Cargill salt ponds subject to Clean Water Act protections, judge rules

in Community/Infrastructure

Opponents to development of the Cargill salt ponds in Redwood City celebrated a legal victory Monday after a federal judge found that the ponds are subject to environmental protections under the U.S. Clean Water Act.

In his ruling, U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrongly decided last year to remove the Clean Water Act as a regulatory hurdle to development of the salt ponds.

The future of the 1,365-acre site has long been a controversial issue in the community. At one time, Cargill proposed to build up to 12,000 housing units on the site, but withdrew the project after facing opposition in the community and from environmental groups, which want the area fully restored into wetlands.

In March 2019, the EPA ruled that the salt ponds should not fall under the jurisdiction of the federal Clean Water Act, which regulates pollution in U.S. surface waters and requires development proposals to obtain special permits. The EPA determined that the salt ponds had been converted to fast land long before the Clean Water Act’s passage in 1972, and thus they no longer qualify as “waters of the United States.”

A coalition of environmental groups —  San Francisco Baykeeper, Save the Bay, Committee for Green Foothills and Citizens’ Committee to Complete the Refuge — subsequently sued the EPA over that ruling.

Judge Alsup sided with the plaintiffs, saying the determination by the EPA’s headquarters in Washington D.C.. that the salt ponds are no longer “waters of the United States” is at direct odds with a 2016 study by the EPA’s regional office in San Francisco. That study found that just 95 of the 1,365 acres had been converted to fast land prior to enactment of the Clean Water Act.

The ponds, the judge added, “remain subject to CWA jurisdiction because they are wet (plus they are not uplands). And, they have important interconnections to the Bay.”

David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, praised the ruling, stating, “our case was so strong that the court didn’t need a full trial.”

“We’ve turned the tide and it’s a real renaissance for making the bay bigger and healthier,” Lewis said.

In a statement to the San Francisco Business Times, Cargill said it will examine “all future uses of the site while protecting environmental resources,” but did not indicate whether it would appeal the judge’s ruling.

“Obama Administration officials in 2015 determined that the site is not subject to the federal Clean Water Act, and the current Environmental Protection Agency reached the same conclusion,” the company said, according to the Times. “We disagree with the court’s ruling on critical facts, application of court precedent, and lack of deference to the administrative expertise and authority of the past two administrations to implement their governing regulations.”

Photo courtesy of Save the Bay