VMT Reduced to Obfuscation and Dissembling to Pitch Heavy Industry for South Vallejo
The environmental review process for the Vallejo Marine Terminal project application has degenerated into a cynical box-checking exercise focused on legal technicalities while ignoring the intent of the law. The California Environmental Quality Act is supposed to inform decision-makers and the public about the full range of environmental consequences before approving a project. But major revisions to the VMT project made long after the required draft Environmental Impact Report was circulated for comment now threaten to deprive the public of vital information about future substantial adverse impacts.
Trying to make lemonade out of the sack of lemons handed to them by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, the applicants now want to pretend the forced major revisions to the project come in response to public concerns. They want to pretend that since the short term impacts would be slightly less than the original project, the new long term unknowns somehow don’t matter. But the changes do much more than just reduce some of the environmental impacts by scrapping part of the project - they also guarantee a new set of impacts from future industrial processing operations the public knows nothing about.
The applicants continue to promote all the purported economic benefits from a port operation that the BCDC may or may not allow for a short interim period if at all. The VMT project was supposed to be about running break bulk cargo through a marine terminal and providing an intermodal transportation hub for regional businesses. They’re still hyping it as a major project objective even now. This was always a business plan decades behind the times. In the 2014 Bay Area Maritime Cargo Monitoring Report, issued October 23, 2015, the Commission found that no break bulk cargo was handled in 2014, and that no break bulk has been handled by areas within BCDC Port Priority Use Areas since 2006. The VMT site isn’t designated for port use anyway, it’s reserved in the BCDC’s Bay Plan for water-related industry like the Orcem cement plant that would process imported raw materials. The Commission is not about to amend the Bay Plan to allow a port use with zero demand.
This project proposal has been botched from the very beginning. In a comment letter dated November 2, 2015 a BCDC analyst delivers a withering evaluation of the way this application process has been handled: “Commission staff have met with the development team for the VMT project periodically over the past three years and consistently communicated our concerns regarding the consistency of this project with the Commission's laws and policies. These concerns have not been addressed over that time and we are disappointed they have not been considered in the draft EIR. As currently proposed, the project does not meet the requirements in the McAteer-Petris Act and San Francisco Bay Plan.”
Attendees fill the Vallejo City Council chambers while people line the wall waiting to speak at Wednesday night’s public hearing on a proposed cement facility in South Vallejo. MIKE JORY — TIMES-HERALD
The applicants have been selling this project to the public and elected officials for years based on unrealistic and wildly optimistic economic projections. Following a behind the scenes scramble to find a way to keep their foot in the door, they’ve apparently settled on a strategy of continuing to talk publicly as though nothing significant has changed. They hope to slip past the BCDC by telling them the terminal facility will be dedicated to supplying the cement mill with industrial waste slag, while still promoting a cargo handling operation to the public and neglecting to mention it would only be a temporary use. Before they gave up on the Phase 2 barge cargo-handling component, the VMT consultant gave a succinct encapsulation of the financial necessity: "...as I understand it, VMT Phase 2 is critical to the long-term efficiency and would therefore affect the long-term economics of VMT Phase 1."
In a letter dated April 29, 2016, BCDC staff sums up what the VMT representatives have been telling them in private: “The intent of the wharf reconstruction is to provide Orcem with the means to receive raw materials and distribute finished products that have been processed on-site, a use that is consistent with the "water-related industry" designation in the Bay Plan. Orcem's capacity and production are expected to increase over time, beginning at approximately 25% of the capacity of the wharf, leaving some capacity of the reconstructed wharf unused. At the meeting on April 11, 2016, VMT expressed an interest in attracting more water-related industry to the site, but acknowledged that additional water-related industry use would take time to attract and develop. In the interim period, VMT proposed to use the wharf to move some cargo, primarily raw materials, to and from the site. While the draft environmental impact report states that the VMT Terminal is anticipated to handle a wide range of commodities, at the April 11 meeting, VMT informed Commission staff that, at this time, VMT has not secured contracts or tenants for any Phase I cargo users.”
When fully developed the Orcem cement milling operation would never use even half of the terminal capacity. When the interim port use period ends, if granted at all, the applicants would need to add additional industrial processing tenants to remain financially viable over the sixty plus years of the lease with the City. The project level Environmental Impact Report circulated for review does not even mention that prospect as a possibility, or hint at the nature of these businesses or potential associated adverse impacts. Instead of preparing a Master EIR intended to inform the public about projects like this one that are developed in phases, the applicants produced a focused project EIR with a description that no longer applies to a majority of the permanent project operations. The Vallejo City Council voted to authorize the preparation of a Master EIR for the VMT project application, but that is not what was produced.
To prepare the Master EIR the City Council authorized would require more information than the applicants appear able to provide at this point. The distinguishing requirements that make a Master document appropriate include "a project that consists of smaller individual projects which will be carried out in phases," exactly the circumstances we have here. However a Master EIR must include a description of each anticipated subsequent project that is to be considered, something the applicants have not, and apparently can not provide. At this point they have no financially viable coherent project for decision-makers to even evaluate, just a minor piece of a project. Persisting with this flawed environmental review process amounts to an attempt to pre-approve future projects without even a cursory review.
Project Approval Would Deny the Chance to Provide Public Access to the Waterfront for Sixty Plus Years
Pretending that in scaling back a major phase of the project they only reduce impacts is a fundamentally dishonest means of skirting the purposes of the CEQA process. At a minimum recirculation of a new draft EIR is needed to allow the public to understand and comment on major revisions that reflect changes in fundamental project objectives and long term operations. Recirculation is required under CEQA when “significant new information” relevant to the impact analysis is added after a draft EIR is circulated. New information is “significant” under CEQA if an EIR is changed so as to deprive the public of a meaningful opportunity to comment on a substantial adverse project impact or a feasible way to mitigate or avoid such impacts.
Desperate to salvage their investment in a badly mishandled development proposal, consultants for the applicants will no doubt attempt to argue that impacts should be considered significant only if that change is reasonably foreseeable. Since the very nature of the future industrial processing operations that would comprise a majority of the project now resides in a black box, they will want to argue that impacts associated with those future industrial tenants can’t possibly be foreseen and therefore shouldn't be considered significant under CEQA. But what is foreseeable by the applicant’s own admission is that there would be such tenants, and industrial processing operations invariably come with potentially significant impacts. The public needs the opportunity to hear all of that and comment.
Even if the consultant’s specious argument could somehow manage to pass a technical legal hurdle, common sense tells us it amounts to a cynical attempt to hide relevant information from the public and decision-makers. The Master EIR the Council actually authorized would have informed the public that the ephemeral intermodal transportation hub for regional businesses is a temporary use at best and that nearly two thirds of the final project would be introduced in phases over time requiring further environmental review. To certify a final project EIR with major revisions designed to conceal significant new information would undermine the intent of CEQA and break faith with the public who participated in the environmental review process.