Pipeline Company to Pay $200,000 : Pact Reached on Repairs at San Elijo Lagoon

Times Staff Writer

An oil pipeline company has agreed to spend $200,000 to restore a portion of San Elijo Lagoon that was damaged when the firm built a gravel road across an eastern bay, officials involved in the settlement said Wednesday.

San Diego Pipeline Co. agreed to fund the restoration after four months of negotiations with county officials, who charged that the company violated an agreement with them and destroyed nesting habitat used by several endangered species of birds.

The settlement, which calls for removal of the gravel road, replanting of eroded slopes at the Solana Beach lagoon and monitoring of birds that nest in its eastern basin over the next two years, was approved by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors in closed session Wednesday.

"It took awhile, but I think this is a good settlement, good for the people of San Diego County and good for the lagoon," said Supervisor Susan Golding, who has led efforts to pressure the company to repair the damage. "I also hope and believe this will put others on notice that we will not tolerate any meddling with our sensitive environmental areas."

San Diego Pipeline officials, meanwhile, continue to assert that they have done nothing wrong, maintaining that the gravel road merely replaced an existing dirt route built in 1983. According to Joseph Whitelaw, manager of pipeline construction, the settlement merely means the company will pay the county to conduct restoration work that would otherwise be performed by the Los Angeles-based firm.

"It makes sense that the county take over the work and build on what we've already done there," Whitelaw said. "There is no change in our position. This just seems the logical way to complete what additional work needs to be done."

The settlement apparently brings to a close a rancorous, long-running dispute between the pipeline company and the county, which charged earlier this year that the firm had violated a so-called "working rights agreement" permitting construction in the 600-acre lagoon.

The company had been installing a segment of a 16-inch liquid fuel line between Los Angeles and Mission Valley. The new line, which supplies industrial and military customers, replaced a 10-inch line that also crossed the lagoon, which is jointly owned by the county and the state.

In October, the Board of Supervisors gave the company permission to construct a 30-foot-wide access road to the shore of San Elijo as well as a trench 60 inches deep and 30 inches wide across the eastern finger of the lagoon. Approval, however, was contingent on the firm restoring the area to its natural state. All work was to be completed by Nov. 15.

In April, Golding charged that company officials had failed to meet the conditions set by the county. In addition, the supervisor said the scope of work done by the firm--construction of the road, for example--far exceeded that permitted by the county.

Despite efforts by the company to reseed a large graded area, heavy rains caused large amounts of silt to wash into the marshland, burying vegetation under a delta of mud. The siltation also damaged habitat used by the California least tern, the Belding's savannah sparrow and the light-footed clapper rail--all endangered species.

One dead savannah sparrow was found at the site.

At Golding's request, supervisors declared the company in violation of the agreement and directed the county counsel to explore the possibility of legal action. A day later, a company official called Golding and asked to meet with her regarding a negotiated settlement of the dispute.

"We agreed to hold off on any litigation as long as they were making good-faith efforts to remedy the situation," Golding said Wednesday. "I think the end result is a favorable one."

The restoration will require a Coastal Commission permit and is expected to take about a year. In addition to financing the lagoon improvements, the $200,000 will be used to reimburse the county for past and future staff time expended on the dispute.

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