Salt ponds purchase clears hurdle

Mercury News

Moving the largest wetlands restoration project in California history another step forward, Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced Monday that they have ``successfully concluded'' negotiations with Cargill Salt to buy 16,500 acres of salt ponds ringing the South Bay shoreline to restore for wildlife.

The announcement on the $100 million purchase, however, was largely symbolic.

In an apparent attempt to block public disclosure of the purchase contract, neither the state government, federal government or Cargill has signed a binding legal agreement yet.

The purchase contract will be signed Feb. 11 -- the day the state Wildlife Conservation Board is scheduled to vote to approve the deal, said Al Wright, executive director of the wildlife board.

The deal would then close by March 6, he said. Neither the purchase contract or the appraisals that set the price will be made public until after that date, he said. Cargill has said the land is appraised at $243 million.

The state's public records law, California Government Code Section 6254, says state agencies have discretion to release or keep secret ``the contents of real estate appraisals or engineering or feasibility estimates and evaluations . . . until all of the property has been acquired or all of the contract agreement obtained.''

By not signing a purchase contract until after the wildlife board votes, the Davis administration can argue that all of the contract agreement hasn't been obtained, so the public won't see the documents until Cargill has been paid and the deal is a fait accompli.

``Why play everything so close to the chest?'' said Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, an open-records advocacy group in Sacramento. ``If this is a good deal it should be able to stand on its own legs.''

The Davis and Bush administrations, under pressure from taxpayer groups, environmentalists and the news media, announced three weeks ago that in January they would make public the toxics studies of the salt ponds, some of which have been evaporating bay water to make road and food salts since the 19th century.

On Monday, both said they now also plan to release a ``phase-out'' agreement in January. That 50-page document spells out legal obligations for Cargill in maintaining levees to prevent flooding, and in operating the ponds to reduce salt-making.

In an interview, Feinstein said she is elated by the deal, and called it an environmental milestone that promises to restore fish, birds and other wildlife to the South Bay as the ponds are restored to tidal marsh in the coming decades.

Feinstein also said she has no objection to making the deal's documents public before tax money is spent.

``I've seen the appraisal, and I'd make it public tomorrow,'' Feinstein said. ``I don't have a problem with it. But the Fish and Wildlife people feel profoundly strongly. I can tell you, however, there is no smoking gun in there.''

The ponds stretch along 20 miles of the South Bay -- from Hayward to Alviso to Redwood City. A small amount of the total acreage also is in Napa County on the bayfront. The ponds are highly noticeable to airline travelers who see the algae that gives them a red and orange tint.

Restoration dreams

For years, biologists have dreamed of acquiring the ponds, diluting their saline water and converting them gradually to healthy marshes for wildlife. Such a project, rivaled only in the United States by efforts to restore the Florida Everglades, would replace many of the tidal marshes that have been lost to development over the past century.

Under the agreement, the state would pay $72 million, the federal government would pay $8 million and four private foundations -- Packard, Hewlett, Moore and Goldman -- would pay $20 million. The state's share would come entirely from Proposition 50, a $3.4 billion water bond voters approved last month.

The deal has run into controversy over the state's refusal to release information.

The Wildlife board's Wright and Steve Thompson, California director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, argue that the state and federal government never release purchase contracts or appraisals before they buy. The reason: If the deal falls through, landowners don't want details made public, they say.

But critics say that leaves taxpayers in the dark, and allows the government to avoid accountability.

``I'm thrilled that they have arrived at the agreement to let the sale proceed,'' said Marc Holmes, a program officer with the Bay Institute, an environmental group in San Rafael. ``I'm disappointed that they decided not to release the appraisal and the purchase contract yet. Those are the last thing that would put everybody's concerns to rest.''

No cleanup clause

As part of the announcement Monday, the state and federal agencies said that elevated levels of mercury have been found in some of Cargill's ponds near the Guadalupe River, most likely from runoff from San Jose's old Almaden quicksilver mines. No cleanup will be required, said Patricia Foulk, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento.

If there is one, however, Cargill will not be required to pay for it. Under a summary of the deal released Monday, the company would have to pay for cleanup if toxics are found on the lands to be sold, but not for the mercury.

``The mercury that is found in ponds is roughly the same or lower as the mercury levels in adjacent slough and marshes,'' said Cargill spokeswoman Lori Johnson. ``Salt making didn't cause the problem and there's no indication that salt making exacerbated or concentrated it.''

Also Monday, the state and federal government said Cargill will be required to cap 35 old wells in Alameda County that were used for obtaining agricultural and industrial water. They do not contain toxics, Foulk said.

Under Monday's deal, the Fish and Wildlife Service will acquire 9,600 acres -- including salt ponds and salt-making rights -- in Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. That land will be added to the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

The state Department of Fish and Game will acquire 6,900 acres in Alameda and Napa counties.

Cargill will continue making salt on a smaller area in the East Bay, headquartered in Newark. During the next five years, the California Coastal Conservancy will oversee public meetings and studies to determine which ponds to convert to tidal marsh and which to leave saline. Different bird species favor each type.``This is a one-of-a-kind project that will benefit the environment and people of California for generations to come,'' said Gov. Davis.