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November, 2002

Hamilton Wetlands Project Races Blindly Ahead
By Elena Belsky

The California Costal Conservancy (CCC) and the US Army, recently released a new set of Environmental documents pertaining to a "new" joint venture: combining the Hamilton Wetlands Restoration Project with the adjacent, Bel Marin Keys V (BMKV) parcel newly acquired by the CCC.

The decision to join the two wetlands projects might make sense if all of the toxic contamination, flooding, and technical issues of each parcel were properly addressed. Unfortunately, the unification concept is woefully inadequate and incomplete as presented in the "Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Review" (EIS/EIR - Federal/State documents), the "Bel Marin Keys V Expansion of the Hamilton Wetlands Restoration Project", and "Draft General Reevaluation Report."

Comments from agencies, local environmental groups, and homeowners raise common points in criticism of the Supplemental EIS/EIR that was offered by the Conservancy and the Army. Prior to commencing any wetlands restoration, clean up of toxics through remediation must occur, where necessary, to protect the San Francisco Bay, its tributaries and wildlife from harm.

The EIS/EIR failed to include or address large areas of known contamination. Other toxic areas on Hamilton that have just begun to be evaluated were also not included; it failed to include a complete list of environmental releases by location. The BMKV parcel is still in the initial phases of investigation for toxics contamination, yet the EIS/EIR did not mention that the BMKV parcel is believed by the Army to have been used as a practice bombing range, and may still contain unexploded ordnance (e.g. bombs). Also, the historic flooding of Hamilton and adjacent parcels may have spread contamination across a wide area, including the BMKV parcel - this has yet to be sufficiently studied and is not discussed in the EIS/EIR.

Who's Not Doing What?

Concerns by the 700 Bel Marin Keys neighboring homeowners and their Community Service District (CSD) were raised at a recent public hearing regarding serious flooding impacts, sedimentation issues, and the potential release of toxics into the community and its waterways. The CSD believes that the BMKV wetlands project will decrease flood protection for the community, and force homeowners into paying higher flood insurance premiums. While the CCC is projecting no increased flooding problems, there is no documentation to support the CCC's assertions. There have been no studies done regarding potential flooding, siltation, and hydrology changes from the proposed wetlands creation and breeching of existing flood control levees on the BMKV property.

At this same public CSD meeting, questions were asked regarding the proposed transfer of the still highly contaminated Hamilton Base Re-Alignment and Closure (BRAC) parcels from the Army, to the California Coastal Conservancy, and the appropriateness of such a move. According to Tom Gandesbury, wetlands project manager for the CCC, "It [the CCC wetlands project] assumes that they (Army) go through what they plan to do there, and they are responsible for documenting that and following the law, now if it comes to pass that they don't do that, then we obviously don't do Hamilton as a restoration, and we carve out about 1000 acres and something else can be built there"

But in the draft Remedial Action Plan (RAP) for the Army's Hamilton BRAC wetlands parcel, the Army stated that they will be doing nothing other than remediation on four specific sites and the channel area. It seems the Army is not taking responsibility for all contaminants, and intends to leave the rest of their toxic mess for the CCC to remediate.

Exactly what law is Army trying to follow here?

Was this the congressional intent in approving funding for the Hamilton Wetlands Restoration Project? While the Remedial Action Plan is still in draft form, the levels of base-wide DDT contamination are well documented: the highest concentration on inland property is 30ppb (parts perbillion) with the action/clean-up level set for the site at 7ppb. What is the army actually going to do about this?

The RAP and Army say "nothing;" the CCC says "everything;" yet the only action on the table is to transfer the property to the State (i.e. to the CCC).

This issue of transferring the Army property to the State is raising many, as yet unanswered, questions: What would the State gain by accepting ownership from the Army? Why would the State choose to take on the Army's responsibilities for a toxic problem of Hamilton's magnitude? Is this a "hostage" situation where the Army refuses to continue the Wetlands Restoration unless the State accepts the contaminated parcels?

So far, the California Coastal Conservancy has given no solid reasons for taking possession of a toxic Federal property in order to create a wetland, a project which could conceivably cause more harm than benefit.

Following The Money

Could the State be receiving credit for taking ownership of the toxic Federal parcels, so as not to have to come up with as much cash for their part of the wetlands restoration? How much benefit is the federal government giving the State, and why should the they be giving financial benefit to the State at all, if the federal government already owns the property?

Could it be that the liability outweighs the benefit? If there are agreements in the works for financial consideration and early transfer of the property, then where are the documents? Why not provide them to the public as an answer to these questions? If the parcel is transferred prior to full remediation of the contamination, the transfer must be approved by the Governor of California. Is this another Oracle scandal waiting to break loose?

Where is the information on these various agreements, and what is the final prognosis for the State owning highly contaminated Federal property? Financial and legal opinions should be provided to the public to justify the State's position and intended actions - otherwise, keep it simple, protect the people's interest, and let the Army retain ownership and do the clean up on the Hamilton BRAC parcel. The Army and Coastal Conservancy will be issuing a Final EIS/EIR document sometime in November, including a final 30-day public and agency comment period. Considering that the Draft Supplemental EIS/EIR appears to have serious technical flaws, and to be alternately incomplete and incomprehensible, it will be interesting to see what the Army and Conservancy do to satisfy the environmental requirements. So far, the EIS/EIR has failed to offer proof of one viable wetlands project, and certainly not a more complex, combined wetlands project. There is no doubt that we need more wetlands to be restored, but not if it is a toxic wetland.

 

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