LOS ANGELES — After decades of annual Pilgrimages, lobbying and finally, an act of Congress, the Manzanar National Historic Site was created in 1992. The first of ten War Relocation Authority concentration camps built to incarcerate more than 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, Manzanar became the first site of conscience that tells the story of this shameful chapter of American History.
But not even ten years after the grand opening of the visitor’s center at Manzanar National Historic Site in 2004, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) wants to build a 1,200-acre, 200-megawatt industrial solar facility within a stones throw of Manzanar. This industrial energy plant is widely opposed by many in Owens Valley, including the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, the Owens Valley Committee, and other concerned organizations, individuals and businesses. All have called for LADWP not to build the power plant next to the Manzanar NHS.
Regardless of the circumstances that brought many Japanese Americans to the Owens Valley, and to Manzanar, many Japanese Americans consider this to be hallowed ground. Make no mistake—those incarcerated, and their families, have no interest in any development that would alter the landscape in a manner that would obscure the memory of what happened during World War II.
Many residents of the Owens Valley worry about the LADWP. The owner of more than 80 percent of the land in the Owens Valley—by far, the largest landowner in the area—they not only control the water, draining it for consumption in Los Angeles, but they have failed to mitigate the dangerous environmental threats to the Owens Valley that their work has created.
Despite the opposition, LADWP continues to push forward with the proposed solar project. This is no surprise to those familiar with the long fight to establish the Manzanar NHS. This solar project is the LADWP’s most recent expression of their long-standing indifference to establishment of the Manzanar NHS. Further, it is part of a growing, dangerous trend impacting historic Japanese American sites across the country.
This year alone we have seen threats to Tule Lake Unit of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, where the Federal Aviation Administration has proposed to build a massive, eight-foot high fence around a small airport that sits on the former concentration camp site. A few months ago, after being rebuffed by City of Los Angeles planners, many from the Sun Valley and broader Los Angeles community won Los Angeles City Council approval for the former site of the Tuna Canyon Detention Station, a Department of Justice site where hundreds of leaders of the Japanese American community were held prior to being sent to Department of Justice prisons around the country during World War II.
This limited victory in Los Angeles was soon overshadowed by the Huntington Beach City Council’s refusal to designate Historic Wintersburg, the former site of a Japanese American farm that was built on land purchased prior to the passage of the 1913 Alien Land Law. Instead, a refuse dump/processing facility will be built.
Other threats include a proposed industrial dairy next to the Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho.
A industrial solar farm, a modern garbage dump, golf course, upscale town homes, or a large dairy, all serve to obscure and denigrate these sites so important to the Japanese American community and to American History. These efforts to “move on” actually threaten our future. By obscuring our past we, as philosopher George Santayana said, may be doomed to repeat it.
LADWP’s proposal poses a grave threat to much more than the historic fabric of Manzanar. Indeed, there are environmental and economic concerns as well. However, this issue is not about security for crop dusters (Tule Lake) or renewable energy goals. False dichotomies such as jobs vs. the environment, or civil rights vs. water supply, obscure the real issues.
Certainly, we must get off fossil fuels, and dramatically alter the way we produce and consume energy. There is no question of the urgency. Nevertheless, distributed solar panels—roof top solar here in Los Angeles—is not only viable, but is, in fact, a much better choice, and would generate much needed economic activity and good jobs (source: report by Los Angeles Business Council/UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation).
Despite the fact that there are viable, better alternatives, LADWP continues to show its indifference towards Manzanar, not to mention their disregard for the environment and the concerns of the people of the Owens Valley.
To illustrate, as late as 1992, LADWP offered competing legislation in the United States Congress, and attempted to undercut efforts led by the Manzanar Committee, to create the Manzanar NHS. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times published shortly before the United States Senate passed legislation to create the Manzanar NHS, Sue Kunitomi Embrey, chair of the Manzanar Committee, wrote:
“We question [LADWP General Manager Mike] Gage’s statement that he and the department fully support the establishment of Manzanar as a national historic site. Gage and the department would not continue to push for the LADWP proposed “memorial site” to be established at Manzanar ‘comparable to the National Park Service proposal.’”
The blatant disregard by the LADWP for Manzanar and the environment of the Owens Valley, in their rush for new energy sources, is unfortunate. But the Manzanar Committee has faced this before, and with the broad support of many in the Owens Valley, and decades of Pilgrimages, lobbying and broad political support, led the way for the creation of the Manzanar NHS. The battle for civil rights, and to honor those who sacrificed so much so that Manzanar would be more than a lone cemetery monument on the windswept desert floor, goes on.
Historic sites such as Manzanar, Tule Lake, and Minidoka stand as stark reminders of one of the most egregious violations of civil rights in American History. As the years pass, and those who suffered behind barbed wire can no longer tell the story, these sites, which serve as monuments to failures of America’s political leadership, to the importance of civil rights, and to the resilience and strength of our nation’s democratic traditions, are all that remain.
Preserving and protecting these indispensable historic sites—sites of conscience—is just the face of our fight for redress today. In fact, the struggle for justice is not over with the creation of National Historic Sites or monuments. We must continue to interpret, to preserve and perhaps most importantly, to protect the integrity of these vitally important places.
More than 70 years have passed since these sites were originally built, yet they are invaluable to our ability to tell this story. Much work remains to uncover the facts, the untold stories and interpret the history. As such, fighting to save the physical remains and their surroundings from “progress” is the task of the day, part of our long, drawn out struggle for redress. To address the wrongs of that time, to honor the sacrifices of our families and community, and to ensure this never happens again to anyone, anywhere, the full scope and scale of this injustice must be clear for future generations to see.
We must remember so America will never forget.
Bruce Embrey, who writes from Los Angeles, is Co-Chair of the Manzanar Committee.
The Manzanar Committee announced its opposition to the proposed facility on August 16. To read our statement, click on: Manzanar Committee Denounces LADWP Proposal To Build 1,200-Acre Solar Ranch Near Manzanar
Community members are urged to sign an online petition opposing the LADWP proposal. To view/sign the petition on Change.org, click on: Halt LADWP’s Plan To Build A 1,200-Acre Solar Energy Generating Station Adjacent to Manzanar National Historic Site.
Community members are also strongly urged to send letters to LADWP in opposition to the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch. Letters should be addressed to:
Environmental Planning and Assessment
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
111 North Hope Street, Room 1044
Los Angeles, California 90012-2607
All letters and e-mails must be received by LADWP no later than 5:00 PM PST on December 20, 2013.
Those who would like to review the Draft Environmental Impact Report for the project can read it on the web at: http://www.ladwp.com/envnotices.
For more information, please call the Manzanar Committee at (323) 662-5102, or send e-mail to email@example.com.
LEAD PHOTO: Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey `spoke out against LADWP’s proposed solar farm near Manzanar at a meeting in Downtown Los Angeles on November 16, 2013. Photo: Ellen Endo/Manzanar Committee.
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