Why Save The Bay Talks to Generals

In our efforts to protect and restore the Bay, we often meet with local, state and federal elected officials, senior staff at resource and regulatory agencies, and appointees to state boards and commissions.

But over the last several years, we’ve left no stone unturned in our effort to prevent the largest Bay fill development in decades, Cargill’s proposal to build 12,000 homes on Bay salt ponds in Redwood City.  We met repeatedly with senior officials of DMB Associates, Cargill’s developer partner, and with members of the Redwood City Council. We even reached out to the Bay Area venture capitalists backing the project, who refused to even respond.

Last month, I traveled to the E-ring of The Pentagon to meet with the U.S. Army’s Deputy General Counsel.  And just days earlier, I had met with the General who commands the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Major General John Peabody’s distinguished military career has won many decorations – the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Joint Meritorious and Army Meritorious Service Medals, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, and others.

Compared to surviving in battle zones, it must have seemed easy to decide whether Cargill’s Redwood City salt ponds are in the federal government’s jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.  All the precedents said “yes”, and the Corps’ San Francisco District and the U.S. EPA’s San Francisco regional headquarters agreed.  But Cargill is the largest privately-held company in the country, with plenty of lobbyists and friends in high places. Cargill’s lawyers created a novel interpretation of the Clean Water Act that would exempt its ponds from federal oversight, and made major progress behind the scenes convincing senior Army Corps lawyers to adopt their view.

Even with all of Cargill’s lobbying clout, the Corps final decision was still pending after nearly three years. Save The Bay activists signed petitions to the Corps and to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Local activists, led by Redwood City Neighbors United, kept up a drumbeat of concern and stayed visible in the local media.  We met repeatedly with the staff of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, who was chairing the committee that oversees the Corps.  We asked U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier to raise concerns about Cargill’s self-serving legal theory, and the damage it poses to the Bay in her Congressional district.

Then in February, Senator Dianne Feinstein, alerted by Save The Bay’s outreach, challenged the Corps’ leadership at a Senate hearing:  “I’m very concerned about this.  What makes our whole area is the bay, and we do not want it filled in,” she said, and insisted that General Peabody actually see the salt ponds before deciding to relinquish federal regulation of them.

The general flew west, toured Redwood City, and met me with grace and openness.  He acknowledged that a lot of my questions were good ones for which he didn’t have answers; he told me it was helpful to actually meet someone who had been working on the issue for a decade. But he also made it clear the Corps was about to decide in Cargill’s favor.

We set out to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to block the Army Corps’ action and take over the Clean Water Act decision itself.  The law allows that, but it’s a heavy lift to get one federal agency to overrule another, so EPA rarely tries. When I met with the deputy to EPA Administrator McCarthy in the sprawling William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building just a few blocks from the White House, he was already well-briefed. He had seen the letter from Rep. Jackie Speier and 10 other Bay Area Members of Congress warning the Corps not to relinquish federal jurisdiction over the salt ponds without considering the consequences for the Bay. “One agency should not unilaterally issue a ruling that guts the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction,” Speier wrote, asking the Corps to “fully consult with the EPA, Congress and other stakeholders before they decide that certain sites are not worthy of protection.”

Fortunately for the Bay, the Clean Water Act has an ardent defender in Jared Blumenfeld,  EPA’s Regional Administrator in California, who had been educating EPA Headquarters about the Cargill Saltworks issue for months.  “For us, it’s a critical juncture for San Francisco Bay,” Blumenfeld told reporters, “Our goal is continuing to implement the Clean Water Act in a way that protects the Bay.”

When the Corps moved to finalize its ruling in favor of Cargill, Blumenfeld stepped into seize the issue, EPA headquarters assented, and now the EPA is conducting its own review of the Clean Water Act’s coverage of the Redwood City salt ponds.

And back in Redwood City, for the first time ever, a member of the city council has publicly opposed developing housing on Cargill’s ponds.  Ian Bain wrote in the San Mateo Daily Journal, that for years he “bit my tongue” about building housing on the ponds, but “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should. Today, we know far more about the ecology of the Bay, the value of restored wetlands and impact of sea level rise than we did” when Foster City and other communities were built by filling the Bay.

We urged the San Francisco Chronicle to oppose Cargill’s development, as it had strongly in 2010, and in March the newspaper did just that, saluting EPA’s move and underscoring in its editorial that Redwood City’s shoreline “…simply isn’t a good site for housing development.”

In spite of all of this opposition, Cargill still insists it will pursue its development project, most recently on a KQED-FM Forum broadcast. In the studio, on air, I told the company’s lawyer David Smith that the Bay Area public won’t let that happen.  We don’t build in the Bay anymore, and we won’t rest until this property is fully protected for habitat restoration and inclusion in the S.F. Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Which of the many contacts by Save The Bay, our activists and allies, our elected officials and regional opinion leaders, has stopped Cargill’s project to build a massive new city in the Bay? Which petition, outreach to unlikely partners or side conversation has made the difference?

The answer is:  all of them.  And until Cargill relents, we’ll need more.