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A Break for the Environment

In removing oil piers, Mobil need not save the swell for surfers

September 07, 1997

A perfect surf break is a rare and wondrous thing. But the Seacliff oil piers should be removed and Mobil Corp. should not be penalized if the wave action suffers because it made good on its 1920s pledge to restore the environment to original condition.

For more than a year the fate of the piers has kicked up uncharacteristic turbulence within the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an international group "dedicated to protection, preservation and restoration of the world's oceans, waves and beaches."

Year in and year out, Surfrider is among Ventura County's most active champions of the ocean environment. Its members are involved in beach cleanups, water testing, erosion studies and other efforts that benefit all area beach goers.

Nearly always, pristine coastline and primo surfing go hand in neoprene glove. But not at the beach known as Oil Piers.

Some 60 years ago, Mobil's corporate predecessor built the two structures--one of them more than 2,000 feet long--to carry petroleum from wells to shore. The last well closed in 1994, and now Mobil, in accord with its lease agreement, is preparing to remove the piers.

Hardly the sort of "threat" you would expect to touch off an environmental furor, but it has.

That is because the piers have spawned an ecosystem of their own, and not just barnacles. Surfers love the way the adjacent beach produces waves that break both to the left and to the right. Many of them fear that removing the piers could alter the underwater dynamics that make this one of Ventura County's finest surf spots.

They and others also question Mobil's claim that it needs to close the beach for nine months to carry out the work, for safety reasons. The California Coastal Commission is rightly challenging that strategy.

The piers are decrepit eyesores that nearly everyone agrees should go. Many surfers would like to see them replaced by an artificial reef that would approximate their sand-catching characteristics and, ideally, keep the waves peeling. One group would like to recycle the weathered timbers from the piers to create a boardwalk and surf-reef research center at the site.

We have no objection to either plan, provided it can clear the same substantial environmental-impact hurdles that would confront any other plan to build in the ocean. However, Surfrider's support of such construction seems at least ironic and at most hypocritical.

And we have a hard time seeing the logic of those who think Mobil should pay for efforts to preserve an effect it never intended to create. Yes, oil companies have deep pockets and when their activities damage the environment they should pay to make amends.

But in this case, the company should do exactly what it agreed to do 60 years ago: remove its piers and let the forces of nature resume shaping the shore.

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