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Oxnard Residents Are Fighting Slag Heaps, Power Plants And Oil Fields That Mar The Town’s Beaches

OXNARD, CA - JUNE 07, 2017: The Mandalay generating station at Mandalay Beach in Oxnard. The city is

Ventura County’s largest city is a coastal town where miles of power plants, vast tracts of farmland and private oil and gas holdings limit access to the shore.

At Ormond Beach, 750,000 cubic yards of contaminated slag from a former metal recycling plant occupy part of the wetlands. The federal Superfund site stands between the sand and families who live just a few blocks away.

At the north end of the city, McGrath State Beach has been closed to the public since 2014, and an electrical generating station — one of three gas-fired plants on the Oxnard coast — is a towering eyesore and a source of air pollution above the shoreline. A fourth is planned.

Many residents of this predominantly Latino city with a population of 205,000 say they are fed up with the degradation. Their growing dissatisfaction with the condition of large sections of beach has coalesced into an effort to deindustrialize and restore the shoreline of this city that is framed by Ventura and Camarillo and wraps around the town of Port Hueneme.

“We just want to stop the abuse and get our coast back,” said Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Ramirez. “It’s clear who gets stuck with all the dirty stuff. What other city has three power plants and a Superfund site on the beach? The people of Oxnard have paid their dues.”

Since the mid-2000s, activists, community groups and elected officials have defeated an offshore liquefied natural gas facility and successfully pushed the federal government to declare the Ormond Beach mess a Superfund site.

The City Council passed a moratorium to stop new power plant construction on the beach, and municipal officials are revising Oxnard’s key planning documents to eliminate industrial uses on the coast in the future.

More recently, community groups and city leaders have joined with environmentalists and alternative energy advocates, such as hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, to block construction of the Puente Power Project, a new gas-fired electrical generating station at Mandalay Beach.

 

Irma J. Lopez, left, and her husband, Manuel M. Lopez, have been fighting since 1977 to deindustrial

Irma J. Lopez, left, and her husband, Manuel M. Lopez, have been fighting since 1977 to deindustrialize the Oxnard coastline.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“A lot of decisions were made many, many years ago, and what was deemed OK then is not OK today,” said Manuel “Manny” Lopez, 90, a retired optometrist and longtime Oxnard councilman turned environmental activist. “We used to think the beach was a good place for industry. But people are more sophisticated now. There is more public support for these places.”

The increasing activism and changing attitudes about the Oxnard coast also reflect a growing movement concerned that low-income, minority communities across the nation often bear a disproportionate amount of harmful pollution from industrial development.

The population of Oxnard is about 75% Latino, 7.5% Asian, 2.4% African American and 1% Pacific Islander. The per capita income is less than $20,000 a year, and nearly half of all adults have less than a high school education.

The city ranks in the top 20% of the most environmentally burdened communities in the state, with some parts ranking within the top 10%, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency.

A lot of decisions were made many, many years ago, and what was deemed OK then is not OK today.

MANUEL “MANNY” LOPEZ, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST.

Statistics from the California Department of Public Health further indicate that Oxnard, which is known for its agricultural production, has more students attending school near the highest levels of toxic pesticide use in the state.

Reclaiming the coast “is an environmental justice issue in terms of exposure to pollutants and getting access to a beautiful natural resource,” said Maricela Morales, executive director of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. “People here are exposed to dust and pesticides from farming as well as emissions from power plants and other industrial sources.”

Allegations of unfair treatment of the area’s poor residents and people of color have been raised in the ongoing controversy over whether to build the $250-million Puente Power Project, a replacement for two aging and obsolete generating stations located on 36 acres in the coastal dunes and wetlands of Mandalay Beach.

Southern California Edison owns the site, and Houston-based NRG Energy would build, own and operate the plant, which is unaffected by the city’s moratorium. The old units and stacks would be removed if Puente goes into operation in the next few years.

The natural gas plant is designed to provide extra electricity if needed during peak demand times, such as cold snaps and heat waves.