Cargill Tries to Gut the Clean Water Act to Build Homes in The Bay

Cargill Salt and its developer partner DMB revealed last month that they attempted to secure a key exemption from the federal Clean Water Act that would have weakened the nation’s top water pollution law for the benefit of their reckless development scheme in Redwood City. And they almost succeeded: the companies convinced a key official at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers headquarter to unilaterally reinterpret the law. Thankfully, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervened to block Cargill’s effort, at least temporarily.

The revelation shows Cargill is still desperate to advance its massive housing development on Bay salt ponds, and even is willing to gut the nation’s most important water protection law without any public process or Congressional debate. Through vigorous behind-the-scenes lobbying of a few federal government lawyers, Cargill almost upended laws that have reduced water pollution and protected public health for more than 40 years.

In August, Cargill released documents to a Redwood City newspaper showing that general counsel of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tried to instruct the agency’s San Francisco District to decline federal oversight of the Redwood City salt ponds where Cargill wants to build thousands of homes.

The Daily News reported that the Corps’ Chief Counsel, Earl H. Stockdale, signed a memo in January exempting the Saltworks site from Clean Water Act coverage because the ponds contain “liquid” that has “been subject to several years of industrial salt making processes.” His memo repeats nearly verbatim arguments DMB made two years ago that the concentrated bay water in the ponds is actually not water.  Stockdale’s memo also suggests that most of the ponds are also not covered by the Rivers and Harbors Act, which discourages construction of structures on “navigable water”.

If adopted as policy, Stockdale’s memo would overturn decades of Corps precedents in San Francisco Bay, including the Corps’ 2010 conclusion that development on the Saltworks site does require federal permission because those ponds do contain water protected by the Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act. Stockdale’s memo was issued without any public process or review, and without consultation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has primary authority over implementation of the Clean Water Act.

When the EPA discovered Stockdale’s memo, it intervened to halt any hasty decision about the Saltworks property. EPA officials realized that Stockdale’s reinterpretation could not only block protection of Bay salt ponds, but also jeopardize regulation of polluted runoff from mines and other sites across the nation. EPA Region 9 Administrator Jared Blumenfeld insisted that EPA have final say on the Clean Waters Act “in light of the significance of the issues raised by the Corps’ proposed approach and the ecological importance of the San Francisco Bay waters at issue.”

The EPA’s intervention prompted senior Army Corps officials to suspend any action on the Cargill site. They have launched an internal review of Stockdale’s memo and how its sweeping change to federal water law could be snuck through the regulatory process without their knowledge, public review, EPA consultation, or action by Congress.

Even if Cargill wins the ruling it seeks from the Army Corps, it will still face hurdles from other state and federal agencies to secure permits for developing on the Bay shoreline.  And no development project on the Redwood City salt ponds can advance without initial approval from the city itself.  Cargill’s formal project proposal was withdrawn from the city in May 2012, after three years of strenuous opposition from local residents and Bay Area elected officials prevented the completion of even a draft environmental analysis.

Residents objected to the city council considering the project because it was at odds with Redwood City’s General Plan and zoning, state and federal laws. Local opposition to the project prompted hundreds of residents to establish a new citizens group, Redwood City Neighbors United. These residents continue to object that Cargill’s plan would destroy restorable wetlands, add to traffic gridlock, overtax drinking water supplies, encroach upon industries at the Port of Redwood City, and put thousands of new residents at risk of floods from rising seas.

For years, Cargill and DMB have acted as if they were above the law, but they have made no progress convincing local, state and federal agencies their Saltworks project is legal. Now they have arrogantly disclosed their own effort to gut the laws that protect San Francisco Bay and the nation’s water so they can boost their profits.

These companies have been tireless and shameless, but Save The Bay and our allies remain vigilant to Cargill’s sneak attacks, and we have mobilized more than 25,000 Bay Area residents and more than 150 elected officials to tell Cargill to abandon its plan to build in the Bay.

Please help us spread the word! If you haven’t already signed our petition telling Cargill to abandon its plan, do so today, and spread the word to your friends here today.

Salt Pond Update: 2013 Year in Review

Don't Pave My Bay

As we enter the new year, two square miles of the Bay remains at risk in Redwood City.

It’s been a year and a half since you helped Save The Bay and a broad coalition of environmental organizations, community groups, elected officials, and others defeat Cargill’s initial proposal to build as many as 12,000 houses atop restorable salt ponds in Redwood City.

Still, Cargill is unwilling to back away from its intent to submit a revised development proposal for the site, let alone sell the salt ponds so they can be restored and included in the Don Edwards SF Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

Instead, Cargill has pressured the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grant an “exemption” from the Clean Water Act, which would make it easier for Cargill to get permits to develop the site. Insider sources tell us that in recent months Cargill has ramped up its lobbying efforts in Washington D.C.

Thousands of you have called on the Army Corps and the EPA to stand up for the Bay and not let Cargill get out of basic environmental regulations that protect the health of our great estuary. The federal agencies have yet to make a decision, but thanks to you, we know they are hearing us.

Overall, there’s hope for the long-term health of the Bay. Every day the Bay Area moves further and further away from Cargill’s archaic plans to pave the Bay:

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a long-awaited blueprint to restore the Bay’s wetlands. Called the Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan, this federal report specifically calls for the protection and restoration of Redwood City’s salt ponds.
  • Through the recently adopted Plan Bay Area, the region has chosen to move away from sprawl, focusing future development near transit, in already urbanized areas. Cargill tried to undermine this plan at the last minute, threatening regional agencies with legal action unless the Redwood City ponds were were listed as “urbanized,” but we beat them back before it was too late.
  • As sea levels continue to rise, policymakers throughout the state are beginning to realize that we need to protect the infrastructure we already have – not put more people at risk. San Mateo County’s recent sea level rise summit shows this message is getting through.
  • Finally, the historic restoration of the Bay continues at a rapid pace, as thousands of acres of the shoreline are returned back to Bay wetlands. The restoration of former salt ponds in the North Bay demonstrate what’s possible in Redwood City, if only Cargill is willing to cooperate.

None of this progress could happen without our members and supporters. You’ve signed our petitions, shared our actions with your friends, donated, and helped us continue to lead this campaign that is shaping the future of the Bay. We’ll keep you updated as we continue this important fight in the new year.

Curious to learn more about the nearly 25,000 shorebirds that use the Redwood City salt ponds annually? View our Birds of the Redwood City Salt Ponds slideshow. 

Federal Wildlife Plan Calls for Restoration of Redwood City Salt Ponds

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan calls for the restoration of the Redwood City salt ponds. Their map, above, illustrates how the salt ponds, if restored, could connect with existing wetlands and other wetland restoration site nearby.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan calls for the restoration of the Redwood City salt ponds. Their map, above, illustrates how the salt ponds, if restored, could connect with existing wetlands and other wetland restoration sites nearby.

Last week the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a much-anticipated 50-year plan for the restoration of the Bay’s wetlands. A blueprint for the recovery of over a dozen threatened and endangered plant and animal species that depend on the Bay’s wetlands, the Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan includes recommendations for tens of thousands of acres of the Bay shoreline, saying that the protection and restoration of the Bay’s wetlands are critically needed for endangered species like the California Clapper Rail and Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse to have a chance at avoiding extinction.

The plan clearly states that restoring the Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City and Newark would close critical gaps in the restoration of the South Bay shoreline.

This is consistent with the message from Bay scientists, Save The Bay, and the hundreds of organizations, cities, elected officials, and newspaper editorial boards who have formally opposed Cargill’s efforts to place thousands of houses on 1,400 acres of restorable salt ponds in Redwood City.

The Tidal Marsh Recovery Plan also calls for the restoration of a shoreline area immediately adjacent to the Newark salt ponds – a 550-acre section of diked baylands referred to as “Area 4.” Save The Bay has joined with a dozen other environmental groups to oppose the City of Newark’s proposal to fill these baylands with an 18-hole golf course and nearly 500 houses.

These strong recommendations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are another clear indication that the greatest value of the Redwood City salt ponds is what they can provide to the Bay if restored. Knowing that the Redwood City ponds provide habitat for tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds, Cargill nonetheless has fought against any governmental effort that discusses the site as anything other than an ‘industrial moonscape.’

This is the same message that Cargill has sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in its petition to make the Redwood City salt ponds “exempt” from the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental laws that protect the Bay from being filled.

The Fish and Wildlife Service took a stand by highlighting the importance of the Redwood City salt ponds to the Bay. Now we need your help to ensure the EPA and Army Corps don’t cave to Cargill on their attempts to be granted an “exemption” from the Clean Water Act. Help Save The Bay continue to make sure state and federal agencies protect the Bay from Cargill. Donate today!

Cargill threatens regional agencies over SF Bay salt pond map

Redwood City Salt Ponds
Does this site look ‘urbanized’ to you?

You may not have heard about Cargill’s controversial plan to build a new city on restorable salt ponds in San Francisco Bay for a while. But the company recently threatened and misled Bay Area regional planners into incorrectly designating Redwood City salt pond properties as “urbanized” areas. Clearly, Cargill was after yet another way to justify developing this important open space.

Fortunately, Save The Bay beat back this underhanded effort by the largest privately held US company.

Here’s what happened:

For years, Bay Area cities and agencies have been shaping an ambitious project called Plan Bay Area, intended to address growth and transportation at a regional level. The plan included maps of the Bay that correctly showed salt ponds in Redwood City and Newark as open space.

Before the plan was adopted, however, Cargill submitted a letter threatening public agencies with legal action over those maps. Cargill brazenly claimed there are no “significant restrictions [that] exist on the current and future use of these properties.” That isn’t true, but soon a new draft of the plan was released, and it included maps depicting the salt ponds as “urbanized.”

Contrary to Cargill’s claim, there are many significant protections on the Redwood City salt ponds. They are designated as open space in Redwood City’s general plan and in Cargill’s contract with the state of California under the Williamson Act; and many state and federal laws protect the Bay.

Thanks to vigilant Save The Bay supporters like you, we caught wind of Cargill’s sneaky move – and we reached out to our allies and supporters to ensure the maps were fixed, just days before the final plan was approved. It was a close call, but swift action by our Save The Bay policy team prevented this important open space from coming one step closer to development. We know that Cargill will stop at nothing to clear their way to build homes on these below sea level, restorable ponds. And we need all the help we can get to continue to block their moves.

It is astonishing that, after benefiting from dramatically reduced taxes for decades in exchange for preserving the areas as open space, Cargill shamelessly bullied Bay Area public officials with false claims and threats of legal action.

Cargill is demonstrating yet again that they aren’t listening to the community in Redwood City and throughout the Bay Area.

Won’t you please stand with us again today with a special gift to help us block the Cargill threat? With your support we will remain vigilant against Cargill and work to ensure that San Francisco Bay salt ponds are restored—not paved over for development.

Want to learn more about why the Redwood City salt ponds are important to the Bay? See our slideshow profiling some of the more than 24,800 shorebirds that call the ponds home.

SLIDESHOW: Birds of the Redwood City Salt Ponds

We have written in the past about Cargill’s attempt to mislead the public and government agencies about the ecological value of the Redwood City salt ponds. While Cargill and its development partner, DMB Pacific, have withdrawn their original plan to build as many as 12,000 houses on the site, the companies consistently say they intend to submit another plan to fill the below-sea-level, restorable salt ponds with housing. As Cargill is busy lobbying federal agencies to exempt the ponds from the Clean Water Act and other important environmental regulations that protect the Bay, now seems like a good time to remind ourselves of the beauty and diversity of bird life found on these salt ponds.

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The San Francisco Bay salt ponds support hundreds of thousands of migratory shorebirds who rely on the Bay as a key stop on their route along the Pacific Flyway. The San Francisco Bay, in fact, is a recognized site of hemispheric importance for migratory shorebirds, and the Bay’s salt ponds provide important habitat for dozens of species, including several that are threatened or endangered.

Studies from Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly Point Reyes Bird Observatory), a leader in studying shorebirds along the Pacific Flyway, document that the Redwood City salt ponds are home to at least 24,800 shorebirds annually, including the federally threatened Western Snowy Plover, a species whose surviving Pacific coast population now numbers just 1,500-2,000 birds. In addition, Point Blue describes the Redwood City ponds as having “among the highest [bird] counts from the West side of the Bay between the Bay and Dumbarton bridges” making up more than a quarter of the total shorebird population of the region.

The Environmental Protection Agency has called the Redwood City salt ponds a “critically important aquatic resource that warrants special protection,” as has the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. Even Cargill’s own environmental consultants have observed over 70 different species at the Redwood City salt ponds, and have documented the federally-threatened Western Snowy Plover breeding on site.

Save The Bay has shared photos of the large numbers of birds that live on the Redwood City salt ponds in the past, but to really appreciate the beauty and fascinating behavior of these birds, you have to see them up close and personal.

Cargill has restricted access to the site, so we have turned to Bob Cossins and other talented local photographers for a good look at a few of the species that have been observed on the Redwood City salt ponds. Take a look at the slideshow and learn a little bit more about the shorebirds that are at risk of losing their home if Cargill is successful in their plans to pave over these 1,400 acres of San Francisco Bay. Help us protect the Redwood City salt ponds from development – sign our petition telling Cargill “Don’t Pave My Bay” and spread the word with your friends and neighbors!

 

(Special thanks to former Save The Bay policy volunteer Leland Malkus for his substantial support in the publication of this article and slideshow. All bird descriptions are courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology)