66 deaths last month alone. In the first four months of 2023, 268 people have already died of overdoses, according to the most recent city estimate.

Chiu’s press conference on the steps of City Hall took place a short walk away from sidewalks, ledges, and alleyways where numerous people sat slouched over.

These street conditions were central to San Francisco’s legal argument, which was that Walgreens’ negligence created a public nuisance. It’s a claim Walgreens argued was a stretch, but U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer gave credence.

“The effects of the opioid epidemic on San Francisco have been catastrophic,” Breyer wrote. “The city has fought hard and continues to do so, but the opioid epidemic, which Walgreens helped fuel, continues to substantially interfere with public rights in San Francisco.”

Chiu traced the epidemic back more than a decade, when opioid manufacturers pushed to treat pain with powerful synthetic drugs that had previously been reserved for end-of-life care.

The city’s attorneys connected the dispensation of prescribed opioids by pharmacies to the eventual use of illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

Walgreens joined a long list of companies to settle with San Francisco that includes CVS ($11 million), opioid manufacturers Allergan and Teva ($54 million), and Walmart ($6 million).

As with the other settlements, the Walgreens agreement will require approval by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.