Fatima Contreras, 16, was born with asthma, and occasionally on her cross-country runs, it flares up.
She stops, wheezing, trying to catch her breath. Overhead, exhaust from the gas-burning Mandalay Generating Station tumbles into the air.
Contreras is one of hundreds of Oxnard residents with asthma, a city with some of the highest percentages of asthma in the state. Oxnard also home to a cluster of power plants, including two at the Mandalay Station.
For decades, activists say, the city has been a “dumping ground” for power plants that create electricity for the coastal region, from Santa Barbara to Thousand Oaks — but may cause respiratory problems for Oxnard residents.
The largely Latino, immigrant and working-class community is now fighting a proposal to build a fourth power plant in the city.
In a David vs. Goliath struggle, the California Energy Commission is in the final stages of vetting the proposal to build the power plant here, which the Oxnard City Council and state Coastal Commission have voted unanimously against.
The Energy Commission can override local government and the Coastal Commission, because otherwise the plants might not get built, said Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director at the Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE. “No community wants a fossil-fuel polluting power plant,” he said.
Zucker was among several hundred locals who attended a meeting that the Energy Commission held in Oxnard earlier this month to get comments on the final staff assessment of the power plant, called the Puente Power Project. In the middle of the Jan. 10 meeting, Zucker and group of about 40 other activists turned the public comment segment into a protest, linking arms around the microphone and chanting “Oxnard deserves clean air,” and, “This meeting is over, you’re not listening.”
About 15 minutes later, as the chants continued, the Energy Commission decided to end the meeting.
The department does not plan to reschedule the meeting, said spokesman Michael Ward. In response to questions about the protest, Ward said the meetings are part of a “public process, and public participation is welcomed and encouraged.”
The department is still accepting comments on the project on its website, and is scheduled to hold a hearing on the project in early February. Using evidence submitted during the hearing, the five-member Energy Commission is expected to make a decision on the project this spring.
An already high pollution burden
Research has shown that people who live near fuel-burning power plants are more likely to have respiratory problems. A 2012 peer-reviewed study found that people who lived in a zip code with a fuel-fired power plant were 11 percent more likely to be hospitalized for asthma and 17 percent more likely to be hospitalized for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
According to census data, about 45,000 people live in the same zip code as the Mandalay generating station, home to two of the city’s power plants and where the new one is proposed to be located. And approximately 83,000 people live in the same zip code as Oxnard’s other power plant, at Ormond Beach.
The pollution burdens in the census tracts that include the Mandalay and Ormond plants are among the highest in the state, at 94 and 98 percent respectively, according to CalEnviroScreen, an air-quality map from the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
The two existing power plants at Mandalay are scheduled to be decommissioned by 2020 because they use outdated technology, Zucker said. The new proposal, from energy company NRG, calls for building the new plant at the same site.
The energy company says that it wants to transition to renewable energy, but until the technology improves, the Puente plant is needed to “ensure that our electricity supply remains stable and reliable,” according to the NRG website.
In response to the protest at the January meeting, NRG spokesman David Knox wrote in an email, “We are disappointed that the staff and people who attended were unable to hear the realities about the plant, its operation and its location.”
After the protest, the Energy Commission staff submitted a request that a late January prehearing on the project be moved from Oxnard to Sacramento to “allow the Committee flexibility to accommodate busy schedules because 1-2 days travel would not be required.”
An attorney for NRG wrote to say that it did not oppose moving the prehearing, but the request was followed by complaints from the Environmental Defense Center, the Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter and the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County, who said that moving the prehearing more than 400 miles away would “obstruct public access and transparency to the affected community.” As of press time, the Energy Commission had not made a decision on where the prehearing will be held.
Are there alternatives?
The Coastal Commission opposes the project because sea level rise — a high probability in the area — could cause flooding and put the region’s power supply at risk, Zucker said.
CAUSE wants to see the Energy Commission explore renewable energy alternatives, such as solar or wind, instead of building another fossil-fuel plant. “We think there’s a lot more potential for clean energy,” Zucker said.
The community group has been protesting the plan for nearly two years, saying that building another power plant in Oxnard amounts to racial and environmental injustice. About 85 percent of Oxnard residents are people of color, most of them Latino, according to CAUSE. A quarter of children in the city live in poverty, the community group said.
“These power plants would never be built on the beaches of nearby wealthy communities like Malibu or Montecito, Maricela Morales, CAUSE’s executive director wrote in an email after the protest. “Oxnard is always made the sacrifice zone.”
Fatima, a Latina student at Hueneme High School in Oxnard, grew up in the city and has a number of friends and family members with asthma, including her nephews. She didn’t expect to get involved in local activism, but whether or not another power plant is built in Oxnard will affect her and her family.
“Knowing that we breathe in that air, it’s just unfair — not even just for us, but for all the young children, for my nephews,” she said after the protest, holding a sign that read “Children Health Over Profits.”
“For them, it’s easy to say, let’s put another power plant here,” she continued. “Their children don’t live here, their parents don’t live here, they’re not running in this air.”