Latest Site for Oakland’s Toxic Dredge Spoils is Suisun Marsh
Port and federal officials promise an enhanced wetland, while environmentalists fight to protect the marsh they already have
By Lauren Dockett
To stay competitive in today’s shipping world, you’ve got to dig. Supertankers need plenty of draft under their giant hulls, and California ports keep shoveling away at the sea floor to make room.
Unfortunately, at the Port of Oakland, providing shipping lanes and dockside access for large tankers means digging deep enough to unearth toxic mud. The spoils contain, among other toxins, measurable levels of lead, mercury, pesticides, selenium, arsenic, and PCBs.
This July, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they, along with the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, have agreed on a strategy for getting rid of the toxic spoils. Those who’ve wanted to get the mud out of the bay are celebrating but the mood is decidedly less upbeat for the neighbors of Suisun Marsh, the wetlands area where the EPA has decided to dump a sizable portion of Oakland’s dredge spoils.
Says Laurie Brown of Friends of Suisun Marsh, “This is one of the most beautiful spots in the Bay Area. If people only knew what was about to happen here, they’d be outraged.”
According to the EPA plan, forty percent of the bay’s dredge spoils must be reused for wetlands restoration, levee repair, and landfill cover (the remaining mud will be dumped in a deep ocean site fifty miles west of San Francisco or moved out of the way of ships). Solano County’s Suisun Marsh, which constitutes ten percent of California’s remaining wetlands, has been slated to receive a relatively big piece of the dredge spoils pie. Now that the numbers are in place, the consortium that decided on the plan can begin transporting and dumping the dredge.
Solano County approved an Environmental Impact Report as well as a proposal from the large environmental design firm of Levine-Fricke to allow the barging, sifting, and dumping of seventeen million cubic yards of the port’s dredge onto the marsh’s Montezuma Slough, part of which lies at the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. As the dredge is laid down, millions of gallons of water will be pumped in daily, transforming what is currently a diked seasonal wetland area into a tidal wetland.
EPA representative Brian Ross says the influx of water will enhance the slough. “California has lost so many of our wetlands. I’m not suggesting that we should build them on dredge soil but California has been so overtaxed in its water use that restoration is a positive step,” he says.
“Anytime we see open water we see more birds. The water increases birds in the [Pacific] flyway. And this is true for shorebirds and fish as well.”
Ross cites a recently restored wetland in Sonoma as an example. “There has been more bird use in the restored wetlands in one year than there had been in all the years that Fish and Wildlife monitored that area,” he says.
But Brown says dumping the dredge spoils isn’t about increasing bird habitat.
“This land is not in need of restoration,” she says. “Look at it. It’s teeming with life already. If all they wanted was more water to restore the marshland, they could undike the area or pump water in without all of this dredge. This project is about money, not restoration.”
Where there is digging, there is dredge—and finding a home for toxic mud costs money. Various ports spend large sums for dredge disposal, which now must be taken to Class One landfills approved to accept such toxins. With no end to dredging needs in sight, the ports and the Army Corps of Engineers have found that the transport and dumping of dredge is more and more pricey.
By approving the marsh restoration plan, Solano County stands to gain $400,000 annually. That money comes from dumping taxes (20 cents per cubic yard) charged to Levine-Fricke, the overseer of the multi million dollar project.
The project is enormous: the dredge will be shipped to a 2,394-acre site at Suisun Marsh, and laid out on 1,822 acres of marshland. Levine-Fricke has contracted with Dutra Dredging, a Solano firm that built the Sonoma dredge project, to construct cells ranging in size from 30 to 200 acres to contain the dredge. A 116-acre rehandling facility will dry out the sediment for reuse and sale; it will operate 24 hours a day for at least a ten-year period. Two barges of dredge will set out from the bay each day, carrying the sediment through the Carquinez Strait. The most toxic dredge will be laid down first, and then a three foot “cover” of toxin-free dredge will be stacked on top.
Detractors believe that three feet of top cover is hardly enough to protect burrowing animals and to prevent toxins from leaking into water supplies.
“What happens when the area floods?” asks Brown. “Where do the toxins go then? And what about salinity issues? There are over 120 species of fish in this marshland requiring a specific salinity. The Port of Oakland is ten times more salty than this marsh.”
Suisun Marsh already hosts a wide variety of animal species. It is a temporary home on the flyway for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, as well as a year-round habitat for raptors, songbirds, upland game birds, small and large mammals, and reptiles and amphibians. Endangered animals in the marsh include the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, winter-run Chinook salmon, and three federally listed species: the Sacramento splittail, salt marsh harvest mouse, and vernal pool fairy shrimp.
Despite activists’ concerns, EPA staffer Brian Ross stresses that life in the marsh is not threatened.
“I am confident that there won’t be much of a problem,” he says. “These toxins don’t normally get out and the levels that we can measure so far are so low, which I think is difficult for people to understand. Just because toxins are measurable doesn’t mean that they’re dangerous. Animals that would burrow through the top cover don’t live in the area proposed, and smaller animals don’t burrow deeper than three feet. Ultimately, if there is any problem, both we at the EPA and the Corps [Army Corps of Engingeers] have enforcement authority. And we’re not afraid to use it.”
Jim Levine of Levine-Fricke points to reports from the Department of Fish and Game and the Secretary for Resources that show similar findings.
“Friends of Suisun Marsh have really blown this out of proportion. For example, the levels of lead that we’re taking in this dredge are so low that you can legally build a day care center on it. I’m afraid the Friends of Suisun Marsh people are a little out there.”
Out there or not, the Friends have filed a suit against the county. The Friends charge that the county certified an EIR that never had a public comment period and did not thoroughly analyze the project’s impact. The suit also notes that the county had to amend its general plan, zoning ordinances, and the Suisun March Local Protection Plan to push the project through. Brian Gaffney, lawyer for Friends of Suisun Marsh, found that “not only did the county rezone for the over 2,300 acres of the project site, but they did it for 57,000 acres of Suisun Marsh.”
The rezoning and amendments to the two plans permit the placement of dredged material on what had previously been a marsh preservation zone. The Friends say the proposed project would allow the dumping of contaminated material on a clean wetland environment for the first time in the history of the San Francisco Bay ecosystem. Beyond that, the amendments allow for the duping of spoils outside the borders of the existing project’s 2,300 acres. According to Gaffney, the rehandling facility will continue to operate even after the dredge for the 1,822 acres has been placed.
“Where,” Gaffney asks, “do you think that extra dredge will go?”
The Friends go to court in early October.
The activists also worry that there is more at play than a few hundred thousand dollars for the county. Suisun is a wetland Eden that remains hidden beyond the sun-scalded gold of west-facing hills. The best route to reach it is a straight shot down Shiloh road. Shiloh is a lonely road that winds through rolling hills, past broken-down sheds and barns. PG&E owns a large portion of this land, and had plans long ago to put up a coal fire plant. After two troubling Environmental Impact Reports, the utility decided against it. DOW Chemical owns another piece and once considered building a petro-chemical plant.
Although uses are restricted by state law through the Suisun Marsh Preservation Act, activists fear that once the facilities for handling dredge spoils are in place, an infrastructure for a port would exist that would allow for further industrial expansion. And where there is a river road, other roads may follow. Years ago a twelve-lane road was considered that would open up the area for development. In 1992, when the Solano County Board of Supervisors considered an initial draft of the dredging project, a discussion ensued about the road and the possibility of using surrounding land for industrial use. Minutes from that meeting reveal that the board referred to the convenient riverside location of the property and noted that a “toll road, which is now on a back burner [could] also access that property.”
Earlier attempts to develop the area have been fended off, but the Friends suspect that providing a path for greater river traffic could set the stage for plenty of other traffic as well.
Laurie Brown believes that Friends of Suisun Marsh, although small, reflects the interests of many of the locals.
“A lot of these families have been here for generations. Many of them don’t have the time to fight the county, especially the grain farmers, who will probably be terribly affected by the proposed changes,” says Brown.
Last year, Vice President Al Gore presented the EPA, the Corps, and all the members of the dredge-handling consortium with the prestigious Hammer Award for the efforts at cutting through red tape and getting the dredging permits that will keep the mud out of San Francisco Bay. Brown is not impressed.
“It seems that with all that these groups do, the bay is actually now deader than ever,” she says. “This dredge is a real problem for them but that doesn’t make what Solano County is agreeing to right.”