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Bolsa Chica Wetlands Purchase Moves Ahead

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The major stumbling block to the state purchase of Bolsa Chica appears to have been cleared Thursday, with news that two major oil companies and the current landowner have agreed in concept on how they will share in the cleanup of the famed wetlands.

The agreement was confirmed Thursday by Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, Phillips Petroleum Co. and sources close to the negotiations.

Crafted during arduous talks in the past two days, the conceptual agreement is being greeted as the most positive sign yet that the wetlands will be saved from development and turned into a public preserve.

“It’s been a long road, but we don’t really think there’s a problem wrapping it up,” said Michael Wofford, an attorney with Phillips Petroleum.

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Davis, chairman of the state Lands Commission, which is slated to vote on state purchase of 880 wetlands acres next Wednesday in Huntington Beach, said, “If everything goes well, the restoration of these wetlands is not only an environmental godsend, it’s a triumph of democracy.”

Officials warned that unforeseen problems still could sour the deal as verbal agreements are transferred to paper and perused by attorneys. Final negotiations are to continue through the weekend.

And an official with the landowner, Koll Real Estate Group, veered away from confirming that a deal was in place.

“All I can say is that it’s very, very close,” said Lucy Dunn, Koll senior vice president.

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And a spokeswoman for CalResources, the current oil operator at the site, said, “We continue to make excellent progress, but we have not finalized details and finalized the negotiations.”

State purchase of the wetlands would block Koll’s plans for 900 homes in the lowland area, but the company still would proceed with another 2,400 homes on a nearby mesa.

Bolsa Chica has produced one of the longest-running and most rancorous environmental battles in Orange County history, as wetlands advocates fought a series of proposals to develop the wetlands next to Huntington Beach.

The swath of salt marshes, ponds and mud flats is home to several species of rare birds, and thousands of migratory fowl take shelter there.

It has also been an operating oil field since the 1940s, and the heritage of that history--soil tainted with arsenic, mercury, zinc and other contaminants--has proven the single biggest obstacle to its public purchase.

State and federal agencies have sought for months to buy the land and restore it, using nearly $80 million in funds from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In return, the ports would be granted permission to expand their operations.

But state and federal officials balked at using taxpayer money to clean the extensive contamination. And talks last year with Koll and Shell Oil Co. affiliate CalResources failed to resolve the question of clean-up liability.

Even so, talks continued with Phillips Petroleum, CalResources’ predecessor at the oil field.

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Finally, CalResources, Phillips and Koll arrived at what Davis calls “a conceptual agreement among the private parties as to the division of responsibility” for cleanup.

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The agreement was reached late Wednesday during a meeting in Los Angeles, said one source close to the negotiations, who added: “This is the first time they could all come to an agreement they could live with.”

Tuss Erickson, a Phillips environmental manager, said, “The agreement on the major issues took place in the last 24 hours. If we can get through the paperwork in time, I think everything will fall in place.”

A spokesman for the state Resources Agency, Chris Chrystal, said a decision on Bolsa Chica could be reached Monday.

“There just isn’t anything to announce today,” Chrystal said.

Nonetheless, several people close to the talks were already talking Thursday about a public event early next week at Bolsa Chica, speculating that high-level federal and state officials may attend.


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