Below the campus of UC Santa Barbara overlook, a large wheel loader is depositing ash-filled debris onto Goleta Beach, indenting a deep tread pattern into the sodden sand. The muddied terrain, like quicksand, smells of smoke as it touches the water, awaiting the tide to clear it away.
Following the Thomas Fire and storms in the area, mudslides brought down loads of debris that filled the creeks and streets of Montecito. This debris flow is arguably Santa Barbara’s worst disaster, holding a high death toll of 23 people and millions in property damage. The removal of the debris-flow mud began its journey to Goleta Beach, but why the dirt was arriving there was a mystery to many.
Goleta residents were surprised by the northbound truck-loads of debris storming into their park. They weren’t the only ones. The City of Goleta, upon receiving numerous complaints, released a statement claiming, “our city was not adequately notified about this decision and therefore we could not notify the community that mud would be discharged at Goleta Beach.” Although deemed necessary for search and rescue efforts, many wonder if the beach was the proper location even in this time-sensitive situation. Why the county failed to inform the city remains unclear.
Despite many national and state level agencies approving the site, access to Goleta Beach has been intermittently restricted by the Santa Barbara County Health Department. This is due to harmful levels of bacteria that has been measured to be over four times the Environmental Protection Agency’s safety standard even 11 days after dumping permits ended. Deputy Director of Santa Barbara County Tom Fayram in an interview did not seem concerned about the contamination levels. He revealed the deposit sites at Goleta Beach were chosen for easy accessibility, while still claiming that as initial emergency threats finalized, the county would find alternative upland dumping sites.
While the natural disasters that struck Santa Barbara County were blind to social status, the immediate cleanup effort may not have been so. At face value, many question the decision to transport thousands of truckloads filled with debris from affluent Montecito to the underserved community of Goleta, 12 miles to the north. In fact, several reports exist that point out the inherent environmental injustice built into the county’s disaster plan and response.
David Bacon, a local charter captain and fisherman, has reported that the dumping of contaminated debris puts many surrounding underserved communities at a disadvantage. He provides the example that deposits on Goleta Beach not only impact aesthetics and restrict activity for beachgoers, but burden a large population of subsistence anglers who use the Goleta Pier to provide food for their families. By using the pier, they legally avoid the purchase of a fishing license.