California and Environmental Groups Challenge Trump Over Redwood City Salt Ponds

Cargill salt flats.  (Kenneth Lu/Flickr)

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a coalition of environmental groups sued the Trump administration today over a federal Environmental Protection Agency ruling that vast salt ponds in the South Bay are not “waters of the United States.”

Last March, the Trump administration ruled that 1,365 acres of salt ponds owned by Cargill are not subject to some restrictions of the federal Clean Water Act. That determination breathed new life into one of the Bay Area's largest housing proposals in five decades.

But EPA's decision angered environmental groups and government officials like Peninsula Congresswoman Jackie Speier. She claimed that Cargill executives worked behind the scenes with the Trump administration to push the decision in violation of environmental laws. “I am not willing to let this happen,” she said at the time.

“It’s a sad day when the country's ‘environmental protection agency’ looks at the San Francisco Bay and doesn’t see a body of water that it should protect,” Becerra said in a statement. “We should restore the Bay, not build on top of it. This unlawful proposal is simply an attempt by the EPA to overlook its obligation to protect our nation’s waters in order to fast track development. President Trump, California’s precious San Francisco Bay is not for sale.”

Senator Dianne Feinstein issued a statement in support of Becerra's lawsuit, saying that the administration's failure to protect the salt ponds puts the San Francisco Bay ecosystem at risk. She said that EPA's regional office determined in 2016 that the area along Redwood City is subject to permitting requirements under the Clean Water Act.

"With little explanation, the Trump administration reversed that decision, opening the fragile salt ponds up to development," she said. "The health of the San Francisco Bay will largely be determined by the future of these surrounding salt ponds. We can’t let the administration shirk its responsibility to safeguard this national treasure.”

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The lawsuits seek to overturn the EPA decision.

EPA officials declined to discuss the legal dispute. In an email, Bill Glenn, acting director of the agency's press office for the region, said that “EPA does not discuss pending litigation.”

Cargill is the nation's largest private company. It purchased the ponds' longtime owner, Leslie Salt, 40 years ago.

David Smith, the company's attorney for the project, called the litigation unproductive and a distraction. He said Cargill remains focused on finding a community-backed solution for developing the site, which is an active salt harvesting facility.

"We are disappointed the California Attorney General and local groups chose to pursue litigation rather than join the community discussion," he said in a statement.

David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, said in a statement that the salt ponds deserve federal legal protection from pollution and development. “We won’t let the Trump Administration invite developers to pave the bay,” he said.

Save The Bay filed the joint lawsuit with San Francisco Baykeeper, Committee for Green Foothills, and Citizens’ Committee to Complete the Refuge.

The legal challenges from California and the environmental groups challenge the EPA conclusion, saying it is contrary to the Clean Water Act and undermines California’s ability to construct Bay wetlands.

They say the agency violated the law and that the salt ponds are like any other wetland around the Bay.

Environmental groups contend the agency is ignoring that the wetland was once navigable and still has major ecological importance.

The groups have identified the area as a prime location for the restoration of  wetlands that can improve the tidal marsh ecosystem and provide natural flood protections that scientists say will be vital as climate change pushes San Francisco Bay waters higher and higher.

A decade ago, developers proposed building 12,000 new units to house 25,000 people on an area abutting the San Francisco Bay east of Highway 101.

Environmentalists, who want to maintain wetlands, contested the plan from the beginning. They argued that a residential development on the land would violate the Clean Water Act, which prohibits the filling of waterways.

The Obama administration agreed, and in 2012, Cargill withdrew its proposal. But Obama’s EPA did not finalize its ruling before he left office, and the Trump administration reversed it, removing a key legal block to a development that is potentially worth billions of dollars.

The company maintains that its original plan is dead. While it has yet to introduce a new plan, it says that it will hold public hearings to gather ideas from residents. Trump’s ruling also means that the government or environmental groups will likely have to pay more for the land if they want to turn it into a wildlife habitat restoration.

Read here for more on this story.

 

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