There are many unique coastal points along the shores of Ventura County. But this one is different, possessing such great potential to stand out from the rest. So much, in fact, it’s been called “The Jewel of Oxnard,” with an immense value placed on this land for its habitation of endangered animals and native wetlands.

If Ormond Beach were given gemstone designation, it could be classified a diamond, one in the rough, caught somewhere between environmental preservation, commercial development and one very conspicuous neighbor.

0814 Feat1At the heart of the discord is the city’s tempestuous relationship with Halaco, an abandoned metal recycling plant near the shore enclave. Ever longstanding, the tentative plans to clean up potentially toxic waste at the site by 2010 may seem too good to be true.

Halaco’s hellish history

Halaco was up and running at full steam when its Oxnard location on Perkins Road opened in 1965. The churning of mechanic grinders and belching of smokestacks was a common sight for years to anyone who visited the scrap metal smelting plant, during a time when Oxnard’s industrial sector was experiencing a growth pattern.

Grumblings from local watchdogs that Halaco was a terrible polluting force became more common through the years as the modern environmental movement took hold; things finally came to a head by 2001, when a seminal lawsuit was filed.

“They were our leading source of complaints,” said Mike Villegas, executive director of the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District (APCD), a regulatory agency that monitors emissions from industrial companies. “They were going to expand the facility, add another furnace, and we got into a disagreement on the level of control required.”

Halaco sued the district, but the matter was settled out of court, Villegas said. Halaco didn’t learn its lesson from the legal ordeal, however, and by January 2003, received a notice of violation after a district inspector responded to a complaint of fume leakages from the plant.

The county’s district attorney, noted Villegas, filed a criminal complaint against Halaco, and the company was convicted in August of that year for a permit violation over the January incident.

Halaco was placed on probation.

Things went without incident for only so long, and by April 2004, Halaco was violating its probation. The district had put the company through a test gauging its airborne particulate matter; Halaco flunked the exam.

Just four months later, noted Villegas, Halaco once again failed a retest.

By September 2004, officials at Halaco filed for bankruptcy and announced its closure until they could come within compliance. It never happened.

Shut down and abandoned ever since, the plant remains frozen in time yet still showing signs of age and erosion, weather-beaten from saltwater winds. It’s taken on a dangerous air as a cult type of destination with the broken fences and graffiti that litters the walls and pipes of the facility like tattoos from middle-of-the-night trespassers known to break in to the grounds.

Aesthetics aside, there is concern that one discerning feature of the scarred Halaco plant could cause fallout threatening the health of residents and of animals and plant life near the shoreline.

Climbing the mountain

0814 Feat2“I call it Halaco Mountain,” ponders Al Sanders, a local activist who serves as president of the Sierra Club’s Los Padres chapter. “It’s the biggest pile of stuff in Ventura County, by far.”

So big that a 2007 opinion piece in the VC Reporter, “My life as a slag heap,” compared it to the nefarious Jabba the Hut. Sanders’ reference is to the leftover refuse at the Halaco site — a towering slag mass of alloys and metals piled 40 feet high, measuring at least 750,000 cubic yards.

What worries Sanders and others is that Halaco Mountain may contain a mixture of harmful, even lethal, contaminants which could spread to and linger in the local ecosystem even if removed from the premises.

“The issue of what to do with this mountain of waste is a rather daunting one,” Sanders said. “It’s a quandary.”

Short of posting a skull-and-crossbones warning at the entrance of the plant, an “EPA: Superfund” sign hangs on the Halaco fence parallel to Perkins Road. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses the Superfund declaration on areas where hazardous chemicals or materials may pose a real health risk to a community.

The EPA became involved with Halaco shortly after its closure in 2004, according to Wayne Praskins, an EPA spokesperson, when the plant was added to the federal organization’s Superfund list.

The EPA’s job, Praskins explained, is to determine if the Halaco Mountain pile contains dangerous elements, if they impact the environment, and how to remove them. Specialists from the federal agency spent the better parts of 2006 and 2007 stabilizing and cleaning up areas of the site.

“We have work under way to figure out what the nature and extent of contamination is at the sites, to figure out what risks they pose to people, fish, wildlife, and to determine what cleanup work is needed,” he said.

“It’s a lot of work,” Praskins continued. “We have to do additional testing to the groundwater and soil sediments to make sure we have an understanding what the levels of contamination are.”

Those tests and studies could take time to ensure safety, according to Praskins; EPA work on the 37-acre Halaco might not see completion until at least 2010. A cleanup cost is undetermined as yet, as well, though an estimated price tag, according to Sanders, is believed to hover around $50 million.

EPA studies so far on Halaco Mountain, Praskins noted, have yielded quantities of aluminum, magnesium, zinc, copper, lead and cadmium, among others — common elements Halaco extracted during smelting — but also traces of thorium, a slightly radioactive metal.

Testing of local groundwater supplies at Ormond Beach by the EPA have also resulted in a higher concentration of metals and chemicals, most likely from Halaco; some may have traveled eastward into wetland owned by the California Coastal Conservancy.

A silver lining

For the sake of Ormond, the dire discoveries could be just the impetus needed for a proper cleanup of Halaco, where the conservancy is looking to purchase additional wetlands property in hopes it can be preserved for perpetuity.

According to Peter Brand, 265 acres of Ormond wetlands are in the hands of the conservancy, where he is a project manager; and the group is currently seeking another 276, he said.

Brand, also a member of the Ormond Beach Task Force, said the conservancy’s eventual goal is the acquisition and restoration of at least 750 acres of wetlands so they can become self-sustaining.

Ormond Beach’s wetlands are home to several rare birds and fish: the snowy plover and the tidewater goby, among others.

“When it really hit me is when you come to understand this little two-mile stretch of beach has something like nine threatened or endangered species. The list of concern is probably dozens,” said Janet Bridgers, director of New Mexico-based environmental action group Earth Alert.

Bridgers said the Ormond wetlands serve several purposes.

“They have so much importance, not just for wildlife habitat, but because they filter runoff, they provide a buffer for storm surges, they’re habitats for fisheries,” she noted. “There are recreational uses, of course.”

So why would a company like Halaco have chosen to neighbor with a piece of coastal land with so many natural benefits?

It was the nature of the business in the 1960s, explained Brand, pre-Clean Water and Coastal acts, when industrial firms looked for the cheapest land to operate on the California coast. It didn’t matter to them, he said, if they were lagoons or marshlands.

But it’s not only the imposition of sites like Halaco that endangers Ormond Beach’s wetlands future, Brand noted. The area of the lower Oxnard plain, he said, is one of the most vulnerable to sea level rise. It’s one of the reasons 750 preserved acres may not be enough for the conservancy’s intentions.

“That goal has increased because of our recent findings by others, and maps we’ve done of sea level rise,” Brand said.

A water table shift of just one to three feet is enough to endanger permanently the wetlands’ integrity.

“It essentially causes the shoreline and the wetlands to retreat,” Brand noted.

Just like Halaco’s proximity to Ormond Beach, structures built too close to the shoreline may create a seawall effect that could further erode the wetlands.

“It’s important that any development proposals take that into account,” Brand said.

A renewed Ormond Beach?

0814 Feat3A pair of said proposals at Ormond Beach are currently up for consideration by the City of Oxnard. Using Hueneme Road as an east-west bisector, the North and South Ormond Beach projects encompass 917 acres to the east of Halaco.

The 322-acre “North Subarea,” according to city documents, is bordered by Edison Drive to the east, Olds Road at the west, and proposes up to 1,283 residential units, two schools, a pair of parks, an 18-acre lake and light industrial use.

Similarly, the “South Subarea,” composed of 595 acres, includes in city plans a 375-acre business park; the remaining acreage is slated for agricultural use.

Costs for both projects are still undetermined.

An Environmental Impact Report (EIR) detailing the impacts the project as a whole may have on the region was originally released for public view in May 2007. Officials took into account 60 comments made on the document, and the EIR was modified and re-circulated late last month.

Kathleen Mallory, a city planner heading both portions of the development, said in an Email that the new EIR more closely examines how the project may affect water and biological resources at Ormond Beach, as well as air quality. It also explores the possibility of lower impact development as an alternative, should the original proposal fail.

The document is available for public view online and at Oxnard City Hall through Sept. 8. After the 45-day public view period closes, comments will be presented to the Oxnard Planning Commission.

Oxnard officials are hoping the combined development will bolster the residential attractiveness of the area while still maintaining a safer industrial character. City Councilmember John Zaragoza, also a former member of the Ormond Beach Task Force, is aware that the longtime presence of Halaco and its resultant stigma has made development at the beach a sensitive topic.

“I think most of the folks support it north of Hueneme Road,” he said. “South of Hueneme Road, there’s some concern.”

The remaining four members of the Oxnard City Council did not respond to repeated phone calls requesting interviews for this story.

Mallory would not comment on whether a cleanup at Halaco would impact the North and South Ormond projects.

Will fallout from Halaco, or further development, hurt Ormond Beach’s chances of survival? Sanders of the Sierra Club has mixed feelings.

“It sure looks like we’re going to miss our chance unless something miraculous happens,” he said. “Ormond is a place where the sky is the limit.”