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.

Continue reading “Why Save The Bay Talks to Generals”

Tell the EPA to Protect SF Bay against Cargill

Since last week over 1,600 people have taken action against Cargill and told the EPA to protect the Redwood City salt ponds. Now Bay Area members of Congress are also calling on the federal government to uphold the Clean Water Act and protect the Bay. Read more in the San Mateo Daily Journal and take action below. 

Redwood City Salt Ponds in Jeopardy
Tell the EPA to support the Clean Water Act and stop Cargill’s Bayfill development plan.

Two years ago, Save The Bay exposed Cargill’s goal of bullying federal agencies to declare the salt ponds in Redwood City exempt from the Clean Water Act and other protections.  After (temporarily) stopping them in their tracks, Cargill, the largest privately held corporation in the United States, is continuing its drive to pave over 1,400 acres of restorable salt ponds — again putting San Francisco Bay’s fragile shoreline at risk from development.

A leaked memo from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lawyers says the federal government should no longer apply Clean Water Act regulations to Cargill’s Redwood City salt ponds. This is exactly what Cargill has been heavily lobbying for behind the scenes. This dangerous re-interpretation of the Clean Water Act was created in secret, with no EPA participation, no approval from Congress, and no opportunity for public input. It’s outrageous!

Now we know Cargill has managed to convince an Army lawyer to support reversing decades of federal protection for Bay salt ponds. Any day, that agency could act on the memo and breathe life into the company’s reckless plan to pave over these Bay salt ponds.  But the EPA can still preserve legal protection for the Bay’s salt ponds. The agency has the authority to overrule the U.S. Army Corps and preserve Clean Water Act authority over Bay salt ponds.

Scientists agree that Cargill’s salt ponds in Redwood City are one of the most important shoreline habitats on the Bay. Surrounded by the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the ponds are a wintering and migratory spot for tens of thousands of shorebirds. What’s more, some of the world’s last remaining endangered western snowy plovers depend on these ponds as breeding grounds.

Redwood City salt ponds offer a rare opportunity to restore San Francisco Bay’s tidal marshes, to benefit wildlife and the people of the Bay Area. We know it works because nearly-identical retired salt ponds near Vallejo were recently reconnected to the Bay, and wildlife is already flocking back. Redwood City’s salt ponds can have the same future if the EPA preserves Clean Water Act protection.

This issue is bigger the Bay. The Clean Water Act is the primary federal law governing water pollution—and undermining it here in San Francisco Bay puts wetlands across the United States at greater risk of development. It takes every one of us doing our part, working together, to protect and restore our most precious natural resource. Please donate today to support this important work.

TAKE ACTION and support SF Bay today!

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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.

OP-ED: Whatever Federal Agencies Decide, Any Saltworks Plan for Redwood City Is Still a Bad Idea

More than two years have passed since Cargill/DMB’s Saltworks plan was defeated in Redwood City, but they are still working behind the scenes with plans to build on the Bay. Redwood City residents are staying vigilant in their strong stand against this reckless development. Dan Ponti, president of Redwood City Neighbors United recently published this OP-ED in the Daily News

The Aug. 16 Daily News story, “Report favoring Saltworks plan stalled,” strongly suggests that DMB/Cargill is hoping that some media attention will short-circuit a formal review process that would determine whether their controversial plan to develop the salt ponds in Redwood City is subject to federal government oversight.

More than two years have passed since DMB/Cargill withdrew their initial plan to build a city in the bay, but the bitter controversy that pitted Cargill and its developer DMB against the residents of Redwood City, neighboring communities, and environmental groups has not gone away. They still intend to develop the site and are hoping that if they can get federal agencies to bow out, it will be smoother sailing for their project.
The findings in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers documents that DMB showed the press, if adopted, would reverse long-standing policy regarding salt ponds in San Francisco Bay. As an example, crystallizer ponds located near Napa (and very similar to the Redwood City salt ponds) were deemed “waters of the United States” subject to the Clean Water Act and permitting requirements. Those ponds are now being restored.

Doesn’t it seem odd that the Corps would claim jurisdiction and require permits for salt pond restoration projects, yet now claim no oversight role over a huge development on similar ponds? And there are other oddities — for example, the Corps attorney’s bizarre use of the term “liquid” to describe water in the salt ponds. Apparently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thinks something is amiss too, and is reviewing the Corps’ decision, in part because of “issues raised by the Corps’ proposed approach.” What would this reversal on the federal jurisdiction mean for other salt ponds and former salt ponds throughout San Francisco Bay? Both the Corps and EPA oversee implementation and enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Review by both agencies is a required part of the process in making these determinations — and it should be allowed to play out.
However, all of this is just a distraction because a jurisdictional determination does not address the real issue here: that growing Redwood City on the salt ponds is a really bad idea.

In the two years since the Redwood City City Council turned its back on Saltworks, things have changed. Fueled by a new General Plan and an ambitious Downtown Precise Plan, housing is being built at an astonishing pace, focused in the downtown area where infrastructure and transit already exist. This is true smart growth that limits traffic impacts, makes efficient use of resources and preserves our open spaces.

In contrast, any new Saltworks project would contradict both the letter and spirit of our General Plan. Instead of growing Redwood City within our core, developing the ponds means more traffic gridlock on our freeways and city streets, needless destruction of restorable wetlands, and threats to the jobs and viability of our port and nearby industries. Add concerns about our water supply, liquefaction and seiche hazards, and the risk of placing thousands of additional residents in the path of rising seas to the list and you have to wonder why anyone would consider building out there. Simply put, Redwood City has neither the need, nor the capacity, to build in the bay.

So what part of “no” does Cargill/DMB not understand? Redwood City is moving on. Developing on the salt ponds never made sense to our community, and scaling back a bad idea doesn’t make it a good one. And that’s something you might think about while sitting in traffic on 101.

Dan Ponti is a Redwood City resident and president of the local advocacy group Redwood City Neighbors United: Responsible Growth — Not Saltworks (www.rcnu.org)

Sharing Inspiration to Save San Francisco Bay

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There’s a long history of fighting to save the Bay

It is interesting to learn how much the effort to save the Redwood City salt ponds from development is an inspiration to people all around the Bay Area. We are proud to be in the lead against this scheme to build a new city at sea level in San Francisco Bay, the biggest threat to our Bay in 50 years.

The campaign to save this important site for restoration already goes back at least a decade. Wherever I go and often no matter what subject is on the agenda, people I am meeting with frequently bring it up and ask about Cargill. And the context is invariably positive and supportive of Save The Bay’s work. It’s apparent that the Bay Area community is broadly inspired by this Baylands protection effort, by the folly of the Bayfill housing plan contrasted with the restoration vision for the site, and probably also by the drama of a small environmental group dueling one of the largest corporations on earth.

These are just a few recent examples:

  • A Bay Area high school student was recently in touch with Save The Bay and wrote a school paper about the controversial Cargill proposal. We regularly hear from students who are researching and writing about this issue, from law school to elementary schools. But this paper was a bit different. The student called us back to tell us that his paper had inspired his teacher to make a donation to Save The Bay.
  • Starting back in 2009, a group of current and former elected officials learned about Cargill’s threat to fill in these restorable salt ponds and began collecting names from each other to use their voices as community leaders to say “no.” Their collective statement of opposition to the grew rapidly in 2009 and 2010 until there are today almost 200 state and local leaders representing millions of Bay Area residents who are proud to publicly denounce plans to build in a restorable salt pond.
  • Most recently, we have seen months of engagement around the Cargill campaign from a group of second graders at Aurora Elementary School in Oakland. They have petitioned the Army Corps and the USEPA and gotten a notable response. They wrote to Cargill and also got a response from their Bay Area land manager, who reached out but then declined to participate in a debate with Save The Bay. And they made a video, which we hope to be able to share with you.

We ourselves are inspired by the work of so many that have stood up for the Bay over the years, including Matt Leddy & Gail Raabe whose work in Redwood City to preserve their threatened shoreline spans decades. You can watch their story here.