A federal study of possible oil-field contamination at the Bolsa Chica wetlands warns that costly studies and cleanup may be needed before the coastal swath containing rare birds, salt marshes and oil pumps can be restored as a wildlife refuge.
The findings, contained in a report completed this week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were roundly criticized Thursday by the wetlands' owner, the Koll Real Estate Group, which labeled them "badly biased and highly speculative."
The fate of the Bolsa Chica has spawned acrimonious debate because of Koll's plans for a 3,300-home development in the area. Some environmentalists are urging purchase of 930 acres of ecologically sensitive land to preserve what is considered the largest unprotected coastal wetlands south of San Francisco.
The study offers the first public glimpse of the federal government's concerns about purchasing the wetlands and raises doubts whether it can buy the land unless it first undertakes expensive testing to determine the land is free of major pollution.
The study, obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, urges that a battery of soil tests and other reviews 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," the study states.
Federal officials stress the study is the first step in assessing the land, and that no laboratory testing was done and thus the findings do not determine with certainty if the 930-acre site is contaminated or how much cleanup might cost.
"The problem is, not knowing what's out there. It may not be that dirty," said Jack Fancher, Fish and Wildlife assistant field supervisor, who described the current situation as "something of a Gordian knot."
Lucy Dunn, the Koll group's senior vice president, said that if the federal government does not purchase the Bolsa Chica wetlands, "Koll is committed to restore the wetlands and do the testing under its own plan."
"There's not one shred of new data or fact to support any of their [federal government's] speculations," Dunn said. "I think that the study is badly biased and highly speculative to an overly negative degree."
In a prepared statement, Koll officials said talks with federal and state officials about the purchase of the wetlands have stalled "due to the failure to resolve the acquisition terms, identity of the purchasing agency, funding for site assessment," and other issues.
However, Koll "remains open to further discussions if the government agencies are willing to meaningfully pursue a purchase of the lowland property," the statement said.
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. But a state official said Thursday that a less expensive approach may be found and that the state remains committed to working with the federal government to co-fund the study.
"I'm not discouraged at all by the [federal] report," added Craig Denisoff, state deputy assistant secretary for resources. "It just says you should check on these things, and that's what we need to do."
Bolsa Chica has been an active oil field since at least 1940. Most of the land is now owned by Koll group, with the bulk of oil operations leased to CalResources, an affiliate of Shell Oil Co. Koll has said that oil operators at the site are responsible for any cleanup that might be needed as operations wind down.
Among the points the study raises:
* Bolsa Chica contains from 359 to 391 oil wells, of which about 209 are still active and 132 are "abandoned" or shut down. The cost of closing a well can cost $50,000 to $100,000, the study states. Dunn said the cost estimates sounded high.
* As many as 120 sumps and other industrial sites may be found in the area, the service determined after reviewing a 1991 study based on historical aerial photographs. The status of many of those sumps is unclear and deserves more investigation, federal officials believe. They said sumps were sometimes used in the oil industry for disposing of waste materials such as old drilling muds. Some sump areas have been cleaned by CalResources.
* More studying is needed to determine if all potentially contaminated sites need to be cleaned up. Biological processes over time, for instance, may already have reduced contamination to acceptable levels in some areas.
* Inspection of an small adjoining area known as Edwards Thumb, operated by another company, "indicated that per-acre cleanup costs on this site may be higher than on the CalResources area," the study states, adding that the federal government could save money by not buying the area.
Koll plans to build 900 homes in the wetlands area and another 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 lowlands 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 completed this week is only the first step of a five-step process that the U.S. Department of Interior must follow before buying property, he said.
The 42-page report is an updated and edited version of a December draft report that helped prompt top-level officials at the Interior Department to delay a final purchase decision. The study was based on review of existing documents, interviews and a site visit. No soil sampling was done, and Steffeck said he understands the service did not have Koll's permission to take samples.
Oil operator CalResources 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.
The federal study states that on the land occupied by CalResources, "remediation already has been completed or is currently ongoing in compliance with various regulatory requirements" and it calls the CalResources lease "well managed relative to the control of waste."
But the federal study cites state inspection reports that indicate the Edwards Thumb area had numerous problems that needed correcting, including improperly covered "cellars" that are designed to trap oil. One such cellar was discovered to have trapped a small animal and inspectors were worried that other wildlife might get caught.
John A. Thomas, a former Huntington Beach councilman who purchased the lease on the Edwards Thumb area from a Chevron subsidiary in January, said he is not ready to give up the lease for another 50 years, but if the U.S. government wants to buy it, then they should clean it up.
"These are producing wells and if they want to plug all 55 wells, they can clean the place up," he said. "You pick up the lease, you clean it up. It's their problem."
Thomas said that many of the problems federal officials were citing had already been cleaned up by the Huntington Beach Co., a Chevron subsidiary, after the inspection was completed last December.
A Chevron spokesman said Thomas bought the lease "as is" and the oil company is under no obligation to do further cleanup.