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 Government Shutdown Impacts San Francisco Bay

National Parks closed
Photo credit: National Parks Conservation Association

When you saw the headlines about today’s shutdown of the federal government, you probably wondered if it would actually affect you or anyone you know. The shutdown is inconvenient for federal workers, but could be devastating for vulnerable populations who depend on vital services. It also affects San Francisco Bay and Save The Bay.

Among the agencies shuttered or reduced to essential personnel are the National Park Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tourists can’t visit Alcatraz or popular visitors’ centers that are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, like the warming hut at Crissy Field. They can’t even go online to find out about future visits, because these government websites are down. And nobody can visit the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban wildlife refuge in the country and the location of two of Save The Bay’s restoration sites.

This means our crucial Bay shoreline restoration work is stalled because our volunteers from area schools, businesses, and community organizations can’t go to our sites at the Faber Tract in East Palo Alto and Ravenswood in Menlo Park. Not only will students and adult volunteers be disappointed if an extended shutdown prevents them from improving the Bay’s health; but this is also a critical time of year for our work. With our annual planting season just beginning, we need every day and every volunteer to ensure all 40,000 native seedlings in our nurseries can be planted at these and other locations.

I remember well the last government shutdown, 17 years ago, because I was working in the U.S. Senate. Then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led two shutdowns, for six days and 21 days, the latter extending through Christmas and an early January blizzard in the nation’s capital. It had significant impacts on the economy, especially in Washington, DC, with its huge federal workforce furloughed. I know it took many weeks for our Senate staff to dig out from the shutdown, and many more people and projects suffered harm.

Save The Bay is privileged to work with many dedicated federal workers who toil every day to protect and restore San Francisco Bay. They hunt down polluters, steward federal land, and guard endangered species. For the Bay’s health and for all of these people, we hope this shutdown is brief.

Guest Post | Fremont boy with a mission to save our planet!

Pavan receives John Muir Association’s, “Youth Environmental Education Conservation Award”.
Pavan receives John Muir Association’s, “Youth Environmental Education Conservation Award”. Pictured (left to right): JoAnne Dunec (President, John Muir Association), Pavan Raj Gowda, Tom Leatherman (General Superintendent, Contra Costa County), and George Miller (Congressman)

Pavan Raj Gowda was recently honored with the President’s Environmental Youth award for his environmental stewardship work engaging children with environmental issues. 

Caring for the environment has always been part of who I am. At age 8, I expressed my thoughts openly about how a community needs to come together to care for the environment through a story called, “Two Lakes”, which was later included in my first published children story book, Two Tales from a Kid.

With my parents’ encouragement and support, I pursued my passion for caring for our planet by starting my own website, and published my articles, stories, tips, and ideas. In order to help me take action on my ideas, my parents registered Green Kids Now, Inc., as a 501c(3) non-profit organization. My organization has now completed three years, and in this time frame we have been working hard in many ways to take action.

Moving into our fourth year, my organization will also be focusing on science and innovation. It is very important for everyone to understand that innovation and environmental sustainability should not be seen as two separate things. Most of the issues we are seeing today with us not knowing how to use our raw materials and how to dispose of an item properly — like plastics — is because when people created products they did not consider these things.

But now we know from our previous mistakes and from the issues we are currently facing today, that the right way is for us to think about environmental sustainability from the beginning of creating any product or solution. That’s why my organization will be focusing on showing kids how to responsibly innovate. It is time for us to rethink everything around us today that was created by our past generations. We have a lot of rethinking and redesigning work to do.

Everything we do on land has a direct impact on the oceans too. From ocean warming, toxic chemicals mixing in the waters, our waste floating away and reaching even the most remote parts of oceans, are some examples of how our actions have caused negative consequences. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am able to appreciate the majestic nature of the sea, and love learning about marine life. I can also see first-hand how our actions are negatively impacting ocean processes and ecosystems, which not only impact the marine web of life, but also impact the global balance of life on the land.

The first step in involving people to take action is to first raise their awareness on the environmental issues. People have to come forward by themselves to take action, only then it would be more effective. For that, providing all the data and sharing of information is very important. Through my second published children science fiction, Geckoboy –The Battle of Fracking, I have introduced Biomimicry, as the new method of Innovation, and also showed the side effects of fracking, a method used by oil companies to extract natural gas and oil from the underground.

Let’s all take effort to continue to learn, and do our part in protecting our planet!

— Pavan Raj Gowda

About the Author:
Pavan Raj Gowda, 13 years old, from Fremont, CA, is a passionate environmentalist, published author, and founder of non-profit charity organization, Green Kids Now, Inc. He is also the founder of Green Kids Conference.

Weekly Roundup December 28, 2012

Last week’s storms revealed the vulnerabilities of low-lying parts of the Bay Area to flooding. In Alviso, nearly 2,000 people reside eight feet below sea level. The South Bay Salt Pond restoration project nearby is restoring tidal wetlands, which can help buffer storms and absorb water as sea level rises, protecting vulnerable areas like Alviso. In East Palo Alto, seven homes were evacuated last week due to flooding, with one being rendered uninhabitable. Emergency levee repairs likely spared other homes, for now, but the levees remain vulnerable in the long-term. In a New Year’s boon for the Bay, Alameda County is set to begin a county-wide ban on single use plastic bags January 1. The Press Democrat reports that The International Maritime Organization is set to reroute shipping lanes that go in and out of San Francisco Bay in an effort to keep cargo ships from colliding with whales. The East Bay Express finds that the Navy has downplayed risks of radiation exposure to residents of Treasure Island after obtaining data showing high levels of radiation on the island. Finally EPA Chief Administrator, Lisa Jackson resigns with a mixed record, after four years spent battling industry and Republican officials over climate change legislation.

weekly roundup 12/21/2012
When Sea Rises, Should a Neighborhood be Abandoned?
For one town at the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay, water has been the enemy for many years. Floods have struck repeatedly in Alviso, a San Jose neighborhood of about 2,000 people. Lying about 8 feet below sea level, it’s been inundated when nearby rivers overflowed during rainstorms, with water rising so high it filled up homes and destroyed businesses. With climate change predicted to increase sea levels, some fear the water at some point could be unstoppable.

San Jose Mercury News 12/26/2012
Emergency East Palo Alto Levee Repairs Holding up, Officials Say
Emergency repairs to an earthen levee that separates dozens of East Palo Alto homes from flood-prone San Francisquito Creek are holding up, city and public safety officials said Wednesday.
Swollen with runoff, the creek briefly flowed over a roughly 600-foot section of the levee between Verbena Drive and Daphne Way at about 8 p.m. Sunday. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for seven homes and at least one was damaged to the point of being uninhabitable.

Pleasanton Patch 12/28/2012
County-Wide Plastic Bag Ban Only a Few Days Away
The plastic bag ban is upon Tri-Valley and the rest of the County. On Jan. 1, Alameda County will join San Francisco, San Mateo County, San Jose and 49 other California cities and counties in no longer providing single-use plastic bags at checkout — making reusable bags a must-have for any Bay Area resident, according to the latest release by the County.

Press Democrat 12/27/2012
Ocean shipping lanes near San Francisco changed to protect whales
Shipping lanes that carry about 20 cargo and cruise vessels a day in and out of San Francisco Bay are being revised in an effort to reduce fatal collisions with whales, federal officials said Thursday.
The proposal developed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration modifies shipping lanes that head north, west and south from the Bay, limiting their overlap with areas frequented by endangered blue, humpback and fin whales.

East Bay Express 12/26/2012
Alarming Radiation Levels Found on Treasure Island
Navy officials have repeatedly downplayed the risks of radiation exposure to current and former residents on Treasure Island. But data from the US Navy shows that measurements taken in former residential areas of the island revealed pockets of alarmingly high radiation levels.

New York Times 12/28/2012
EPA Chief Set to Leave, Term Fell Shy of Early Hope
Lisa P. Jackson is stepping down as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency after a four-year tenure that began with high hopes of sweeping action to address climate change and other environmental ills but ended with a series of rear-guard actions to defend the agency against challenges from industry, Republicans in Congress and, at times, the Obama White House.