Thursday, March 28, 2002
Anger Flares at Ft. Ord Hearing
"Are we talking to ourselves?" Mike Swanson of Seaside asked loudly and angrily to about 100 people in the Oldemeyer Center on Monday evening. "We are talking to ourselves."
Swanson was one in a roomful of locals who''d come to a hearing on the Army''s plans to clean up abandoned combat practice ranges on Fort Ord. Years of artillery and infantry training in a vast 8,000-acre corner of the base bordering the City of Seaside has created an environmental and health dilemma for the government. And on Monday night, when the public got a chance to comment on these plans, an assembled panel of experts--who had been answering questions from the same citizens just minutes before--simply departed.
As soon as the public got their chance to comment on the record, the officials, scientists and government environmentalists got up to leave the room.
Swanson was livid, noting accurately that citizens speaking at the podium would be facing an empty dais, save for a court recorder. Soon enough, though, some of the officials came back in the room--with coffee--and the public comments commenced.
As it stands today, the Army plans to burn dense chaparral brush on three separate pieces of the Multi-Range Area. The controlled burns are meant to expose decades worth of unexploded ordnance--artillery shells, mortar rounds, anti-tank rockets, flares, landmines and grenades--that are thought to litter the ground. Some of the latent weapons are very dangerous, and the Army has concluded that burning off the brush rather than chopping it down is the only safe way to get at the ammo without endangering clean-up crews.
Once cleared of the deadly debris, most of the area is slated to be turned over to the Bureau of Land Management for use as a park.
But clearing the brush with fire is fraught with its own problems, as previous burns at Fort Ord have proven. For one thing, the maritime chaparral ecosystem is one of a kind and full of rare plant and animal species. Also, controlled burns have been known to wiggle loose from human control and tear off across the countryside. Towering plumes of smoke--containing burnt poison oak among other potential toxins--are dangerous to anyone downwind. If the Army does end up burning brush, it has said it will temporarily relocate people worried about the smoke.
The plan will not be finalized until fall, following review of public comment and sign-off from other regulatory agencies.
Part of the impetus for clearing the unexploded ordnance is the danger it poses to curious kids who hop the barbed wire fences that ring the ranges. One display at the hearing showed a collection of newspaper headlines about dismembered children who discovered explosives while playing on the wrong side of the barbed wire.
Farmworker-Renters Win One
A farmworker tenant committee made headlines in August 2000 after staging a demonstration to protest high rents and unsafe housing conditions in Pajaro.
A year and a half later, the 15 Salinas Road Tenant Committee''s demands will be met. The housing site has since been transferred to a non-profit housing developer, South County Housing Corporation, which has agreed to immediately reduce rent, perform emergency repairs and replace the existing units with new, affordable apartments for the farmworkers who live there.
"We feel so proud," says tenant leader Hester López. "We made all this happen." They refused to pay the rent increase, demanded that the landlord repair unsafe units, and took their story to the media--with training and coaching from the Center for Community Advocacy.
"This is yet another example of how the CCA approach works," says CCA Executive Director Juan Uranga.
CCA trains farmworkers to form tenant committees who can pressure the landlords to either lower rent and make the needed improvements or sell the property to someone else who can. To date, four separate tenant committees have convinced their landlords to sell to non-profit corporations.
The Monterey County Redevelopment Agency and the Sacramento-based Rural Community Assistance Corporation are funding the project.
Ag Sec''y Launches Wing
California Agriculture Secretary Bill Lyons Jr., visited Salinas on Tuesday, speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for the National Steinbeck Center''s new agricultural wing.
The 8,000-square-foot, $4.6 million wing--called the Valley of the World Agricultural History and Education Center--will open in summer 2003.
Plans call for a patio garden as well as a multimedia museum with audio clips, photographs and film footage of farmworkers. Period tools and clothes will also be on display, and the exhibit text will be in English and Spanish.
--Andrew Scutro, Jessica Lyons