$100 million Cargill deal opened to public scrutiny

Mercury News

Nine days before a historic state vote on the $100 million Cargill wetlands deal, the Davis administration has released key documents that have been at the center of months of dispute with the Mercury News.

The California Department of Fish and Game made public the final purchase contract between Cargill, the Minneapolis-based agribusiness giant that seeks to sell 16,500 acres of salt evaporation ponds ringing the South San Francisco Bay shoreline, and the buyers -- the state of California and the federal government.

The documents released near midnight Friday include 96 pages of grant deeds, maps and real estate contracts.

James Chadwick, an attorney for the Mercury News, said the release of the documents is a precedent that can be used to press for similar openness as the state spends billions in parks and water bond money to buy land -- from property around Hearst Castle to wetlands at Playa Vista in the Los Angeles area.

``We're pleased,'' Chadwick said. ``There's no way for the public to have meaningful input and understand the implications of these enormous land deals that the state is entering into without seeing the terms of the deals itself.''

But Stanley Young, communications director of the state Resources Agency, contended that no precedent was set. He said the state tries to keep such documents secret until the land changes hands because landowners would not be as willing to sell if they knew details of their property could be made public.

The contract -- which was signed Jan. 31 by Bill Britt, Cargill's vice president, and Al Wright, executive director of the state Wildlife Conservation Board -- makes legally binding commitments that require Cargill to clean up lead paint around some of its old buildings, remove piles of tires and other debris, and clean small amounts of diesel and motor oil in some soils.

More important, the contracts state that if any hazardous wastes are later found that require cleanup under federal, state or local law, Cargill is liable.

``We have hammered out an agreement that protects the people of California, and assures them that this is something that will benefit the state for generations to come,'' Young said.

Feb. 11, the state Wildlife Conservation Board is expected to approve the deal, which will set in motion the largest wetlands restoration effort ever attempted in the United States outside of the Florida Everglades.

Long a dream of biologists, the project, which could take 30 years or more to complete, seeks to convert the vast patchwork of salt ponds back to tidal marsh conditions not seen since the 1800s. The restored wetlands, stretching along more than 20 miles of waterfront from Hayward to San Jose to Redwood City, would draw shorebirds, ducks, fish and other wildlife.

Although the deal has wide support, critics said state and federal agencies were keeping too many of the details secret. Environmental groups, taxpayer rights organizations and open government groups demanded the public be allowed to see toxics studies, the purchase contract and appraisals before the deal was done.

The Mercury News won release of the purchase contracts after drawing up a lawsuit against the Department of Fish and Game. The newspaper signed a settlement agreement with the agency last month mandating release of the purchase contracts by midnight Friday in exchange for not suing over the appraisals, which Gov. Gray Davis has said would be released after the deal was completed.

A key state legislator praised the settlement.

``Is this a precedent? I hope so,'' said state Sen. Byron Sher, D-San Jose. ``I continue to believe that when you are spending taxpayers' money and there are many worthy projects competing for it, the more public disclosure the better.''

Two weeks ago, the state released toxics studies of the land and a ``phase-out agreement'' that outlines how Cargill will have to spend years working to reduce the salinity in the ponds so their waters can be released safely into the bay without harming fish or other wildlife.

The purchase contracts show the state will assume all rights to the Cargill lands it buys, including water rights, mineral rights and any future oil and gas rights, although no oil and gas deposits are known. They show that title is unclear on a parcel of about 10 acres near Napa, that two dozen hunters and duck clubs who have leased wetlands from Cargill in the South Bay will lose their leases, and that Cargill must pay to cap 33 old wells near Fremont at a cost of roughly $500,000.

Cargill officials, who will continue making salt for roads, food and medical uses on a smaller piece of land around Newark, said they are pleased with the outcome.

``We have negotiated long and hard over this,'' said Lori Johnson, speaking for Cargill. ``It is a very thorough agreement, and if there is anything that has been overlooked, I will be absolutely astounded.''

Environmentalists agreed.

``It looks like a good contract,'' said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay in Oakland. ``I certainly don't see anything in here that would explain why there was any controversy in releasing it. Public scrutiny is helpful. Sunshine is an excellent disinfectant.''