Port Hueneme residents don’t have to ask if you can smell that smell — they know you can. For over a year, residents have reported an odor akin to rotten hot dogs and boiling cabbage and are questioning what officials are planning to do about it.
In October 2018, a meeting was held at the Port Hueneme City Council chambers to discuss the issue. Residents from South Oxnard and Port Hueneme attended, expressing frustration over the odor and loud, continuous noises. City of Oxnard officials also were in attendance.
Residents from the Surfside III and Surfside IV communities and the surrounding area told officials that they are woken up at all hours of the night to putrid smells, and children expressed an inability to play in local parks due to dizziness and headaches caused by the odor. To add, the sound of trucks and machinery persist through the night and early morning hours.
Residents say that they believe the odor and the noise originate from either the Oxnard Wastewater Treatment Facility or neighboring New-Indy Containerboard, or from both.
A representative from the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District told a group of around 70 at the forum hosted by Port Hueneme News that inspectors have visited the area in the late hours of the night and detected odors originating from both the paper recycling facility and the sewage facility. Representatives from the city of Oxnard told residents that a 24-hour odor hotline had been established as well for reporting odiferous nuisance at any time of the day or night.
Nearly two months later, however, the odor persists, and it’s a problem going on nearly two years, one that resident Lori Shockley calls “a living nightmare.”
“Everybody else had a Christmas without noise and without pollution and without odor, but Surfside III and the Hideaways all suffered with this noise and odor and nobody cares,” said Shockley.
Two of Shockley’s five children live with her and her husband and attend a local junior high school. The family moved to Port Hueneme from Santa Barbara in 2017 and shortly thereafter, when hosting family, Shockley says that she first noticed the smell.
“Unless you live here and have experienced it, you don’t know what I’m talking about,” said Shockley. “No one has taken this seriously. It’s almost like everyone kind of rolls their eyes.”
Several videos taken by Shockley between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. capture a sound akin to a washing machine permeating the neighborhood, while in others taken during the day the sound of a high-pitched drone can be heard continuing unabated. Shockley describes some of the sounds like “a loud tea kettle noise.”
New-Indy Containerboard Mill Manager Rudy Rehbein said that he is aware of the odor and noise complaints issued by residents.
“We address their concerns, we work with them on their concerns, and if we find if it is coming from our facility we will address it and work on those issues,” said Rehbein. Rehbein says that New-Indy has cooperated with regulatory agencies and describes the odor issue as “not consistent with our facility,” adding that no chemicals are used in breaking down cardboard.
As far as the noise complaints, Rehbein says that New-Indy is cooperating with the community and regulatory agencies.
“Any noise complaints that come our way we investigate and follow up and work on those,” said Rehbein. “We work here, our employees and our families live in the area, we also share those concerns and we’ve been cooperating with the investigation into the source and doing our part.”
New-Indy Containerboard is privately owned by The Kraft Group LLC and Schwartz Partners LP. The Kraft Group owns several paper and packaging facilities across the country. Robert Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots football team, is one of the owners.
At the October meeting, Oxnard Assistant Public Works Director Thien Ng said that the city would seek to chemically treat wastewater prior to its arrival at the treatment facility until it can purchase a device to handle potential odors and that an inspector would arrive within half an hour to investigate and determine the origin of odors any time of the day, even on holidays.
Ng says that logs are kept for every call into the hotline. If the odor is confirmed and the source verified, Ng says adjustments can be made at the treatment plant to negate it. But Ng adds that many times, by the time an investigator arrives, the odor is gone.
“I think there’s more than one area out there from the odor perspective,” said Ng, pointing toward a nearby Ventura County Water Shed Protection District owned Flood Control channel that can collect stagnant water and refuse from the ocean including dead fish and other waste.
But there are plans to address issues related to the facility, says Ng. The scrubber mentioned at the October meeting is 70 percent designed and will be installed closer to where raw wastewater enters the facility. In 2016, the Oxnard City Council adopted a five-year capital improvement plan with a 35 percent wastewater rate hike, which was repealed by voters as Measure M — only to be raised again by City Council, which resulted in a failed recall election. In 2018, Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, acquired $9.5 million in the state budget for emergency repairs at the facility to replace a computer system, generators and old, rusted clarifiers in settling tanks at the beginning of the treatment process.
“Our goal is by the end of the five year [capital-improvement plan] we can basically say that the plant is old but stabilized and can function as a normal treatment plant,” said Ng. “A lot of cities that have wastewater treatment plants are gearing toward water recycling so water as a precious resource is there for us as the city grows. That will be our next step. I would say in the next 10 years the plant is going to change.”
Port Hueneme Public Works Director Don Villafana says that the city contracts with Oxnard to treat its wastewater, as does the Channel Islands Beach District and the Naval Base. Villafana says that there have been many complaints from Port Hueneme residents that sparked an investigation into whether or not the odor is toxic.
“Offensive, without question, but not toxic,” said Villafana. “We continue to field calls and we will go out and check if there’s any toxic gasses but that’s about all we can do at this point.”
The city of Port Hueneme has given permission to Oxnard to install sensors to detect emissions and tests are ongoing with results expected soon, said Villafana, but Port Hueneme resident and Publisher of Port Hueneme News Tom Dunn says that it will take a lot of money and time to fix the facility properly.
“I have been here at Surfside IV for 12 years and I had never smelled anything, maybe a couple of times four or five months, but now it’s happening on almost a daily basis where people have to shut down their windows or doors and can’t go outside,” said Dunn. “The wastewater plant is looking at hundreds of millions of dollars to get it right, it really needs to be totally replaced.”
Dunn says that he took a survey of the area and estimates that up to 5,000 residents are affected by the odor and noise within a two-mile radius of the facilities. For now, placing the sensors and keeping pressure on officials to do something is all that can be done, says Dunn.
“Most [residents] realize that there’s not a whole lot that can be done tomorrow but hopefully in a few months we can get something going. As soon as these sensors get out and feed us back the information, that will really help,” said Dunn. “We’re fighting two bureaucratic institutions, two cities, and it’s a very slow process. These people’s lives have been changed down there.”
In Port Hueneme, the New Year brings uncertainty. Shockley says that she suffers from depression brought on by the continuous issues.
“I can’t leave my home, I’m locked inside my home, I can’t open my doors and windows,” said Shockley. “I invested my entire retirement for this home, it was not disclosed to me that there was an odor or noise nuisance, I had to find out all of this information on this on my own.”