A Half-baked Project

The further delay in finalizing an environmental impact report for the proposed cement mill and temporary port project on the south Vallejo waterfront comes as no surprise.  More of a head scratcher is the assertion by our community and economic development director that “the fundamental aspect of the project has not changed,” and the changes do not “compel a new document.  This project was clearly not ready for prime time when it was presented for review, and continues to mutate as the public struggles to evaluate the impacts.  At this point we have no way of even knowing what kind of industrial operations might be taking place on the site by year 11 of a 65-year lease.  That’s a fundamental change.

That old General Mills lease was amended and transferred to the Vallejo Marine Terminal principals by the City Council in 2012 with the understanding that the action would allow construction of an international port facility.  The city council was told that since this site was formerly a General Mills shipping terminal it would not even require discretionary approval.  The fiscal and economic impact report for the project touts all the benefits such a port might provide.  The Orcem slag cement milling operation was added later after the lease was amended to serve as an anchor tenant.  According to the economic report, Orcem at full capacity would utilize approximately one-third of the Vallejo Marine Terminal’s maximum import/export capabilities.  The draft environmental impact report circulated for public comment presented both operations as components of a single long-term project.

Long after the public review and comment period ended, we learn that someone failed to do their homework way back at the beginning.  Not only would a port terminal require discretionary approval, it would require an amendment to the Bay Plan by the full Bay Conservation and Development Commission.  General Mills was considered a water related industry — an operation in which raw materials are imported and processed for distribution using ships or barges.  While Orcem would fit the current water related industry use classification, a port terminal is considered a distinct and different use under the Bay Plan.  The VMT phase 2 port operation described in the draft EIR would require an amendment to the Plan in order to conform.

The best that the BCDC staff has been able to offer is the prospect of approving the port use on a temporary interim basis while replacement water related industrial tenants like Orcem can be recruited.  The phase one VMT development of the docking facilities would be allowable as necessary to Orcem’s operation.  But the function of importing and distributing break bulk goods so widely promoted as a long term regional economic driver and the number one project objective can only be permitted for a period of five to 10 years, according to BCDC staff.  If Orcem will only use a third of the capacity, then in as little as six years we could expect the equivalent of two more Orcems occupying the site in place of the temporary port terminal.

I think impartial observers will have to agree that fundamental aspects of the project have indeed changed.  The environmental analysis we spent all that time reviewing now only applies to a small fraction of the lease term and beyond that we have no idea of the nature of this replacement industrial activity or the related environmental impacts for two thirds of the project.  The environmental review process assumes a mature project proposal to evaluate, not one that continues to change and swap out major components after the public review and comment period has ended.  The applicants need do what they should have done in the first place - recruit their industrial tenants that conform with the Bay Plan and produce an environmental impact report that describes the actual project, not just an interim use.

When word of the demise of VMT phase two came out it was suggested that the current draft EIR would still be adequate since the changes would only involve dropping the significant environmental impacts associated with the port use.  That only makes any sense if nothing would replace it, and we know that isn’t the case.  The economic report says Orcem would only use a third of the developed capacity, and the VMT principals have told staff they need the interim port use while they recruit new tenants.  The draft EIR circulated for comment no longer describes the project in a meaningful way that would allow the public to evaluate what living with it would mean over the next 65 years.  That fundamental change compels a new document.