EPA: Saltworks project not subject to Clean Water Act

in Community/Featured/Headline

Development proposals for the Redwood City Salt Ponds are not subject to the federal Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ruled. The decision was touted by the property’s owner, Cargill, and its developer, DMB Associates as returning control of the Bay site’s future to local residents and officials.

“Today marks the beginning of that public engagement,” read a statement issued Friday by the campaign representing the owner and developer, called Reimagine Saltworks.  “That engagement will include extensive public outreach through community forums, regional meetings, discussions with local governments, businesses and community advocates.” 

Redwood City Mayor Ian Bain on Friday shared his vision for that site.

“The City Council has not discussed this land in several years, so I can’t speak on behalf of the Council,” the mayor said. “I will tell you that I have heard loudly and clearly from the community that there is strong opposition to building housing on this site. It is not zoned for housing, and I have no interest in changing that.”

Bain said he would like to see Cargill donate or sell the land to an organization that would restore it to wetlands.

In 2009, DMB and Cargill pitched high-density housing at the 1,400 acre industrial salt production site, with over half the property proposed as open space. In the face of community and environmental opposition, however, they withdrew the project and began working on a scaled-back plan.

For any project to move forward, approval will be needed by Redwood City’s council. The EPA’s decision on March 1, however, removed an important hurdle to development.

Soon after withdrawing its initial project, Cargill and DMB asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and EPA for a jurisdictional determination on the property, stating that the site should not be subject to the federal Clean Water Act, which would require special permits.

Last week, the EPA issued its ruling that the salt ponds are not subject to the Clean Water Act of 1972.

“EPA has found that the Redwood City Salt Plant site does not include ‘waters of the United States’ because the site was converted to fast land long before the [Clean Water Act] was enacted,” according to the ruling, which can be read in full by clicking here.

The decision ended ambiguity that kept the property “in limbo,” according to Cargill/DMB.

“This determination does not change what is or is not allowed on the site today, but it does empower the local and regional community and regulators to explore the future of the site,” their statement said.

Longtime opponent of the project, David Lewis, criticized the EPA decision as “completely contrary to the law and the facts.”

“It directly contradicts a conclusion the EPA reached in 2016 after extensive review which found the entire Saltworks site within the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act,” Lewis said.

In 2015, the EPA’s local regional office took over the review of the Clean Water Act jurisdictional determination. Their work and recommendations were not processed before the Trump Administration began office in January 2017, according to Lewis.

Before resigning as EPA administrator under the Trump administration, Scott Pruitt shifted control of jurisdictional determinations from EPA regional offices to his own office in Washington D.C. Lewis believes that decision led to the EPA’s March 1 ruling.

“DMB and Cargill have colluded with the Trump administration to advance its anti-environment agenda,” said Lewis.

Lewis said that won’t be a good look for a project trying to get community approval. The Saltworks project will be up against a community with heightened concern over problems like climate change and traffic, he said.

In their statement, DMB/Cargill said their project would provide solutions to those challenges and more.

“All around the Bay Area the region is struggling to address crippling congestion, dangerous flooding, sea-level rise, housing shortages, and a deficit of necessary open space for parks and marshlands restoration,” the developer said. “This land could contribute to sustainable solutions to these challenges. Currently, underutilized industrial sites and military bases throughout the region are being reimagined to meet regional needs and provide solutions to our biggest generational challenges.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with comments provided by Redwood City Mayor Ian Bain.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the EPA decision meant that the federal government would not have a say in development proposals for the salt ponds. Other federal agencies would likely be involved in the review of development proposals.