For the third time in three months, a federal plan to buy and restore the Bolsa Chica wetlands has been pulled from the California Coastal Commission agenda, leaving in limbo the future of the ecologically sensitive area next to Huntington Beach.
The plan was to go before commissioners at their January meeting, but questions about possible oil-field contamination at the wetlands have prompted a delay, a coastal planner said Friday.
That means a single Bolsa Chica plan remains on the commission's Jan. 11 agenda, one in which the Koll Real Estate Group would build 3,300 homes on part of the wetlands and a nearby mesa while spending $48 million to restore the remaining wetlands.
Under an alternative plan, the U.S. Department of the Interior would buy and restore nearly 1,000 acres of those wetlands, effectively shaving 900 homes from the project.
Koll and federal officials have been talking for months about a U.S. purchase but, to date, have been unable to agree on terms. Even if commissioners approve the Koll plan next month, that would not rule out a federal purchase later, a Koll official said this week.
For years, Bolsa Chica's future has generated controversy and divided the community. Saving the 1,000-acre wetlands, home to a number of rare birds, has become a cause celebre for some environmental groups.
But much of the site is also an operating oil field, and concerns about potential pollutants from those operations apparently led to this week's announcement that action on the federal plan would be delayed. The commission staff and U.S. and port officials agree "that until the contamination issue is studied, the items related to the federal plan need to be withheld," said Larry Simone, staff analyst with the commission.
A Department of the Interior spokeswoman concurred.
"It's just a question of needing more knowledge before we can make a determination as to whether this piece of property can be brought up to the standards people expect from wildlife refuges," said spokeswoman Stephanie Hanna.
But a Koll group official called the pollution issue "a red herring" and said Koll plans to take its proposal to the commission next month. The company has cleanup agreements with CalResources, the oil operator at the site, said Lucy Dunn, the Koll group's senior vice president.
"We believe that the oil operators are responsible for any potential cleanup," Dunn said. Some "hot spots" or signs of some contamination have been found on the site--for instance, where tank farms were removed--but they are being cleaned up, Dunn said.
"These oil issues do not mean that restoration cannot occur," said Dunn, adding that Bolsa Chica State Beach was once dotted with oil derricks.
The Koll plan was approved late last year by the county Board of Supervisors, and county Planning Director Thomas Mathews said Friday that he, too, believes that soil remediation is the oil operator's responsibility.
In Washington, Hanna said that the delay will allow for more study and does not rule out a federal purchase.
"We basically cannot buy contaminated land without someone assuming liability for the cleanup" other than the federal government, she said. "We're going to continue to maintain an interest in the Bolsa Chica area and its wildlife potential."