Pictured: Gas-operated power generating facilities at Ormond Beach in Oxnard. 

by Kimberly Rivers

As of Jan. 2, the film Don’t Look Up from writer-director Adam McKay, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, has logged 263 million watch hours and been the most watched film on Netflix since it started streaming on Dec. 24, 2021. The plot centers on two astronomers trying to convince the global population that action is needed to thwart the demise of humankind from a comet headed towards Earth. One challenge faced by the scientists: trying to distill the data into an accessible format the public will understand . . . and accept. (At one point in the film, DiCaprio’s character is told specifically “no math” before an appearance on a popular TV news show.)

The movie is a satire of today’s real-world challenge of using science to convince people — that would be us — of the very real threat posed by climate change. 

Afterall, scientists have been telling us for years that climate change will have the same effect as the fictional comet, albeit with a much slower burn. For decades, climate scientists have been reporting the numbers, or the math, related to how rising carbon levels affect our atmosphere. Written reports on sea level rise have been received and filed for years by planning departments and elected officials. And yet, despite all this data, some people, incredibly, still think climate change is a point to debate. Because it’s easy to set aside or ignore what is misunderstood.

A recently released project called Toxic Tides aims to make data about risks from sea level rise more accessible and understandable by creating a visualization of the risks certain communities face from flooding at toxic and hazardous sites. The hope is that knowledge and understanding will beget desperately needed action.

Sites in Oxnard subject to multiple flooding events by 2100. Source: Toxic Tides. https://sites.google.com/berkeley.edu/toxictides/home?authuser=0

Seeing is believing

Today, technology allows data, sometimes complex and layered, to be visually represented, which can help us conceptually understand large numbers that might have little meaning otherwise. We can track how a wildfire impacted a forest, and watch, nearly in real time, as the forest recovers, quickly communicating the impact to biodiversity in a way that a list of numbers never could. The melting of glaciers is visible by toggling through photographs over time. Watching lakes that serve as sources of drinking water recede, day after day, and barely rise after storms, shows with perfect clarity how humans depend on the way the land sheds and absorbs water. 

The Toxic Tides program aims to harness the power of visualization to highlight the location of toxic sites in sea level rise zones. This will in turn help compel action by bringing clarity and understanding of the associated risks.

Toxic Tides is a collaboration of the Ventura-based nonprofit organization Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Physicians For Social Responsibility (Los Angeles), WE ACT for Environmental Justice, UC Berkeley Sustainability and Health Equity Lab, UC Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health, and Climate Central. It has outlined over 400 facilities statewide that could face major flooding events (and thus expose residents to hazardous chemicals). Three major hotspots – Wilmington, near the Port of Los Angeles; Richmond, in San Francisco’s East Bay; and South Oxnard – have been identified and will be the subject of the project’s case studies. 

Vianey Lopez, Oxnard City Councilmember, Dist. 6.

The project has “put the number[s] on paper of what these toxic sites mean for our communities . . . to put the faces of people on these issues,” said Vianey Lopez, Oxnard City Councilmember (Dist. 6) in her opening remarks at the Dec. 15, 2021 online workshop for the Central Coast launch of the Toxic Tides project. 

South Oxnard at risk

South Oxnard has a cluster of polluting operations, active and ceased, that when paired with the threat of flooding pose previously unconsidered impacts. The Oxnard wastewater treatment plant, the New-Indy Containerboard plant, the Halaco Superfund Site and two locations, Point Mugu and Port Hueneme, of Naval Base Ventura County were included in the project’s mapping tool. 

Lopez compared the areas of Oxnard State Beach and Ormond Beach. 

The two beaches “could not be more different,” said Lopez. The state beach is “a residential area, affluent,” with a “clean beach park…residents go to the beach.” Access is easy and the beach area is clean. 

Ormond Beach, by contrast, lacks good access and is dotted with toxic and industrial sites: the New-Indy Containerboard plant, an oil refinery and infrastructure, some manufacturing companies and power plants, all identified by the Toxic Tides project.  

New-Indy Containerboard facility in Oxnard, Sept. 13, 2019. Photo by K. Rivers.

On the edge of the beach, surrounded by sand on three sides, is the now-historic Halaco U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site at 6200 Perkins Road. This site is home to the contaminated ruins of the Halaco Engineering Company that operated a metal smelter from 1965 to 2004, where the company extracted aluminum, magnesium and zinc from scrap metal. According to the EPA website, the entire Superfund site today includes the original 11-acre smelter property plus a 27-acre waste management site. It also includes the underlying groundwater and contaminated soils and sediments on nearby properties owned by the city of Oxnard and The Nature Conservancy, including the Ormond Beach wetlands, an important habitat for endangered and threatened species. 

Halaco, when in business, dumped its waste products into unlined sump ponds located within or adjacent to what is the Ormond Lagoon Waterway today. According to the EPA, that waste remains onsite. 850,000 cubic yards are in the “waste management area” with an additional 50,000 cubic yards of contaminated waste being used as “fill” on the 11-acre property. 

The waste has high levels of aluminum, magnesium and other metals and some of it includes thorium and radium, radioactive compounds. 

If that area were to flood, contaminants could flow into the nearby wetlands, impact groundwater basins further away from the site, and also reach private residential property, some of which is just a half mile away. Lopez described how Ormond Beach is located near the “densest neighborhood in the county.” The area is home to “immigrants, farmworkers, many kids, many students.” She noted that the nearby Hueneme Elementary School has the “highest enrollment” in Ventura County.  

Lopez pointed out that many in the communities the project highlights “won’t have the option of moving” in the wake of toxic impacts. 

The project has three main pieces. First, to “characterize the threats” of rising sea levels leading to the flooding of hazardous sites and how that might impact nearby disadvantaged communities. Second, using that information and additional data from multiple sources to craft an online mapping tool that would be accessible to both community members and policymakers to help build understanding of the impacts on these communities from sea level rise. Finally, to share the information learned so that protecting these at-risk communities becomes a part of climate resilience policymaking. 

Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director with CAUSE, described how the collaboration of community-based organizations across the state created a ground truthing approach in communities that were part of the research for the Toxic Tides project. This helps the data visualization become a real representation of the “lived experience” of real people. He emphasized a major goal of the project was to ensure that “research is accessible and usable.”

“Greatest health challenge this century”

It’s not the pandemic, it’s the impacts of climate change. 

“Climate change is a health emergency,” said Linda Rudolph, principal investigator with the Public Health Institute (PHI) and director of PHI’s Center for Climate Change and Health. PHI is an independent nonprofit organization based in downtown Oakland with programs and efforts around the globe. She was speaking on Dec. 15 at the program launch workshop and explained that the program aims to frame the issue of the rising oceans within the “larger context of climate change and health and equity.” She emphasized that California is “seeing the impacts of climate change . . . accelerating rapidly” and the timeframe for action is narrowing in order to avoid major impacts. More needs to be done to “reduce greenhouse gas” emissions and to “build climate-resilient” communities. She called this issue the “greatest health challenge this century.” 

“Paradoxically, this is a huge health opportunity,” continued Rudolph, pointing out that the same systems that are major contributors to climate change, “transportation, land use, food and agriculture . . . shape the conditions where people live.” She emphasized that these same systems have the potential to be part of the solution by supporting communities as everyone has to adapt to what is coming. 

“These issues didn’t just happen overnight,” said Zucker. Decisions made throughout the community’s history “is how we got to where we are,” with so many people living “near these toxic and industrial sites . . . now what?” 

Citing practices of historical racism and disinvestment in certain neighborhoods, Rudolph noted that “stark health inequities . . . and systems with disproportionate impacts on communities of color” will exacerbate the impacts of climate change — rising temperatures, wildfires or sea level rise — and compound the effects of historical systemic racism. 

Project findings

Lara Cushing, assistant professor of Environmental Health Sciences at University of California, Los Angeles, explained the two overarching questions the project seeks to answer, which also informs the data used. First, how many and what types of facilities will be affected by overland flooding from the rising sea and, second, who will be impacted by those facilities being flooded. 

Climate Central, a nonprofit news and science organization headquartered in Princeton, NJ, led the effort of calculating the risk of flooding at the 2050 and 2100 time horizons. 

The team opted for the high emission, or “worst case scenario,” in terms of carbon levels in the atmosphere, as determined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecast because so far carbon emission levels continue to climb globally. 

Starting from the IPCC scenario, a three-foot increase in sea levels on the Central Coast is projected by 2100. That is 78 years from now, easily within the lifetime of babies born in the past decade. 

The Toxic Tides project found that by 2050, rising sea levels will cause flooding at 145 toxic sites in the state, including Naval Air Station Point Mugu at Naval Base Ventura County, which would be vulnerable to flooding one to four times a year. By 2100, incidents of flooding at all base locations would increase to over 12 times a year. By that time, several other sites, including the Halaco Superfund Site, would experience flooding more than once a year. 

Statewide, by 2100, 440 toxic sites would be subject to flooding several times a year. 

For purposes of the project, a facility is labeled at risk of flooding if at least one quarter of its elevation is below the water level based on estimating flood risks from averages of multiple simulations of future sea levels. Over 10,000 facilities statewide are in low-lying areas. Sites include power plants, sewage treatment plants, concentrated animal feeding operations, landfills and incinerators. Fifteen sites along the Central Coast are at risk of major surface flooding by 2100. 

One important thing to note about the project’s findings is that they focus only on saltwater flooding from the ocean and do not incorporate how sea level rise will impact groundwater, including groundwater contamination either by saltwater or from toxins moved by flooding. 

The choice was made to exclude that risk due to inconsistent groundwater data. 

Tools used to collect data for the social indicator layers on the map include affordable housing information, voter turnout numbers, and CalEnviroScreen, another state collating mapping tool that identifies state-designated disadvantaged communities. 

Communities at risk

The project created three maps. 

One map shows the sites and the projected number of flooding events each site will experience by 2050 and 2100. The second map shows the number of facilities that have at least a 1% chance of flooding in a given year within a one-kilometer buffer from residential parcels. The third map provides social demographic overlays allowing information on voter turnout, percentage of poverty, percentage of unemployment, people of color and status as a renter to be viewed in relation to proximity to facilities identified as at risk of flooding. 

Looking both in the county and across the state, Rudolph pointed out that many toxic and hazardous facilities are “located in poor communities and communities of color . . . with very little discussion of risk of exposure,” in the event contaminants are spread where people live. This means residents and leaders lack an “adequate understanding” of the risks associated with exposure, meaning “targeted action” is unlikely. 

The Toxic Tides mapping tool reveals how poverty is linked to proximity of toxic sites. Cushing described how toxic sites are clearly located within close proximity to the areas with the highest levels of poverty. According to the data, she said that people who live in disadvantaged communities are six times more likely to be located within one mile of a toxic or hazardous site at risk of flooding from sea level rise. 

These tracts in Oxnard, within one mile of sites at risk of sea level rise, are also the census tracts with the highest risk factors for health problems and poverty (CalEnviroScreen). Lower voter turnout, low homeownership rate and language isolation are all associated with a higher likelihood of living near an at-risk facility. 

“Oxnard has the largest share of these sites in the Central Coast,” said Zucker. They are among “communities we see and don’t see,” some are developed for “luxury tourism,” while other parts become “industrialized shorelines,” with “polluting refineries” turning those “communities into sacrifice zones.” Zucker was emphasizing that while policy makers are pressed to take action on climate change, equitable response requires targeted actions because there will “not be the same impacts for those communities.”  

Maps and details for the Toxic Tides project are online at sites.google.com/berkeley.edu/toxictides/home?authuser=0.

Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE): causenow.org 

Center for Climate Change and Health at the Public Health Institute (PHI): climatehealthconnect.org 

UC Berkeley Sustainability and Health Equity Lab: nature.berkeley.edu/morellofroschlab/ 

UC Los Angeles, Fielding School of Public Health: ph.ucla.edu/faculty/cushing 

Climate Central: www.climatecentral.org