Wetlands Project Heads to Coastal Commission

By: 
Sean Belk

A proposal to phase out oil operations on more than 150 acres of the Los Cerritos Wetlands and restore the degraded marshland back to its natural habitat is awaiting final approvals from the California Coastal Commission and other regulatory agencies to move forward.

The state commission is expected to review the proposal this spring after the Long Beach City Council granted approvals at its meeting on Jan. 16 in a 7-2 vote, certifying an environmental impact report (EIR), upholding the Planning Commission’s recommendations and denying appeals.

Despite concerns from some environmentalists and Native American community activists that the city’s environmental review is flawed and requires further analysis, most city councilmembers expressed support for the multi-layered project that has been in the works for nearly two decades.

“This is not an opportunity we are going to get likely again in a generation or more,” said Mayor Robert Garcia. “When I think of an opportunity to take that site that millions of folks drive by and walk by and actually open it up to the public and to wildlife and to restore that site, I think that’s something very special and important.”

The proposal, which some councilmembers called a “win-win” situation, would permit Synergy Oil & Gas or Beach Oil Minerals Partners (BOMP), to remove antiquated oil drilling facilities from a major portion of land, previously owned and operated by Bixby Land Company, and consolidate oil wells to two nearby sites.

The oil-well consolidation along with a “land swap” between Synergy and the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority (LCWA), a governmental agency that oversees wetlands preservation, would enable a major wetlands restoration effort that would include adding a visitor center, sidewalk improvements and public access path.  

John McKeown, CEO of Synergy Oil & Gas, told the Beachcomber that work on the first 75 acres of wetlands restoration would take place immediately upon receiving approvals from the Coastal Commission this spring. He said oil-well consolidation and removal work would take place in following months.

“We have to build the new facilities on the two locations in order to store and process oil,” McKeown said. “Once those are done, we can transfer everything to those facilities. We’ll immediately start removing tank farms and pipelines and oil facilities at the existing site.”

The project, which involves four separate parcels of land, includes phasing out oil drilling facilities over the next 44 years on nearly 183 acres of property (bounded by Pacific Coast Highway, 2nd Street, Studebaker Road and the San Gabriel River). Using new technology, the operator plans to consolidate oil wells to two off-site locations, drilling nearly 120 new oil wells.

Synergy has agreed to transfer ownership of approximately 156 acres of property, currently used for oil operations, to be restored as wetlands in exchange for a 5-acre parcel owned by the LCWA located at Studebaker Road and Westminster Avenue.

The operator will use a 7-acre parcel known as the “Pumpkin Patch” site, located on Pacific Coast Highway, for drilling new wells and developing a new two-story office building and warehouse. Oil operations on a 33-acre parcel owned by the City of Long Beach are also being phased out as part of the project.

The project would also create a “mitigation bank” that would allow the oil operator to receive credits for restoring 76 acres of wetlands. The credits could then be sold for development interests. City staff noted that the mitigation bank would require further approvals from the city and other agencies.

Prior to the council hearing last month, the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust announced in an email its support of the project and mitigation bank after having concerns about the legitimacy and timeline of the proposal.

“In the end, we support this project because it includes comprehensive wetlands and habitat restoration, provides unique public access opportunities, consolidates oil operations offsite and will transfer ownership of a substantial portion of Los Cerritos Wetlands into the public domain,” the email stated. “These are all things for which the Land Trust has long advocated.”

Still, other environmental groups raised concerns about the wetlands restoration and oil-well consolidation project and filed appeals.

Opponents stated that more analysis needs to be conducted on drilling new oil wells and installing a new pipeline so close to an earthquake fault line. Others questioned whether opening up the degraded marsh to tidal waters might cause oil contamination to leak into the environment.

While some Native American tribal representatives spoke in opposition to the project and challenged whether remains on the land, believed to be sacred grounds of indigenous people, would be properly preserved, other tribal representatives expressed support for the proposal.

Councilmembers Jeannine Pearce (2nd District) and Lena Gonzalez (1st District) cast dissenting votes, reiterating concerns brought forward by opponents.

City Councilmember Suzie Price, who represents the 3rd District in which the project resides, expressed her support for the project, stating that any potential environmental risks will be less than moving forward with no project at all. She noted that the oil operator will likely profit from expanding oil operations. However, as a result, the wetlands will be restored for generations to come, she noted.

“It is a good project,” Price said. “It is our only way to restore these wetlands because they are privately owned and, but for this partnership, the owner of this property has no obligation whatsoever to restore these wetlands ever, and so the fact that they have come forward with this proposal is an opportunity.”

City staff confirmed in an email that an amendment to the city’s Local Coastal Program is anticipated to be submitted to the Coastal Commission this month. The city is also expected to submit a consolidated coastal development permit required for approval as well.

The project requires additional approvals from the LCWA, the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, the California Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to city staff, which adds that the city will not issue oil well permits or building/grading permits until all approvals are received.

sean@beachcomber.news

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