story and photos by Kimberly Rivers

The Port of Hueneme is unique as the only deepwater port between Los Angeles and San Francisco, allowing large cargo ships that require a deeper draw to offload a variety of items from around the world. Automobiles are a top product coming through, making up about half of the revenue generated through the port. Considered small in comparison to other ports on the West Coast, Hueneme is the main hub for bananas in the Western United States with 30 million boxes passing off the ships each year.

 “90 percent of the produce is going somewhere nearby,” said Giles Pettifor, environmental manager with the port, during a recent tour. He said the port is the third or fourth largest employer in Ventura County.

The port connects Ventura County with the global market. The top five nations trading products through the port are South Korea, Germany, United Kingdom, Sweden and Japan. At just 120 waterfront acres, Pettifor said that operations must be very streamlined: “The cargo is not stockpiled at the port,” as at larger ports. This means Hueneme doesn’t have a line of diesel trucks waiting to haul products off; most is taken upon being offloaded.

The way the port was founded is also unique. Most ports are built with federal funding and have some level of outside control. Funding for Hueneme came from a bond measure passed by voters in 1937 (A Troubled Dream: Richard Bard’s Struggle to Build a Harbor at Hueneme, California; Powell March Greenland, 2016.). As a result, the port is governed by the locally elected Commissioners of the Oxnard Harbor District. The district includes the cities of Oxnard and Port Hueneme and the unincorporated coastal areas and communities between those municipalities. The port is self-governing and self-funding.  

A clean-air port?

The Port of Hueneme is the first port in California to be “Green Marine” Certified (2017 and 2018). As part of this global program recognizing ports that are taking the lead in reducing environmental impacts, Hueneme received top grades in Environmental Leadership, Community Impact and Spill Prevention.

Pettifor said it is important to everyone at the port that their sustainability processes are not “green washing” but actually “integrated into daily operations.” That aim has governed the programs and infrastructure changes happening at the port.

Recent changes at the port are part of efforts to reduce air pollution including the installation of a $13 million onshore power system for cargo ships. While in port, ships can plug in and use renewable electric power instead of diesel fuel-generated power from onboard or outdated systems. Combined with other upgrades, the port has been able to reduce emissions of fine particulates (the size that can get deep into lungs) by 82 percent.

The Liebherr hybrid electric-diesel crane (black tower on right) is part of the port’s effort to decarbonize.

In addition, in the past year, the port added an all-electric crane, grant-funded electric yard tractors for moving offloaded cargo and a hydrogen fuel cell truck for moving produce between Hueneme, the Port of Los Angeles and produce processing houses.

Pettifor said the port is directing considerable resources and grant funding to improve air quality in the area. “It’s the right thing to do, the socially responsible thing to do,” he said, adding that air quality “is the most pertinent [health issue] for the community. It is the biggest focus for me.”

The port has partnered with the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District to build a first-of-its-kind program called PHRESH (Port of Hueneme Reducing Emission, Supporting Health). One of PHRESH’s first steps is the completion of a baseline emission inventory. That involves understanding the amounts and sources of emissions. “[We need] a full accounting of the pollution that we generate,” said Pettifor, so that the port can start identifying ways to reduce or eliminate emissions, and track improvements over time, potentially setting a zero-emissions goal. The port will be auditing all operations and looking at emissions from equipment, ships, transport and “crunching all those numbers.” That process is under way and should take under a year to complete.

The port has just stationed two robust air monitors at elementary schools in Oxnard, including Haycox Elementary. The $140,000 investment will collect data on particulate matter, wind direction and intensity, helping to provide reliable information about air quality. Once the monitors are calibrated, all the data will be publicly available.

Community push-back

For organizations working on the issues of social justice and climate change, the shifts at the port are not happening quickly enough.

“Our vision doesn’t include shutting down the port. Our vision is for a healthy South Oxnard and a responsible port,” said Maricela Morales, executive director with CAUSE, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. CAUSE is heading up a coalition of organizations that are opposing the port’s proposal to temporarily use a 34-acre area in South Oxnard to park nearly 5,000 cars that are offloaded at the port.

Maricela Morales with CAUSE speaks on Oct. 15 at the project site in Oxnard about why the organization is opposing the port’s plans to store new cars at the site.

The parcel is on the northern edge of the Ormond Beach Restoration plan, but is not currently part of that plan. The parcel is privately owned by Tarzana-based A&J Oxnard LLC. The port’s plan is to enclose the 34-acre parcel with a chain link fence and add native shrubs, trees and groundcover along the roadway. A lighting plan was designed to ensure minimal impact to native habitat. The parking area will be gravel, and the application includes a provision to remove the gravel when the permit expires in five years. Passenger vans will be used to transport drivers back to the port after they park vehicles at the site. The lot will have security personnel on site 24 hours a day, but the parking and moving of cars can only occur between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Earlier this year, the port did agree, as CAUSE requested, to conduct a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project, but CAUSE remains opposed.

“Is it creating a healthier environment? Is it creating quality jobs of which union jobs are the gold standard?” said Morales. She said just nine jobs are “tied to this specific proposal . . . they are not union jobs. We are very clear that we are not eliminating quality jobs by being opposed to this project.” (See sidebar, “Port parking lot plans postponed.”)

Port officials and project application documents in the project file at the City of Oxnard state the project involved 30 “mostly union” jobs.

On Tuesday, Oct. 16, CAUSE called a press conference at the project site on West Hueneme Road, next to the Oxnard wastewater treatment facility, in order to get their message out about why they are opposing the project.

“Here we are again, fighting to protect and restore nature, fighting to say no more air pollution and industrialization of our coast,” said Morales through a megaphone. Her words were sometimes muffled by the loud honking of horns by large trucks driving by, encouraged by the union members present at the press conference. She said the organizations there are coming “together to protect the environment for seven generations and lift up the voices of low income, working families and communities of color that bear the brunt of environmental injustice.”

A few dozen supporters from CAUSE and other organizations were joined by nearly double their number of union members, community members, port employees and officials who support the project and say the jobs are vital for their community.

“This is an industrial zone, it’s what it was designed for,” said Arthur Chavez, a third-generation Oxnard resident and a local longshoreman. He said there is very limited land that is zoned light industrial. “They want to save it, and make it a park. We need more jobs. South Oxnard has 33 percent in poverty.”

Members of Gold Coast, Local 805, a regional carpenters union, at the Oxnard project site on Oct. 15 showing their support for the port’s plans.

The union members and other port supporters stood along the roadway and encouraged truck drivers to honk their horns during the speakers. In at least two instances, union members moved to stand directly in front of people opposing the project.

“We had hoped that the port wouldn’t send people out . . . our experience to date is that at any public setting, the port supporters have been disrespectful to speakers,” said Morales. She said some of their supporters felt intimidated by the union members and other port supporters and that CAUSE’s coalition should be given “the freedom that we allow them, which is to participate in the public process, to have our say and move forward.”

A green new deal project?

So far, studies conducted as part of the project application don’t show any significant impacts to community health or the environment. But those opposed point to science related to cumulative impacts over time.

A truck transports new BMW’s from the port through South Oxnard. The proposed plan would mean these cars would be driven individually to the project site.

Dr. Jill Johnson, PhD, assistant professor of preventative medicine at the University of Southern California, spoke at the press conference about three decades of research showing how air emissions from diesel can impact humans across lifespans. “Frontline workers who have gotten cancer over decades, [the diesel particulates] go into our bodies and into our blood and cross over into our brain and go into [a] fetus.” She said her research is finding “increases in dementia and Alzheimer’s in elderly who are exposed to this type” of air pollution. In the areas around the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where officials are also working to reduce air emissions, “a reduction in air toxics [has] reduced the number of asthma exacerbations.”

“This project is essential, we see it as a beautification of this part of town, [and we will be] put to work for quite a bit,” said Armando Delgado, spokesperson with Local 805 Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, noting the construction work and ongoing jobs that will take place over the life of the project. “All of that is all of our trades. For too long we’ve seen this property riddled with trash and vagrants.” He said of the approximately 1,800 members of their union, 200 live in South Oxnard and about 480 live in Oxnard.

Kurt Oliver, a local union member shows his support for the port’s project on Oct. 15.

“[Right now] there are over 4,000 applicants for only a couple jobs, for very good money,” said Laurie Espinoza, a non-union, fifth-generation worker at the port. She said that while the environmental issues are true, the jobs the project could bring are needed.

 “This is all Green New Deal stuff,” said Miguel Rodriguez, community outreach manager with the port. “After doing my due diligence and coming to the port to see for myself whether they were doing all the green work they were supposed to . . . little by little I saw these things, [and] I wanted to make sure the community got the right message around the port expansion.”

Port parking lot plans postponed

by David Michael Courtland

Opponents of a plan to put a vehicle storage yard at Hueneme and Perkins roads in Oxnard have forced Port of Hueneme officials to put it on hold until next year while an environmental impact study is done.

Oxnard’s city council voted 7-0 on July 30 to have a consultant — paid for by the port — do a study to make sure the project doesn’t violate California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines.

The port wants to use the 34-acre privately owned lot to store vehicles dropped off at the port before they are sent to dealerships. It is zoned light industrial and sits across from the Hueneme Industrial Center and two strip malls, but is not far from Oxnard’s Ormond Beach wetlands.

The 34 acre site in Oxnard is bordered on the north by W. Hueneme Road and on the south by railroad tracks.

“We felt that we wanted to move forward in that way to slow any of the misinformation,” said Port of Hueneme General Manager Kristin Decas, who said the study would take eight to 10 months. Port officials have expressed frustration with activists claiming the project will lead to more air pollution, something port officials say is false.

The delay means Oxnard’s planning commission probably won’t vote on the project before the spring of 2020, after the consultant’s report is presented and following another round of public comments around February or March.

The move came after months of opposition to the project from CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy), as well as about 200 public comments from residents, said Giles Pettifor, the port’s environmental manager.

The comments were split about 50-50 for and against the project, Pettifor said, “but enough specific concerns were raised that we decided to do a full EIR [environmental impact report], to make it clear the port wants to address the public’s concern. If anything, this has given us an opportunity to educate and to make friends.”

Among concerns people have are the parking lot’s possible effect on nesting birds, whose breeding season is from April to September, and ground or water contamination. But the project is specifically designed to minimize any impact on wildlife, with native plants and a gravel surface that allows water to drain into the ground, which has been plowed to control for weeds, said Pettifor.

An Oxnard Planning Department staff report concluded that there will be no significant threat to wildlife or plants, but opponents say it wasn’t thorough enough.

“That wasn’t an environmental study, that’s basically saying, ‘we declare that there would be no negative impacts,’ ” said Lucas Zucker of CAUSE, as opposed to a CEQA study that checks for all potential environmental impacts.

“Our biggest concern is air pollution; diesel exhaust is the most dangerous in terms of cancer risk,” said Zucker, noting that the parking lot would bring increased traffic from trucks delivering and picking up vehicles. “That’s a lot more trucks going through the neighborhood, a lot more air pollution.”

Zucker also downplayed the possible loss of 35 to 40 jobs — mainly drivers and security guards — the port says the parking lot would create in South Oxnard, a notoriously blighted section of the city.

“The people who do that work get close to minimum wage,” Zucker said. “When you think about it, a parking lot is probably the least creative thing they could do with 34 acres.”

But Cypress Neighborhood Council Chair Liz White disagreed, pointing out that the parking lot is only a first step in the port’s long-range expansion plans.

“This small expansion will lead into a bigger expansion, which will make the port the largest provider of jobs in the area,” said White, whose neighborhood sits about a half mile east of the vacant lot. “South Oxnard needs jobs and we need to make use of vacant properties, otherwise, they’re overrun by gangs and homeless, creating blight and opportunity for criminal activities. . . . I think any job, even a starter job, is a steppingstone from gang activity and general poverty.”

White also said that the parking lot is a better use of the land than building more housing.

“Some of these areas are toxic and uninhabitable Superfund sites, who would want to live there?” White asked. “We should take advantage of available options. That’s why we need the smaller project; we’re moving on to the larger project.”