Oxnard, California, USA – For years, poor communities of color have lived with a disproportionate share of the burdens generated by fossil fuel production, including pollution and proximity to industrial sites.
Today, as California looks to transition to renewable energy to cover 100 percent of its electricity needs by 2045, the future of some of the US state’s 217 natural gas plants is uncertain. In a cruel twist, the same communities that have suffered from generations of pollution could now bear the costs of dismantling and cleaning up old fossil fuel facilities.
Oxnard, located about 100 km northwest of Los Angeles, on the central coast of California, is one of those cities. Home to a mostly working-class Latino community, it has seen numerous industrial facilities dotted along its otherwise pristine shoreline. Some now lie empty, while questions about the future of this land and the substantial clean-up costs linger.
For Shirley and Larry Godwin, who bought a house in Oxnard in 1966, such questions have made them “accidental activists.”
On the kitchen table, they lay out a hand-drawn map of the area surrounding their neighborhood, including a slag heap abandoned years ago by the company that operated it, and two natural gas plants, one idle and one active, both fueling a contentious debate within. community.
Several blocks away is a plant that makes paper for cardboard boxes, and a small train track carries goods through the Godwins’ backyard several times a day.
“Every time we took our kids to the beach, you could count on seeing exhaust coming out of one of the gas plants,” Shirley Godwin told Al Jazeera. “Our community does not agree on everything, but there is one thing that unites almost everyone, and that is that almost no one wants them. [energy companies] stay.”
In 2018, after years of mobilizing local groups like the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) around issues of environmental justice and renewable alternatives, Oxnard rejected an attempt by an energy company, NRG, to build another plant. of natural gas. on its coast.
“It’s a part of the California coast that people don’t see, coastal communities like Oxnard with large working-class communities of color,” Lucas Zucker, director of policy and communications for CAUSE, told Al Jazeera. “It is no coincidence that these stretches of industrialized shoreline are found in communities like Oxnard. As the state transitions to renewable energy, what happens to this fossil fuel infrastructure?
A recent study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, in coordination with several community organizations, including CAUSE, found that Oxnard and the surrounding area are at increased risk of flooding at industrial sites due to sea level rise caused by climate change. .
The same study found that disadvantaged communities are more than five times more likely to live within a kilometer of industrial sites at risk of flooding by 2050. “Sea level rise, toxic facilities and social vulnerability are interrelated” Zucker said.
For those tasked with threading the needle between a future without fossil fuels and the thorny dilemmas of how to finance the cleanup of former industrial sites, there is no easy path forward.
In 2020, Oxnard City Manager Alexander Nguyen helped broker a deal with power company GenOn, extending life of the Ormond Beach Generating Station, a natural gas plant, until 2023, in exchange for a portion of the profits ($25 million) earmarked for a trust dedicated to the cleanup.
“People ask what we’ll do if $25 million isn’t enough to take down the site, and I always give the same answer: We’ll still be $25 million ahead of where we would be otherwise,” Nguyen told Al Jazeera.
The California State Water Resources Control Board had initially suggested that Ormond, along with a number of similar plants across the state that use ocean water for their cooling systems in an ecosystem-damaging way, be closed. But in September 2020, in response to concerns that without the plants, the state’s power supply might be inadequate, the board suggested (PDF) that will remain open until 2023.
Nguyen points to what he calls “20th-century landmarks” scattered across California: gas plants that have been rudely abandoned by the companies that once operated them, leaving cities like Morro Bay unable to afford the prohibitive costs of knock them down .
“In California, you can force a plant to close, but you can’t dismantle it. So other plants have been dismantled, and now they’re just sitting there, rusting and seeping into the ground,” Nguyen said. “What I didn’t want is for that to happen in Oxnard.”
GenOn did not respond to an Al Jazeera request for comment on the deal with Oxnard to extend the life of the Ormond plant.
A short drive north, the Oxnard coast is protected by another natural gas plant, the Mandalay Generating Station, which has been idle since 2018. A local newspaper, the Ventura County Star, reported that the site was recently sold to an LLC, formed earlier this year, for about $8.7 million. According to the newspaper, the new owners have offered no information about the future of the site and elected officials have expressed hope that it will be more than just an industry.
Mandalay was previously owned by GenOn, the same company that oversees the Ormond plant. Visible from miles away, the closed floor plan and its huge chimneys dominate the landscape.
Even with the future of such sites in doubt, the Godwins remain optimistic about what lies ahead for their community, all the while speaking with fierce pride about the city they call home.
“We always say that we were two of the least likely people to get involved in activism. I’m terrified of public speaking,” said Shirley Godwin. “But we love our community. When we got involved in these issues, we met many people from different class and cultural backgrounds. It’s a diverse community, and that’s what we like about it.”