Group Objects to Giant Solar Plant Near Manzanar Historic Site

The monument on the Manzanar site by interned stonemasone stonemason Ryozo Kado | Photo: Ken-Ichi/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Controversy is heating up over plans by the L.A. Department of Water and Power to build an industrial solar power facility in Owens Valley near the site of the Manzanar National Historic Site, where 11,000 Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II.

LADWP's Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch would occupy 1,200 acres (1.875 square miles) on Manzanar-Reward Road. That's immediately east of the site of the former Manzanar War Relocation Center, often referred to as a concentration camp, where 11,070 Americans of Japanese ancestry were forcibly interned during World War II. The solar plant, which would be 50 percent larger than the National Historic Site itself, would sit atop the camp's historic landfill, which has never been fully surveyed for archaeological resources, according to advocacy group the Manzanar Committee, which lobbied successfully for the site to be protected by the National Park Service through the 1980s and 1990s.

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The 200-megawatt plant's million solar panels would provide power to LADWP customers in Los Angeles and the Owens Valley. An Environmental Impact Report for the project is expected later this year, with construction set to begin in 2014 for completion by 2019.

"The very idea that any land in or around the Manzanar National Historic Site could be used for a massive generating facility would not harm the ongoing efforts to preserve and understand the tragedy of justice that occurred there is simply beyond insensitive, and it's not just insensitive to the Japanese American community, the survivors of America's concentration camps and their families," said Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey in a press release. "That gross insensitivity extends to the efforts of the National Park Service, and others who have worked so hard to bring this brief, but essential, part of American History to light."

Once a more or less abandoned agricultural town near Independence, Manzanar was converted into the most notorious of the United State's wartime Relocation Centers beginning in March 1942. At its peak the camp held 10,046 people, two thirds of them American citizens, and 90 percent from the Los Angeles area. More than 100,000 people were interned nationwide during the war years for being of Japanese extraction.

Ironically, LADWP, which owned the land until the National Park Service bought 814 acres of the site in 1997, steadfastly opposed the establishment of a National Historic Site at Manzanar, even sponsoring a bill in Congress that would have blocked the designation.

"LADWP has a long and checkered history regarding the establishment of the Manzanar National Historic Site," said Embrey. "They have offered support over the years to the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, led for decades by Sue Kunitomi Embrey. But the relationship between LADWP and the Manzanar Committee has been marked by serious and fundamental disagreements along the way."

Embrey points out that the scale of the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch and its proximity just a few miles east of the site will have an irrevocable impact on the historic setting of the camp. "Some of the best and most memorable parts of Manzanar have always been seeing the remnants of the camp set in contrast to the natural landscape of the area. The continued restoration of the gardens, the apple orchard, and other crucial archaeological aspects... none of that should be compromised for commercial exploitation."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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