A federal study of possible oil field contamination at the Bolsa Chica wetlands warns that costly tests and cleanup may be needed before the oceanside swath of rare birds, salt marshes and oil pumps could be restored as a federal wildlife refuge.
The study further clouds the future of Bolsa Chica, a wetlands next to Huntington Beach that has spawned acrimonious debate because of plans for a 3,300-home development in the area. Some environmentalists have supported a federal or state purchase to preserve what is considered the largest unprotected coastal wetlands south of San Francisco.
The federal study, however, urges that a battery of soil tests and other reviews should be conducted before the federal government moves ahead with a purchase, and it cautions that liability questions linger. "Significant cleanup and remediation needs seem to exist at the site, and the responsibilities of the existing owners and previous and existing operators regarding cleanup should be clarified," says the study, conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and completed Wednesday.
Federal officials emphasize that the study is preliminary, that no laboratory testing was done and that its findings do not determine with certainty if the 930-acre site is contaminated or how much cleanup might cost.
But plans for a follow-up federal-state study intended to collect more data faltered last week when a cost estimate came in at more than twice the $200,000 earmarked for the work, according to those familiar with the study plans.
A spokesman for landowner Koll Real Estate Group on Thursday roundly criticized the Fish and Wildlife report.
"There's not one shred of new data or fact to support any of their speculations," said Lucy Dunn, the Koll group's senior vice president. If a federal purchase fails, Dunn said, "Koll is committed to restore the wetlands and do the testing under its own plan."
Koll plans to build 900 homes in the wetlands area and an additional 2,400 homes on a nearby mesa. In exchange, it has assembled a $48-million restoration plan for the remaining wetlands.
The prospect of a federal purchase and restoration--which would stave off construction of the 900 wetlands homes--has been complicated by concerns about potential contamination.
"What people need to realize is that basically you have an oil field that's been in existence for over 50 years," said Donald W. Steffeck, chief of the division of environmental contaminants for Fish and Wildlife's western regional office. The study is only the first step of a five-step process that the U.S. Department of Interior must follow before buying property, he said.
Bolsa Chica's major oil operator, CalResources, an affiliate of Shell Oil, issued a statement Thursday calling the report "intellectual speculation as to what could be, rather than an evaluation of what is." Since CalResources started operating at the site in 1986, it has spent more than $70 million upgrading the facility and knows "of no significant existing environmental problem associated with these operations today," the statement said.