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Toxic Tides in California: What could the future look like along the coast
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Toxic Tides in California: What could the future look like along the coast

The Reliant power plant on the wetlands of Ormond Beach is one of more than 400 toxic facilities in California at risk for severe flooding events before 2100.


California’s 840-mile coastline is what many Americans consider the state’s best feature. It boasts sandy beaches and multimillion-dollar homes along its length. As sea levels continue to rise, it’s no secret then, that the state and its inhabitants are facing a crisis. Hollywood also knows this. movie after movie over the last decade has depicted the state’s biggest monuments being taken by the sea. 

Amee Raval and Lucas Zucker have greater fears than the Santa Monica Pier being swept away by the ocean. “People tend to only think about certain destinations, your Malibus and Santa Barbaras — places where celebrities live — these loom large in the public imagination and they shape how policymakers think about sea-level rise,” Zucker, a policy director at Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE, told Grist. 

But, Zucker says, if you actually took the 840 mile trip along the coast, you’d see a different reality. “You would see huge swaths of the coast that have been primarily used for heavy industry, commercial shipping, and toxic military bases,” he explained. These swaths could be home to majority Black or Latino communities, who are not unfamiliar with the effects of polluting and toxic chemicals. 

These two environmental justice activists from California are almost 400 miles apart. They represent a group of California residents living in predominantly Black or Latino communities who are five times more likely to live within a half-mile of a toxic location that could flood by 2050. According to a new statewide mapping projectLead by UCLA and UC Berkeley environmental health professors (including Grist board member Rachel MorelloFrosch). The study details more than 400 hazardous facilities that could be affected by major flooding events by the end the century. This could expose residents to toxic water and other dangerous chemicals. 

The Reliant power plant on the wetlands of Ormond Beach is one of more than 400 toxic facilities in California at risk for severe flooding events before 2100.
The Reliant power station on the wetlands at Ormond Beach is just one of more than 400 toxic facilities that are at risk of severe flooding events in California before 2100.
Ricardo DeAratanha/LAT via Getty Images

The Toxic Tides project is a first-of-its-kind look at the consequences of sea-level rise on California’s historically neglectedIn the hope of encouraging more federal and State officials to address the crisis and transition away toxic facilities, environmental justice communities are forming a coalition. “It adds to the urgency,” Raval, policy director at the Asian Pacific Environmental NetworkGrist was told by APEN or a representative of PEN. “We’re equipped and supported now with the data and the research to legitimize our community concern and our vision for a just transition.”

CAUSE, located in Ventura County, and APEN in Richmond and Oakland were joined by three other environmental justice organizations and academic researchers. They spent three years combing through federal toxic monument databases and interviewing residents throughout the state to create the new maps. In all, the coalition created a series of searchable maps and databases to weave together California’s flooding hotspots, which industrial facilities face particular risk, and how lower-income communities of color would be disproportionately impacted. Raval said that the hotspots they discovered were not surprising, but still alarming. 

“We know who the polluters are. The same big polluters that are destabilizing our climate and driving sea-level rise,” Raval said. “When these toxic facilities flood, they will release even more toxins into our air, water, and land.”  

The project is described three major hotspots: Wilmington, Richmond, Oxnard, California. In Wilmington, a pocket of South Los Angeles dubbed an “island in a sea of petroleum,” at least 20 industrial facilities, landfills, oil terminals, and incinerators are expected to regularly flood this century. At least nine of the most vulnerable sites to flooding are located in Oxnard. Up the coast, in Richmond, there is a number of toxic sites that are at risk, including Chevron, an oil refinery that produces more than 10,000,000 gallons of oil per day. It is the 27th largest refinery.

Wilmington, a small town near the Port of Los Angeles is home to approximately 20 toxic facilities that are susceptible to flooding from sea level rise.
Adam Mahoney/Grist

Because of the immediate effects that will be felt by affected community members advocates like Raval and Zucker understood how important it is to present this data not only to policymakers but to the people who live there. This was especially important in the three areas highlighted by the project, which all contain thousands of non-English speakers. As an environmental justice organizer, Raval says, it’s vitally important to meet people where they are and to meet their specific needs. The group spent months explaining their findings to residents up and down the state in an effort to combine their research “with making those authentic partnerships with community members and advocates who live this reality every day.” 

Toxic Tides coalition works to educate and organize their communities. They also work to secure funds for cleanup and transition from toxic sites. However, they do not seek to increase social inequalities or environmental injustices. These groups are urging for funds to be allocated in the newly passed legislation. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Superfund cleanup provisionsTo be used at many of the sites listed in the project. The coalition hopes to leverage state-level support. California’s recent $30 billion budget surplusto be used in frontline communities for environmental justice. 

“We can’t be dismissed or not taken seriously anymore,” Zucker said. “Our communities already knew of all this was going on in our backyards, but now we have the numbers and the data visualizations to back it up to scholars, planners, and elected officials.” 


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