January 17, 2003
Some Cargill papers released; no high-level toxics reported

Mercury News

Responding to months of calls for more openness, the Davis administration released hundreds of pages of studies Thursday revealing that despite some mercury contamination near Alviso, thousands of acres of industrial salt ponds ringing the South Bay do not contain toxics or other pollution in high levels.

The studies suggest that if the state and federal government decide to purchase the ponds from Cargill Salt and restore them for wildlife habitat, taxpayers won't be saddled with a big cleanup bill.

``We have been meticulous and thorough in protecting the public's interest,'' said Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Resources Agency in Sacramento.

After negotiations with the Mercury News and its attorneys, the Davis administration released the toxics studies, along with other key documents at the center of the its effort to purchase 16,500 acres of Cargill lands for a proposed $100 million. The state Wildlife Conservation Board is scheduled to consider the proposal for a vote Feb. 11.

If approved, it would begin the largest wetlands restoration attempted in the United States outside the Florida Everglades, converting more than 20 miles of San Francisco Bay's southern shorelines -- from Hayward to San Jose to Redwood City -- to conditions not seen since the 1800s.

The total restoration could take more than 30 years and eventually cost more than $500 million.

The Mercury News, environmental groups, taxpayer organizations and open-government advocates have called on the Davis administration to make public four key sets of documents relating to the deal before it is signed. They include:

 The toxics studies done by Cargill, private consultants, the state Department of Fish and Game, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those studies include samples of soil, water and fish to determine if any ponds or surrounding lands contain high levels of pesticides, heavy metals, PCBs, mercury, lead or other contaminants.

 The ``phase-out'' agreement, detailing obligations Cargill must shoulder after the sale, including making sure the ponds don't become more salty and maintaining levees to prevent flooding along Highway 101 and other low-lying areas.

 The purchase contract.

 The appraisals.

On Thursday, interested parties described the Davis administration's decision to release two of the key sets of documents -- the toxics studies and the phase-out agreement -- as a good start. They were also happy to learn that the land apparently has a clean ecological bill of health.

But they pressed the Davis administration to release the appraisals and purchase contract before the Feb. 11 vote.

``I'm pleased at what they have released,'' said Marc Holmes, a spokesman for the Bay Institute, an environmental group in San Rafael. ``But I remain dismayed they are withholding the more controversial documents, because the public will not be able to make comments before the final vote occurs. That is unnecessary and unfortunate.''

The toxics studies reveal that the land does have some minor environmental problems. Cargill agreed to clean up lead paint in the soil near some of its buildings on a small piece of land near Napa, which would be included in the deal. A drainage canal near Moffett Field was cut out of the sale when it was found to contain toxins from Navy discharges. And Cargill will not transfer one pond near Menlo Park until the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission pays to clean up lead contamination from a now defunct skeet-shooting club that the agency allowed to operate nearby.

``It's a legitimate question to ask in 16,500 acres, `What's out there?' '' said Lori Johnson, a spokeswoman for Cargill. ``These investigations looked under every rock. The studies showed that the property is remarkably clean, and where there were problem areas, we've addressed them.''

Perhaps the only significant concern that surfaced in the toxics studies are the elevated levels of mercury in soils at 2,500 acres of ponds adjacent to Alviso. The mercury, about two to three times the concentrations in bay sediments, comes from runoff from old mercury mines in the hills above South San Jose.

There is concern the mercury could harm fish and wildlife when salt ponds are converted to wetlands. But neither the government nor environmentalists said Thursday that Cargill should have to pay for the cleanup, because Cargill did not cause the pollution.

There are at least three options, said Marge Kolar, refuge manager of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont. They are: leaving those ponds as salt ponds; capping the mercury with dredge material and growing a marsh on top of it; or removing the soils, which she said is unfeasible.

Also Thursday, the state released a letter from regional water-quality officials who said the mercury in the Alviso ponds is not at levels high enough to trigger state laws mandating a cleanup.