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Is Morro Bay in danger of being “industrialized”?

By John Lindt, Los Osos

There is a popular mantra going around that plans for a battery storage plant and offshore wind project 20-30 miles off the coast will add up to “industrialization” of the pristine fishing village of Morro Bay.

A look at the history books and the giant industrial smokestacks that today preside over the town tell a noticeably different story.

Industry, energy production, military use and tourism have co-existed here for almost 85 years. That includes the fishing industry fleet that has shrunk from times past due to overfishing. But make no mistake, there was a sizable industry that thrived here including onshore processing and canneries with a significant abalone, sardine and albacore business. It was the largest West Coast port for abalone shipments. The fishing industry had its heyday until the 1990s when it began a sharp decline in fish landings. Industrial techniques were applied according to one historical account. “They used a new method called trawling, which involved dragging a net over the seafloor to catch any marine life that was caught underneath. For three decades, this tactic was the primary means to catch fish and millions of pounds of seafood were caught annually. However, fish were being harvested faster than they could repopulate and the sea habitats along the Central Coast were quickly raked up. “

A 2006 LA Times story reported that the fishing fleet at Morro Bay was down from several hundred boats to perhaps 50. Changing their focus to more sustainable practices, the smaller fishing industry here has recovered.

Morro Bay’s landscape has been heavily altered for military use during World War II when troops heading to Normandy practiced the invasion along the dunes here. War with Japan convinced the Navy to build a 130-acre base at the north end of the estuary creating a flat staging area.

Morro Bay is far from natural — it is an artificial harbor constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Morro Rock itself was originally surrounded by water, but the Army built a large artificial breakwater and road across the north end of the harbor, linking Morro Rock and the mainland. Some of the rock used for this and for the artificial breakwaters was carved out from the rock.

In the 1950s PG&E bought the same land from the Navy to build a large oil-fired power plant with three 450-foot tall smokestacks that have, to this day, towered over the town. The large plant next to the estuary also included giant oil tanks that received oil by ocean pipeline. The infrastructure next to the plant included a large electric substation and transmission towers that today crisscross the hills of San Luis Obispo County. None of this “industry” scared away tourists.

Industry, energy production, military use and tourism have co-existed here for almost 85 years.

More large oil tanks were built on the hillside of Morro Bay to help ship San Joaquin Valley oil by pipeline to ships for export. Like the oil tanks next to the power plant, the hillside tanks have now been removed as oil era infrastructure is being dismantled.

Right where the six 34-million gallon combined tanks next to the power plant were removed, the owner of the mothballed 100ft tall power plant now wants to build several 30-ft tall battery storage warehouses.

All those old fossil fuel facilities contaminated our soil, pumped lung-harming particulates and greenhouse gases into the air and polluted our marine estuary with wastewater needed to cool the plant. Regulators have now banned dumping of wastewater into the ocean or estuaries because of clear harm to sea life. We should be glad to say goodbye to all that.

The oil industry has dominated the Morro Bay landscape on its northern edge as well with Chevron’s oil receiving facility, now abandoned, allowing the valley and hillside to return to open space again.

Our harbor has never been pristine – it was envisioned as a place to ship goods safely including products from the Central Valley and as WW2 loomed,the Navy built an amphibious training base on its shore. Altering the landscape, engineers added “new land” along the bay from dredged material, notes a Morro Bay Historical Society account. The harbor was carved out by the federal government.

Yes, if you’re worried about the industrialization of Morro Bay, you’re about 85 years too late with your concerns. The good news is that the oil industry is removing itself year by year, including those huge offshore platforms along the coast that spoiled our beaches and birds with oil over the years.  That old economy is being replaced by clean renewable energy – solar, wind, thousands of MWs of energy storage across the nation and on the Central Coast, not a reason to complain but a reason to celebrate.

Morro Bay does have a clear and present danger from rising seas, stronger storms and ocean acidification. About a quarter of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is absorbed into the ocean. There it causes a chemical change resulting in ocean acidification. Ocean acidification poses an economic threat to the health and prosperity of the $100 million a year West Coast shellfish industry and the aquatic food chain.

All of these calamities are caused by the overheating of our atmosphere. Morro Bay can lead the charge to save ourselves, keep the lights on and protect the wildlife that live here.

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