When Lucas Zucker talks about rising sea levels in California, his first thoughts aren’t about the waves crashing into the posh Orange County homes, or the state’s most iconic beaches shrinking. from year to year.
What worries him the most are the three power plants looming on the Oxnard coast, and the toxic waste site that has languished there for decades. There are also two naval bases, unknown military dumpsites, and a smog-spitting harbor. A single flood could trigger a flow of industrial chemicals and overwhelm its working-class community, mostly Latino.
“The California coast is marked by massive inequalities. People don’t realize that because they are going to Malibu, they are going to Santa Barbara. These 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 of these communities, and it’s the same story.
These predominantly black and brown communities, in fact, are five times more likely than the general population to live within half a mile of a toxic site that could be inundated by 2050, according to a new mapping project. statewide led by environmental health professors at UC Berkeley. and UCLA. In total, the ocean could flood more than 400 hazardous facilities by the turn of the century, exposing nearby residents to dangerous chemicals and polluted water.
The three-year project, dubbed Toxic Tides, is the first systematic examination of the environmental justice ramifications of sea level rise and dangerous sites along the entire California coast. Working with advocates like Zucker, the researchers have created a series of searchable maps that collate where in California this flooding could be occurring, which industrial facilities are particularly at risk, and how these threats disproportionately affect low-income communities of color.
The new analysis, released at a virtual workshop on Tuesday, comes at a time when more and more state officials and lawmakers are beginning to grapple with the social and economic realities of sea level rise and climate change. . All over California, high waves are already flooding homes. Major roads, utility lines and other critical infrastructure are moving closer and closer to the sea.
Over the next decade alone, the ocean could rise more than half a foot – with heavy storms and El Niño cycles expected to make matters worse.
A growing body of research is now investigating how rising waters 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 toxics control officials have launched 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 affected by potential flooding from industrial chemicals currently stored underground.
“This is where the conversation absolutely needs to go,” said Patrick Barnard, whose US Geological Survey research team performed extensive flood modeling used by officials statewide. “We have 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 – have partnered with Zucker and a number of community groups to design an online tool that could help fill some data gaps. in this lesser-known area of sea level rise.
They sifted through tons of information from federal databases that keep track of landfills, toxic cleanup sites, oil wells, refineries, sewage treatment plants, and other industrial facilities. Work with nonprofit science and the Climate Central press agency, they integrated various sea level rise scenarios. Finally, they identified the communities most at risk.
Throughout this process, they turned to people living in threatened communities to help them identify data gaps. Community organizers also provided information on data points to use – beyond race and income – as a measure of social vulnerability.
While most residents living near a toxic site are not fluent in English, for example, the barriers to understanding flood risks – and how to advocate for solutions – are far greater. Voter turnout, unemployment, the percentage of people who actually own their home (or even a car) are also factors that indicate how much a community lacks political power, insurance protection, and even the ability to evacuate in case emergency.
“We know from past floods that wealthy communities aren’t the ones suffering the most from the 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 the center of the conversation in a way that it should be.”
Zucker, political director of the economic and environmental justice group CAUSE, said he never had the data to make his case. In presentations to various decision makers, he always spoke anecdotally about the struggles at Oxnard – then did his best to make connections to similar stories he saw in other communities in California.
Now, he said, he can bring up that 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 regularly report dizziness, nosebleeds and headaches, more than 10 industrial facilities, landfills and incinerators – and two dozen wells of oil and gas – are expected to flood regularly for decades to come.
And in the region of Oxnard Sud and Port Hueneme alone, nine dangerous sites are at risk of flooding. The Halaco Superfund site – contaminated by decades of metal recycling and awaiting cleanup since 2004 – is expected to be flooded at least seven times a year by the turn of the century.
“Time is running out for communities who know that these cleanup efforts have already taken so long – and are likely to continue to take incredibly long times,” said Zucker, who now works 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 researcher at UC Berkeley who has spent years studying the problem in specific Bay Area communities, said flooding could hit neighborhoods even sooner than expected.
“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Hill, who noted that taking into account storm surges, high tides – and especially groundwater that rises as the sea moves toward it. inland – will paint an even clearer picture of how quickly chemicals buried in a toxic site could begin to move through pipes or house cracks.
“No one really tracks the effects of tides, for example, during the rainy season on the underground movement of these chemicals,” said Hill, who teaches environmental planning. “Even before the waves reach these sites, as the sea level rises, it’s already a poisonous soup that is spreading underground.”
This issue has been a top priority for Mark Gold, Deputy Secretary to the Governor for Coastal and Ocean Policy. He is encouraged by the record sums the state has spent this year on climate change adaptation, he said, including major sea level rise legislation that specifically allocates additional funds. to coastal communities that are disproportionately affected by industrialization.
Research which now focuses on contaminated sites, he said, “is extremely important because it helps identify areas that should be prioritized for cleanup.”
As more funding and political attention turn to sea level rise, many warn of the tendency to reinforce existing environmental injustices. It’s no coincidence that low-income communities of color are those who live with highways, refineries and other dangerous infrastructure that no one wants in their neighborhood.
“A lot of our culture and our society is measured by where we invest our money,” said Effie Turnbull Sanders, California Coastal Commission Environmental Justice Commissioner. “The more data we have, the more opportunities we have to disrupt the status quo and paint a picture that truly exposes 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 that picture.
Armenta often begins with a presentation that maps Oakland neighborhoods that had been demarcated in the 1930s. On the next slide, Armenta overlays a map showing all of the city’s toxic sites. Then a map of all the neighborhoods that could be inundated by rising sea levels.
“This is the crux of the matter,” Armenta said, noting the glaring overlaps. “We let certain populations bear the brunt of pollution from our industry, and because they were vulnerable populations, we did nothing about it.”