Tabled Salt

Plans to buy Cargill's huge saltworks and restore them to wetlands are thwarted by a sour economy

The economic slowdown has created a lot of scars in the Bay Area: empty buildings and sputtering development projects. But the biggest victim of the economy -- in terms of acreage, at least -- may ironically be an anti-development project.

It's a 19,000-acre swath of South Bay wetlands badly damaged by decades of industrial salt production that, six months ago, was poised to undergo a $100 million restoration.

The prospect of restoring those salt ponds makes environmentalists -- who have long hoped to boot Cargill Salt's operation from the bay -- drool with anticipation. And in July, the anticipation seemed to grow thicker after Sen. Dianne Feinstein took an active interest, adding a request for funds to buy and restore the salt ponds to an Interior Department appropriations bill.

But now the negotiations have stagnated, along with the economy.

"Right now, we're just waiting for the senator and folks to come back to us," says Cargill spokesman Lori Johnson. "As far as we know, she's still looking to find private and public dollars. ... Obviously, that's not as easy as it used to be."

Selling a large portion of its industrial salt ponds made a lot of sense for Cargill Salt back in 1996, when the company -- a subsidiary of international agriculture giant Cargill Inc. -- began talking with federal and state agencies about the idea. Industrial salt ponds are generally inefficient and, with increased environmental regulations, probably more trouble than they're worth to Cargill, which at the time was faced with scores of potential lawsuits over its ponds and their impact on the bay.

"The Clean Water Act was never written with industrial salt ponds in mind," Johnson says. "It made more sense for us to focus on our refined products, not the industrial salt [that's produced in the ponds]. ... Our operations folks said we could produce all the salt we need without those 19,000 acres."

So the company seemed to have found a perfect match when it offered to sell the damaged salt marsh to environmental interests. Environmentalists say the marsh is crucial to local ecosystems because -- aside from providing postcard-worthy vistas -- it is also a natural filtration system, keeping pollutants from land out of the sea and protecting land from flooding. Healthy salt marshes provide a stunning habitat for birds, fish, shellfish, and smaller creatures.

Recognizing an opportunity presented by the willing seller and the eager environmentalists, Feinstein acted in July, acquiring what the San Francisco Chronicledescribed as a "placeholder" in a Senate appropriations bill. All she needed to do next was find some private funds to match the public contribution and buy land that Cargill says is worth $300 million. (The deal got an additional boost earlier this week, when Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced support for the acquisition; she did not, however, announce any new funding.)

During the first few years Cargill was shopping the land, finding private dollars on that scale didn't seem that imposing of a task. But when the economy went sour it became considerably more difficult, and Cargill is showing signs of frustration.

In mid-December Johnson said that Cargill's corporate parent imposed an ultimatum: If the whole parcel of land wasn't sold by the first of this year, the company would look to sell the land off in smaller pieces to multiple buyers.

It's a threat that, theoretically, should have terrified environmental groups. According to David Lewis of Save the Bay, the project will require a hefty degree of coordination on everything from controlling the spread of nonnative grass to elevating some of the ponds above bay level over more than a decade.

Nobody understands better than Lewis why restoring the wetlands the right way means buying it in one piece, and yet nobody laughed off the Cargill threat more quickly.

"They've been making versions of that threat for years," he says, chuckling. "We're talking about [restricted-use] wetlands. Who else are they going to sell it to?"

On Jan. 3, Johnson confirmed that Cargill's bluff had been called.

"It was kind of a near-the-end-of-the-year thing," she said. "Nothing's changed, exactly [since Jan. 1]."

Nor is it likely to change before the economy rebounds.

 
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