Los Angeles Times

400 toxic sites in state at risk from sea level rise

Poorer areas to be profoundly affected, analysis finds

- By Rosanna Xia

When Lucas Zucker talks about sea level rise in California, his first thoughts aren’t about waves crashing onto fancy homes in Orange County, nor the state’s most iconic beaches shrinking year after year.

What worries him most are the three power plants looming over the Oxnard coast, and the toxic waste site that has languished there for decades. There are also two naval bases, unknown military dumps and a smog-spewing port. Just one flood could unleash a flow of industrial chemicals and overwhelm his working-class, mostly Latino community.

“The coast of California is marked by massive inequality. People don’t realize that because they go to Malibu, they go to Santa Barbara. Those are the beaches that people see and are familiar with,” said Zucker, a longtime advocate for environmen­tal justice. “They don’t think of places like Wilmington, West Long Beach, Barrio Logan, West Oakland, Richmond, Bayview-Hunters Point. You can name all these communitie­s, and it’s the same story.”

These pre

dominately Black and brown communitie­s, in fact, are five times more likely than the general population to be within half a mile of a toxic site that could flood by 2050, according to a new statewide mapping project led by environmen­tal health professors at UC Berkeley and UCLA. All told, the ocean could inundate more than 400 hazardous facilities by the end of the century — exposing nearby residents to dangerous chemicals and polluted water.

This three-year project, dubbed Toxic Tides, is the first systematic look at the environmen­tal justice ramificati­ons of sea level rise and hazardous sites along the entire coast of California. In collaborat­ion with advocates like Zucker, researcher­s created a series of searchable maps that piece together where in California this flooding could occur, which industrial facilities face particular­ly risk and how these threats disproport­ionately affect lower-income communitie­s of color.

This new analysis, released Tuesday during a virtual workshop, comes at a time when more officials and state legislator­s are starting to confront the social and economic realities of sea level rise and climate change. Across California, high surf is already flooding homes. Major roads, utility lines and other critical infrastruc­ture are dangling ever closer to the sea.

In just the next decade, the ocean could rise more than half a foot — with heavy storms and cycles of El Niño projected to make things even worse.

A growing body of research is now investigat­ing how rising water will flood communitie­s built on or near contaminat­ed land. Efforts to study this issue in the San Francisco Bay Area have become increasing­ly coordinate­d, and state toxic substances control officials have started their own mapping project. At Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Northridge, a team of researcher­s recently launched a project to examine which communitie­s in the state could be most harmed by potential flooding of industrial chemicals currently stored undergroun­d.

“This is where the conversati­on absolutely has to go,” said Patrick Barnard, whose research team at the U.S. Geological Survey has done extensive flood modeling used by officials across the state. “We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of sea level rise projection­s. The next important step is: How do we translate that into vulnerabil­ity and impacts?”

With the new Toxic Tides project, two environmen­tal health scientists — Rachel Morello-Frosch at UC Berkeley and Lara Cushing at UCLA — teamed up with Zucker and a number of community groups to design an online tool that could help fill some data gaps in this less-talked-about realm of sea level rise.

They sorted through reams of informatio­n from federal databases that keep track of landfills, toxic cleanup sites, oil wells, refineries, sewage treatment plants and other industrial facilities. Working with the nonprofit science and news organizati­on Climate Central, they integrated various sea level rise scenarios. Finally, they pieced together which communitie­s could be most at risk.

Throughout the process, they turned to those living in threatened communitie­s for help identifyin­g data gaps. Community organizers also provided insight into which data points to use — beyond race and income — as a measure of social vulnerabil­ity.

If most of the residents living near a toxic site are not fluent in English, for example, the barriers to understand­ing the flood risks — and how to advocate for solutions — are far greater. Voter turnout, unemployme­nt and the percentage of people who own their home (or even a car) are also factors indicating how much a community lacks political power, insurance protection and even the ability to evacuate in an emergency.

“We know from past flood events that the wealthy communitie­s are not the ones that suffer the greatest impacts,” Cushing said, pointing to recent disasters in New Orleans and Houston. “The vulnerabil­ities of environmen­tal justice communitie­s to sea level rise have not been front and center in the conversati­on in a way that it should be.”

Zucker, policy director for the economic and environmen­tal justice group CAUSE, said he never had the data to make his case. During presentati­ons to various policymake­rs, he has always spoken anecdotall­y about the struggles in Oxnard — and then did his best to link to similar stories he’s seen in other communitie­s across California.

Now, he said, he can pull up this map and zoom in on all the hot spots. In the community of Wilmington near the Port of Los Angeles, for example, where many residents routinely report dizziness, nosebleeds and headaches, more than 10 industrial facilities, landfills and incinerato­rs — and two dozen oil and gas wells — are projected to routinely flood in the coming decades.

And in the South Oxnard and Port Hueneme area alone, there are nine hazardous sites at risk of flooding. The Halaco Superfund site — contaminat­ed by decades of metal recycling and awaiting cleanup since 2004 — is projected to flood at least seven times per year by the end of the century.

“The clock is ticking for communitie­s that know these cleanup efforts have taken so long already — and are likely going to continue to take incredibly long amounts of time,” said Zucker, who is now working with the Asian Pacific Environmen­tal Network, Physicians for Social Responsibi­lity-Los Angeles and other project partners to help communitie­s translate these maps into action.

Kristina Hill, a UC Berkeley researcher who has spent years studying this issue in specific Bay Area communitie­s, said the flooding could hit neighborho­ods even sooner than projected.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Hill, who noted that factoring in storm surges, high tides — and especially groundwate­r that gets pushed up as the sea moves inland — will paint an even clearer picture of just how soon the chemicals buried in a toxic site could start to move into the pipes or cracks of homes.

“No one is really tracking the effects of tides, for example, during the wet season on the undergroun­d movement of these chemicals,” said Hill, who teaches environmen­tal planning. “Before the waves even get to these sites, as sea level rises, it’s already a toxic soup spreading undergroun­d.”

This issue has been a top priority for Mark Gold, the governor’s deputy secretary for coastal and ocean policy. He’s encouraged by the record amounts of money the state dedicated this year to climate change adaptation, he said, including major sea level rise legislatio­n that specifical­ly earmarks additional funding for coastal communitie­s that are disproport­ionately burdened by industrial­ization.

The research now focusing on contaminat­ed sites, he said, “is extremely important because it helps identify areas that need to be prioritize­d for cleanup.”

As more funding and political attention turn to sea level rise, many caution against the tendency to reinforce existing environmen­tal injustices. It is not a coincidenc­e that lower-income communitie­s of color are the ones living with freeways, refineries and other hazardous infrastruc­ture that no one wants in their neighborho­od.

“Our culture and our society are measured in great part in where we invest our dollars,” said Effie Turnbull Sanders, the California Coastal Commission’s environmen­tal justice commission­er. “The more data we have, the more opportunit­y we have to disrupt the status quo and paint a picture that truly exposes the discrimina­tory land-use policies of the past — and those that continue into the future.”

At the Oakland Shoreline Leadership Academy, a new program that guides residents through the technical world of coastal planning, Phoenix Armenta has spent years manually piecing together this picture.

Armenta often starts with a presentati­on that maps the neighborho­ods in Oakland that had been redlined in the 1930s. On the next slide, Armenta overlays a map showing all the toxic sites in the city. Then a map of all the neighborho­ods that could be flooded by sea level rise.

“This is the crux of the problem,” Armenta said, noting the stark overlaps. “We have allowed certain population­s to bear the brunt of the pollution of our industry, and because they’ve been vulnerable population­s, we haven’t done anything about it.”

 ?? Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times ?? IN OXNARD, the Halaco Superfund site, awaiting cleanup since 2004, is projected to f lood at least seven times per year by the end of the century.
Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times IN OXNARD, the Halaco Superfund site, awaiting cleanup since 2004, is projected to f lood at least seven times per year by the end of the century.
 ?? Photograph­s by Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times ?? IN WILMINGTON, near the Port of Los Angeles, more than 10 industrial facilities, landfills and incinerato­rs — and two dozen oil and gas wells — are projected to routinely flood in the coming decades, new research finds.
Photograph­s by Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times IN WILMINGTON, near the Port of Los Angeles, more than 10 industrial facilities, landfills and incinerato­rs — and two dozen oil and gas wells — are projected to routinely flood in the coming decades, new research finds.
 ?? ?? LOW-INCOME communitie­s like Wilmington are five times more likely than the general population to be within half a mile of a toxic site that could f lood by 2050.
LOW-INCOME communitie­s like Wilmington are five times more likely than the general population to be within half a mile of a toxic site that could f lood by 2050.

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