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The argument for a nature preserve and park at Banning Ranch

I'm writing on behalf of the Banning Ranch Conservancy in response to a full-page ad by Newport Banning Ranch LLC on page A14 of the Oct. 26 edition of the Daily Pilot. Specifically, the statement of concern in the ad is: "Industrial sites don't clean themselves."

The developer is referring to the fact that Banning Ranch has been an active oil field for nearly 70 years and that this has taken a toll on the site's natural resources.

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The conservancy agrees. Industrial sites don't clean themselves, and the oil field has taken a toll. However, many areas of Banning Ranch have been self-remediating for decades, including the upland mesas, the arroyos, grasslands and bluffs. It's been scientifically established that plants called hyperaccumulators can clean up industrial contaminants, including toxins as deadly as lead, mercury, benzene and radioactive wastes.

The lush vegetation growth that has routinely appeared on the mesas, arroyos, grasslands and bluffs of Banning Ranch after a normal rainy season demonstrates this successful self-remediation. That same lush growth would be evident today if not for the drought and the excessive clearance of Banning Ranch vegetation.

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Newport Banning Ranch plans to spend $30 million to $60 million to remediate the land, but to prepare it for residential and commercial development, the company must excavate 2.6 million cubic yards of contaminated soil, alter natural land forms and make cuts as deep as 40 feet.

In short, the natural habitat and land forms will be sacrificed on the altar of development. There will be an attempt to restore the vegetation afterward, but it will be fragmented and fall far short of what now exists. And the sad irony is that there is no need to destroy any of the habitat but for the development of nearly 1,400 homes, a hotel and commercial space on the land.

Also, by law, the oil operation must clean up the environmental damage caused by its activities. The site will be remediated whether or not there is a development. It is not a "gift" to the public, as some have suggested, to do something the oil operator is already required to do.

There are many reasons that Banning Ranch should not be developed for residential and commercial use: The oil field sits on the San Joaquin Blind Thrust Fault and two active Newport-Inglewood fault splays. The Newport-Inglewood fault alone is capable of generating a 7.4 earthquake.

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There are 25 other earthquake faults in the vicinity, and the high levels of methane gas caused by the oil operation and other natural sources raises concerns of vapor intrusion and explosions in homes and other enclosed structures.

This is not a safe environment for families, children, the elderly or the infirm. Also, large developments put a severe strain on scarce resources like potable water, especially given California's extreme drought conditions. But the destruction of critical habitat and the displacement or death of Banning Ranch wildlife, including federally endangered species, is reason enough not to develop, in my opinion.

Given the amount of phytoremediation that has already taken place, the conservancy recommends open-space remediation as the ideal solution for Banning Ranch. We believe that state-of-the-art environmental science, pragmatic planning and nature itself are our best allies in the remediation of the land and its ultimate use for public education and recreation in a beautiful, natural setting.

With open-space use, hiking trails, picnic areas and virtually all of the amenities of development can be offered — and the impacts avoided. Also, health and safety would not an issue for the public, since there would be no risk of vapor intrusion or methane buildup.

Finally, as a nature preserve and park, Banning Ranch would be the final and essential link in the Orange Coast River Park system, establishing an unbroken chain of coastal parks and preserves that protect and preserve what little remains of Orange County's complex biodiversity and rich cultural history.

SUZANNE FORSTER is vice president of the Banning Ranch Conservancy.

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