California Attorney General Becerra and four environmental groups recently filed two separate lawsuits against the Trump Environmental Protection Agency over its recent decision to remove Clean Water Act protections from the Cargill Salt Ponds in Redwood City (see “Group sues over Cargill: Environmentalists take issue with EPA removing Redwood City salt ponds protections,” San Mateo Daily Journal, 9/25/2019). These plaintiffs are right to fight back against a Trump administration that once again is placing politics ahead of science in support of big business interests. Support for these lawsuits has been widespread, including U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein who issued an immediate statement the day the lawsuits were filed saying:
“The administration’s failure to protect the San Francisco Bay salt ponds puts the Bay’s entire ecosystem at risk. I support the lawsuit filed by Attorney General Becerra and environmental groups in order to ensure the Clean Water Act is enforced and the salt ponds are protected.”
Areas under Clean Water Act, or CWA, jurisdiction are not prohibited from being filled for development, but if developed, the act does require federal oversight, permitting and full mitigation for any loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat. Removing CWA protections would likely make the 1,400-acre salt pond site more profitable to develop, and thus more difficult to purchase for tidal marsh restoration.
So who wins if this EPA decision stands? Cargill and luxury housing developer DMB. And who will lose? Redwood City residents and San Francisco Bay.
After their first massive Saltworks development proposal was soundly rejected in 2012, Cargill and DMB began lobbying to overturn the CWA regulatory protections that applied to the Redwood City salt ponds. They requested a new determination on CWA jurisdiction, and in 2016, after years of study, staff at the EPA Region 9 office in San Francisco completed a 65-page Draft Jurisdictional Determination. The report, supported by extensive legal and scientific analysis, concluded that all but the levees and small building pads at the salt ponds did indeed qualify for Clean Water Act protections.
This jurisdictional determination was awaiting final sign-off — then Trump was elected. Soon after Scott Pruitt was confirmed as EPA administrator in 2017, he took away regional authority over jurisdictional determinations and, in March of this year, the headquarter office issued a final determination that within the boundary of the salt ponds, “there are no ‘waters of the United States’ for purposes of the Clean Water Act.” Immediately following this decision, Cargill and DMB announced that they intend to move forward with development plans for the ponds.
The Trump EPA decision is only 13 pages long. Without acknowledging the documentation that EPA Region 9 developed to support CWA protections, the current decision instead concludes that the CWA does not apply because the site was converted to dry uplands. As the lawsuits argue, this is obviously not true: the ponds lie below sea level, fill with water each winter, and would once again be subject to natural tides and submerged by the Bay if the surrounding artificial levees were breached.
The CWA issue is important, but it does not speak to whether it is wise, economically, environmentally, or from a public safety standpoint, to grow Redwood City in the Bay. That is the real decision that we, as affected residents, must make.
After residents overwhelmingly opposed their previous Saltworks development proposal, did Cargill and DMB listen to the community, who had declared loud and clear that the salt ponds should be sold or donated for restoration? No; they instead began working behind the scenes to remove CWA protections from the salt ponds to increase their profits. And now their efforts are rewarded and supported by an EPA that, in Trumpian fashion, cares nothing about science or truth. This not a good look for a developer that says it wants to engage the community in “reimagining” the salt ponds. Will facts even matter in that conversation? If we are to believe that the ponds are dry uplands, can we trust anything they say?
Sad to say, it looks like for Cargill, profits will always “Trump” community interests.
Dan Ponti is a Redwood City resident and founding member of Redwood City Neighbors United (RCNU), a local advocacy group that opposes development on the salt ponds. Neither Mr. Ponti nor RCNU are party to the EPA lawsuits.