Fellows in the News

Editor's note: the following is an excerpt from a story originally published in the Los Angeles Times

When Lucas Zucker talks about sea level rise in California, his first thoughts aren’t about waves crashing onto fancy homes in Orange County, nor the state’s most iconic beaches shrinking year after year.

What worries him most are the three power plants looming over the Oxnard coast, and the toxic waste site that has languished there for decades. There are also two naval bases, unknown military dumps and a smog-spewing port. Just one flood could unleash a flow of industrial chemicals and overwhelm his working-class, mostly Latino community.

“The coast of California is marked by massive inequality. People don’t realize that because they go to Malibu, they go to Santa Barbara. Those are the beaches that people see and are familiar with,” said Zucker, a longtime advocate for environmental justice. “They don’t think of places like Wilmington, West Long Beach, Barrio Logan, West Oakland, Richmond, Bayview-Hunters Point. You can name all these communities, and it’s the same story.”

These predominately Black and brown communities, in fact, are five times more likely than the general population to live within half a mile of a toxic site that could flood by 2050, according to a new statewide mapping project led by environmental health professors at UC Berkeley and UCLA. All told, the ocean could inundate more than 400 hazardous facilities by the end of the century — exposing nearby residents to dangerous chemicals and polluted water.

This three-year project, dubbed Toxic Tides, is the first systematic look at the environmental justice ramifications of sea level rise and hazardous sites along the entire coast of California. In collaboration with advocates like Zucker, researchers created a series of searchable maps that piece together where in California this flooding could occur, which industrial facilities face particularly risk, and how these threats disproportionately affect lower-income communities of color.

This new analysis, released Tuesday during a virtual workshop, comes at a time when more officials and state legislators are starting to confront the social and economic realities of sea level rise and climate change. Across California, high surf is already flooding homes. Major roads, utility lines and other critical infrastructure are dangling ever closer to the sea.

In just the next decade, the ocean could rise more than half a foot — with heavy storms and cycles of El Niño projected to make things even worse.

A growing body of research is now investigating how rising water will flood communities built on or near contaminated land. Efforts to study this issue in the San Francisco Bay Area have become increasingly coordinated, and state toxic substances control officials have started their own mapping project. At Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Northridge, a team of researchers recently launched a project to examine which communities in the state could be most harmed by potential flooding of industrial chemicals currently stored underground.

“This is where the conversation absolutely has to go,” said Patrick Barnard, whose research team at the U.S. Geological Survey has done extensive flood modeling used by officials across the state. “We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of sea level rise projections. The next important step is: How do we translate that into vulnerability and impacts?”

With the new Toxic Tides project, two environmental health scientists [and Switzer Fellows] — Rachel Morello-Frosch, at UC Berkeley, and Lara Cushing, at UCLA — teamed up with Zucker and a number of community groups to design an online tool that could help fill some data gaps in this less-talked-about realm of sea level rise.

They sorted through reams of information from federal databases that keep track of landfills, toxic cleanup sites, oil wells, refineries, sewage treatment plants and other industrial facilities. Working with the nonprofit science and news organization Climate Central, they integrated various sea level rise scenarios. Finally, they pieced together which communities could be most at risk.

Throughout this process, they turned to those living in threatened communities for help identifying data gaps. Community organizers also provided insight into which data points to use — beyond race and income — as a measure of social vulnerability.

If most of the residents living near a toxic site are not fluent in English, for example, the barriers to understanding the flood risks — and how to advocate for solutions — are far greater. Voter turnout, unemployment, the percentage of people who actually own their home (or even a car) are also factors indicating how much a community lacks political power, insurance protection and even the ability to evacuate in an emergency.

“We know from past flood events that the wealthy communities are not the ones that suffer the greatest impacts,” Cushing said, pointing to recent disasters in New Orleans and Houston. “The vulnerabilities of environmental justice communities to sea level rise have not been front and center in the conversation in a way that it should be.”

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