The Bay Trail Wanders Off Course in South Vallejo

After well over a century hosting a series of flour milling and shipping operations, an era came to an end in south Vallejo in 2004 when General Mills abandoned its location at the mouth of the Napa River.  A natural scour in the river bottom first attracted the shipping terminals, and the site boasts the only stretch of sandy beach on the length of Vallejo’s waterfront.  The tidally influenced and filled area that fronts the forty acre site is public land entrusted to the City by the State Lands Commission, and was leased by General Mills.  

In 2007 the old lease was revived and transferred to a development company.  The Sperry Landing mixed-use development proposal for the abandoned site was unveiled in 2008.  The project planned "to redevelop the Fee Lands as residential town homes, convert the Mill Building to lofts and redevelop the waterfront area (Leasehold) as a park/open space.  The redevelopment project will ... consist of a diverse mix of about 370 residential units.  The redevelopment will integrate existing structures with progressive new construction to create live-work area and will potentially have ancillary commercial and retail uses.”  That natural scour would one day make a fine ferry stop to increase transportation options for local residents.

Artist Conception of Sperry Landing Waterfront - 2008

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission retains jurisdiction over a 100-foot-wide band of shoreline located immediately land ward of the edge of the Bay.  According to their Public Access Design Guidelines for the San Francisco Bay:  “The Commission and its staff rely on Bay Area local governments to ensure that waterfront land uses promote high quality developments, such as residential and office projects, restaurants and other structures, that take full advantage of their scenic Bayside locations.”   With the Sperry Landing project, it looked like south Vallejo was finally on the way to realizing that high quality of development on a prime waterfront site that would serve the community well in the twenty-first century.

An improvement in the quality of local development projects is something badly needed in a community already suffering with some of the worst air quality in the Bay area.  Over the decades neighborhoods built up around the site and along the abandoned rail spur originally laid out in 1869 when Vallejo was a tiny village.  These are predominantly minority and low income neighborhoods that historically lack economic and political influence in a city where representatives are elected at large.  Disadvantaged communities like these typically bear far more than their fair share of industrial pollution.  Vallejo lies predominantly downwind from the “refinery corridor” of West Contra Costa County. According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the south Vallejo zip code is a “CARE” community, with significantly higher pollution levels and rates of negative health outcomes than most other communities in the region.  

Fast forward ten years from Sperry Landing, and now a four member majority of the Vallejo City Council appears poised to approve a very different project.  Gone are the plans for much needed homes and businesses.  Gone is the public promenade and the waterfront park, along with the pedestrian/bike trail on the waterfront envisioned in the City’s recent general plan update that would connect south Vallejo with the City’s historic downtown district.  In their place would rise the 165 foot stack of a polluting slag cement plant and a shipping terminal that would service it along with additional future industrial tenants, shutting out the public entirely.  The idyllic scene envisioned for the Sperry Landing waterfront would now be replaced with massive open piles of industrial slag waste and aggregate, idling ship generators, freight trains blocking nineteen major roadways across town, and three hundred plus daily heavy diesel truck trips through south Vallejo neighborhoods.

Ecocem slag cement yard in Ireland - 2016 - Corporate owners of Orcem America

What happened?  Why can’t south Vallejo have nice things?  The financial collapse in 2008/09 dealt the Sperry Landing project a death blow, along with planned developments across the board nationwide.  Following the default on a bank loan of more than seven million dollars, the property and the lease were apparently sold at foreclosure auction in 2010 for $100,000 each.  What happened next is a textbook example of what can go wrong when local government chooses to ignore the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act in order to pursue parochial interests.  

In April of 2012 the local paper announced that the Vallejo City Council had voted to once again transfer the lease to new owners in order to facilitate a major international shipping center project that would construct a marine terminal and integrate shipping, rail, and highway transportation to move break bulk cargo.  The new owners pitched their project as a big boon to the local and regional economy.  The act of assigning the lease to the new owners, with amendments to allow demolition and construction of buildings and docking facilities, would predictably result in major changes to the physical environment.  Instead of conducting the required review of the potential environmental impacts before committing public resources under the lease, the City cited a categorical exemption from the CEQA process intended to allow minor hazardous waste cleanups.  The ensuing saga illustrates why avoiding early environmental review is such a terrible idea.

As it happened, the port proposal fit seamlessly into the reactionary vision of an industrial renaissance along the Mare Island Strait, nursed in private by members of the Vallejo city council that would act as the lead agency for the project.  Many longtime residents fondly remember the glory days of the Mare Island naval base, and much less fondly the closure which devastated the local economy in the late nineties.  In 2014 the vice mayor, a former naval officer, organized an ad hoc committee in secret that included two other members of the council and the remaining private industrial businesses on Mare Island Strait.  As part of a back room lobbying effort to get the Army Corps of Engineers to resume deep dredging of the Strait at federal expense, they recruited the applicants and explicitly tied approval of the project to the goals of their committee.

A 'Green' Ecocem Plant - Netherlands

Leachate seeping from slag piles is highly alkaline and mobilizes heavy metals

MSDS Hazard Statement: Very Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.

In the meantime the applicants added a blast furnace slag cement mill component to the project as a corporate tenant that would demolish historic structures and use a quarter of the marine terminal capacity.  They applied for permits for the combined port and cement plant project in 2014 and engaged in a full blown review of the environmental impacts. That effort finally produced an Environmental Impact Report with technical appendices running thousands of pages for public circulation and comment in September of 2015.  Only after this lengthy and expensive process ended in November did the bill for skipping that early environmental study come due, with notification from the BCDC staff that the described port use is not even allowed at the site.

 

The BCDC established priority use designations to reserve specific areas along the shoreline that generally reflect the local government zoning in 1968, at the time the agency wrote the Bay Plan.  General Mills was classified as a water-related industry that imports and/or exports material by ship that is processed on the site.  In similar fashion the proposed cement mill would import blast furnace slag by ship from Asia to store in open piles for grinding into powder and blending into cement.  

 

But it turns out after all the hype and all the effort and expense devoted to environmental analysis that a port use requires a different designation.  That major international shipping center project the City committed public resources to years before with no review is not a permissible use at the site under the Bay Plan.  Worse, no break bulk cargo has even been recorded moving through Bay area ports since 2006.  Existing ports are well under capacity in other cargo categories as well, according to the BCDC, making an amendment to the Bay Plan in order to accommodate a new port project impossible to justify.

 

The environmental review skipped over in 2012 could have quickly revealed from readily available information that the port use was neither allowed or needed, and prevented the millions of dollars and thousands of hours of investment in a project that was never a realistic possibility to begin with.  After such a significant expenditure of scarce resources, the pressure to approve some kind of project to justify all the expense becomes hard to resist.  The neighborhoods of south Vallejo now face the prospect that they will pay a heavy price for these official missteps over the next half century, and the Bay Trail organization risks becoming complicit in the effort to perpetuate their misery. 

Signs of Protest from Grass Roots Citizen Groups

Nearly sixty community organizations have come out in opposition to the project, including the local Chamber of Commerce, the school board, and many environmental organizations.  An ever-growing cadre of local activists continues working tirelessly to oppose the project, having devoted countless hours over the last three years reviewing environmental documents and analyzing the impact data.  The planning commission held a public hearing and voted overwhelmingly to deny the permits for the project, following the recommendation of City staff and paid consultants who had worked on the environmental review for years.  So how could it possibly be on the verge of approval?  

 

The same three councilmembers who organized and participated in the secret ad hoc committee with the applicants, along with a second newly elected former naval officer who ran on the same political slate, voted to hear an appeal of the planning commission denial from the applicants.  They directed City staff to complete a final version of the Environmental Impact Report without the port use component, prompting another round of investment in environmental analysis that makes it all the harder to say no.  An article in the Irish Times details the foreign corporate financial support provided to the Jumpstart slate of Vallejo council candidates in the last election: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/manufacturing/irish-firm-s-10-000-donation-to-us-city-election-candidates-1.2975880

Two candidates on the slate who also benefited from the strong support of their local ethnic community won seats, giving the Jumpstart councilmembers a one vote majority.  They will decide the appeal from the planning commission brought by their corporate campaign donors.   In place of the park-like Sperry Landing waterfront, or even the heavily promoted cargo-handling economic miracle that started all the momentum for the project, south Vallejo would now be stuck with a marine terminal servicing a polluting slag cement plant, along with whatever unknown future industrial tenants would be needed to make up a financially viable project.  What a difference ten years can make!

 

There’s an elementary school a quarter mile downwind of the proposed cement plant, and the project would release more than sixteen tons of fugitive dust in the dangerous particle size of ten microns or less each year according to the EIR - material which the slag producers warn is particularly hazardous to people suffering from asthma and other pulmonary diseases.  The load of toxic dust, diesel soot, and the sixty four tons of ozone-forming nitrogen oxides that would be dumped out over their schoolyard and neighborhoods each year is the last thing these kids need or deserve.  They didn’t cause the financial meltdown or choose to skip the required timely environmental review designed to prevent what now looks like a worst of all worlds outcome.

News that representatives of the Bay Trail organization have become involved with this toxic project came as a shock to community activists who see themselves as championing the cause of public access to the Bay and the continuity of the Trail on the waterfront where it belongs.  An industrial project would shut out the public, and the resulting waterfront gap in the Bay Trail would be slag cemented into place for the sixty-six year term of the lease.  In sharp contrast, the recent participatory public process to update Vallejo’s general plan generated a map that would change the site zoning and establish a waterfront trail to connect the Cal State campus at the base of the Carquinez Bridge with the historic downtown district.  A slag cement plant would not be allowed under the new zoning, but since the project application was submitted first the changes to the general plan have been put on hold until the application is finally resolved.

 

Community activists have resorted to a series of public records requests to try and keep track of the continual changes to the project description.   The record shows that the authors of the final EIR have struggled over the years to find a way to compensate for excluding the public.  The BCDC requires in lieu mitigation for the loss of public access to the waterfront, and the applicants have floated a number of ideas that have been shot down by Commission staff.  A proposed kayak launch ramp at the Vallejo marina proved problematic because the neighborhoods deprived of waterfront access would be geographically separated from the mitigation, and their residents are not likely to be among the more affluent users of a kayak launch ramp.  

 

Project consultants have recently suggested improvements to the Bay Trail as possible mitigation, and talks have led to specific suggestions that the corporate applicants might provide $380,000 dollars to close gaps in the Bay and Vine Trail developments in north Vallejo.  Community members point out that this idea suffers the same set of problems as the kayak proposal.  It is unlikely that many residents in south Vallejo would share an enthusiasm for biking to Napa wine country with our more affluent residents, and again these improvements would occur in north Vallejo while south Vallejo suffers the impacts.

 

It is our hope that once representatives of the Bay Trail organization become aware of the full range of negative impacts and the extent of public opposition to this proposal, they will reconsider participating in any effort to help mitigate the irreplaceable loss of public access to our waterfront.  We regard this as an environmental justice issue, and believe it’s time for local governments, agencies, and organizations to give more than lip service to these principles.  Bay Trail involvement in mitigation would predictably become part of a corporate public relations effort to sell this ill-conceived project - in effect financing modest trail improvements at a much more significant cost to the health and quality of life of some of our most vulnerable residents over the next half century.  The growing contingent of community activists who have mounted a sustained grassroots effort to reject this project are fighting for the lofty goals expressed in the BCDC’s design guidelines.  We hope the Bay Trail organization will understand that grass roots support is worth far more to the Trail project over the long term than a one-time corporate donor that would block contiguous waterfront access and harm local neighborhoods for many decades to come.

On the Trail in Richmond

Update from Supervisor Brown:

http://www.timesheraldonline.com/opinion/20180615/supervisor-monica-brown-thank-you-bay-trails

Posted: 06/15/18, 3:00 AM PDT

I would like to offer my deepest appreciation to the staff at the Bay Trails.

When it was revealed that there was a proposal to allow Orcem to pay several hundred thousand dollars to move the Bay Trail away from the south Vallejo shoreline as “mitigation” for the cement factory, the Vallejo community spoke out against this proposal. My office contacted the Bay Trail staff to let them know I was opposed to this proposal.

On Monday June 11, the Bay Trails staff sent a letter to the City of Vallejo and copied my office stating that the Bay Trails was no longer supporting the proposed mitigation of allowing Orcem to cut off the south Vallejo shoreline.

This means that the Orcem cement factory cannot buy its way to cutting off waterfront access to south Vallejo.

 

Thank you to the Bay Trails staff for listening to the Vallejo community.

 

Monica Brown/Solano County Supervisor, District 2