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Restoration or Ruination?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is not some furry critter on the brink of extinction nor some stretch of native habitat fancied by developers for the next Rancho de Stucco.

It is just a pair of dirty oil piers so comfortably familiar to beach-goers that a proposal to dismantle the barnacle-ridden structures has stirred a roiling environmental controversy.

It’s not exactly an outcry to save the dilapidated relics of Ventura County’s oil boom days.

But there is concern that removal could destroy a popular Ventura County surf spot and disrupt a friendly beach culture that has evolved over 60 years.

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Mobil Oil says it is simply holding true to the state oil lease it signed in the late 1920s to remove the pier complex and oil wells when production stopped.

The underground reservoir has been bled dry, and the company is ready to close the popular beach until May and pull up the strangely popular piers, pilings and all.

“This is a positive step,” Mobil spokesman Len D’Eramo said.

Not everyone is so sure.

The site, north of the city of Ventura, has long been a prime Ventura County surfing spot, with left- and right-breaking waves that beckon surfers when other surf breaks are reduced to a crumbly mess by heavy afternoon winds.

Surfers and Jet Skiers--two groups often at odds--have used the wooden barrier to form an amiable relationship, surfers to one side, skiers to the other.

Furthermore, surfers believe that the piers’ hundreds of pilings create perfect conditions for peeling waves and collect sand that would otherwise be whisked by currents down the beach.

A contingent of surfers has been pushing state regulators to hold Mobil responsible for financing the construction of an artificial surfing reef if the surf is damaged.

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Some envision a surfing park, using the piers’ wooden planks to build a beach-side boardwalk.

“Those piers are an eyesore,” said Rob Holcombe, a 28-year-old surfer and employee of Patagonia, the Ventura clothing company. “They are a danger to surfers and boaters. But they also happen to create a unique wave that’s worth fighting for.”

It is shaping up to be a tough fight.

In dismantling the piers, Mobil is complying with an agreement signed by its predecessor, General Petroleum Co., before the piers were built in the 1930s.

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The Seacliff pier complex--"Oil Piers” to the locals--consists of two wooden structures. The shorter pier is 350 feet long. The longer one extends 2,170 feet from the beach, with a 620-foot “spur” jutting off to one side.

Although some oil still remains beneath the surface, Mobil ceased pumping in 1993 after deciding extraction was no longer economical. All 37 wells drilled over the piers’ lifetime were plugged and abandoned in 1994.

“This is not unusual,” said Mobil’s D’Eramo. “We’re just living up to our lease agreement that we would remove the piers and return the area to its natural environment.”

Still, company officials have mounted a public relations campaign, selling their plans in a slick brochure mailed to nearly 8,400 opinion leaders and selected residents in La Conchita, Seacliff, Ventura and Oxnard.

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The mailers highlight efforts to protect wildlife during deconstruction and plans to use concrete rubble from the piers to create a habitat reef in the ocean outside the surf zone.

Deep inside the brochure, it explains why Mobil needs to close the beach during the $5-million dismantling project. And on the last page, it explains how removing the pier will leave surf conditions “virtually unchanged.”

But members of the Surfrider Foundation, Patagonia and lawyers with the Environmental Defense Center take issue with this finding. They are pushing the State Lands Commission to conduct a more thorough environmental review before the project is allowed to go forward. The commission is the lead agency on the project because the piers sit in state waters.

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In an age when there are more surfers than good places to surf, the waves that break along oil piers are being presented as a precious natural resource as worthy of protection as any wetland, forest or endangered species.

A State Lands Commission study, however, has shown that the oil piers have no effect on sand migration and wave action at the beach. The commission report suggests that nearby Rincon Island and the 1971 widening of the Ventura Freeway had more to do with wave creation that the pilings.

“We didn’t see that it had any major impact,” said Michael Valentine, senior staff attorney with the State Lands Commission.

The commission has, in turn, decided to conduct a fast-track environmental review.

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Many who surf Oil Piers believe the agency’s analysis of sand migration and wave action is faulty. They say it is too coincidental that the surf break follows the exact line of the pier.

“Mobil can make computer models that can basically say whatever they want it to say,” Holcombe said. “They want to get out as cheaply and quickly as they can.”

Under the direction of Patagonia founder and owner Yvon Chouinard, Holcombe has been researching environmentally friendly artificial surfing reefs for the past year.

Holcombe organized a petition drive in local surf shops last year, firing off 300 signatures to the State Lands Commission from surfers who want a more stringent environmental study and the idea of an artificial surfing reef considered if the break is destroyed.

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Such a request is not without precedent.

When the California Coastal Commission gave Chevron a permit in 1983 to build a rock groin in the water off El Segundo to protect refinery pipes, the commission held the company responsible if surfing conditions in the area were damaged.

In El Segundo, a five-year study concluded that the jetty wiped out natural sand bars on the ocean floor and diminished the quality of the waves.

After another five years of talks, Chevron agreed to spend $300,000 to create an artificial reef made of sandbags.

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The reef is still under review, but the Surfrider Foundation has hailed the move as the first time ocean waves were valued as a natural resource that demands protection.

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Then again, when sports fishermen have complained in recent years that the removal of offshore oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel would hurt their favorite fisheries, California Coastal Commission officials did not hold Chevron responsible. Agency officials called the enhanced fishing opportunities near the offshore platforms an “incidental benefit” that did not require protecting.

“If it is true that these wharves created a surfing benefit, I can see the same questions coming up,” said Alison Dettmer, who heads the Coastal Commission’s energy permitting staff.

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Those precedents will be tested at Oil Piers, as Surfrider and Patagonia try to persuade state officials that a surf break is a natural resource in jeopardy.

Bob Hight, executive officer of the State Lands Commission, said there is an inherent flaw in calling anything at Oil Piers “natural.”

“The question becomes, is the wave caused by the pier? And if it is, then I don’t think it’s natural,” Hight said.


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