Cargill accord on salt ponds hammered out
Tuesday, December 17, 2002 -
Three months late and facing mounting pressure, government negotiators said Monday they had reached a deal with Cargill Inc. on the $100 million purchase of 16,500 acres of salt ponds ringing San Francisco Bay.
The landmark agreement clears the way for a final vote in February by the Wildlife Conservation Board, which is expected to approve what will be the West Coast's largest wetlands restoration project.
"One hundred million dollars is a lot of money," said David Lewis, executive director of Save The Bay. "But in the long run -- and even in the short run -- people will view this as a bargain, in terms of benefit to the Bay, water quality, habitat and recreation."
The deal finished the way it started, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pushing both sides to hasten the overdue talks and come to a final agreement, said Cargill spokeswoman Lori Johnson.
"She basically gave everyone a deadline ... (and) pushed the parties to stop fumbling around and reach an agreement," Johnson said.
The result, Feinstein said, will benefit generations of Californians and serve as a model for future restoration projects.
In May, Cargill, Feinstein, Gov. Gray Davis and four big philanthropic foundations unveiled the rough outlines of a $135 million deal to buy and restore much of Cargill's salt-making operation in the North and South Bay: $100 million for the land and another $35 million for initial restoration efforts.
But how that land would be transferred -- and in what sort of condition -- proved bedeviling. A Sept. 16 deadline passed with no sign of agreement. "Both sides went away (from that May announcement) with completely different ideas of what we just agreed to," Johnson said of portions of the deal.
Exact terms will remain a secret until the conservation board votes in February. Negotiators promised to release full summaries in January and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's property appraisal in March, after the deal closes.
On Monday, Feinstein, Davis and Interior Secretary Gail Norton released a shorter summary showing agreement on environmental liabilities, cleanup and transfer standards.
But the key element of the deal -- how the ponds will make the transition from salt-making to wetlands, and who will pay for it -- remained unclear. And that troubles activists and scientists who support the purchase but object to the secrecy surrounding the talks.
It takes time not only to make salt, but to stop making salt. Cargill has agreed to pay for operations and maintenance of the ponds even after it sells them, provided state and federal stewards have obtained a crucial discharge permit from the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board by March 15, 2004.
Without a discharge permit, the giant South Bay ponds will continue to draw in sea water and make salt. Critics have argued that deadline is too tight. But Johnson said it was necessary.
"It was always intended to be an incentive for all three of us -- Cargill, Fish and Wildlife Service, (the California Department of) Fish and Game -- to move as quickly as we could to get the permit filed," she said.
The deadline was determined by taking the best estimate from the water board and adding nine months, Johnson said.
Will Bruhns, a spokesman for the board, said that should suffice. "I don't see a problem with 2004," he said. "The track record for even the really complicated permits is less than a year."
Contact Douglas Fischer at [email protected]