Environmental and Policy Focus

Judge refuses to halt Delta land sale to Metropolitan Water District

Sacramento Bee - May 1 San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Barbara Kronlund last Friday declined to grant a temporary order restraining Metropolitan Water District (MWD) from proceeding with its $175 million purchase of five islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The restraining order was requested by San Joaquin and Contra Costa Counties, which filed a lawsuit two weeks ago to block the deal. But the ruling does not end the litigation. The deal’s opponents, including two environmental groups, will next press the court for a preliminary injunction at a pivotal May 19 hearing to halt the anticipated completion of MWD's purchase in June. They allege in the lawsuit that the transfer of the islands is subject to environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), a process that could take months. According to one of the challengers, by purchasing the land, MWD is trying to do “a piecemeal end-around” of the CEQA requirements. MWD disputes the claim and says it will comply with all environmental laws once it decides what to do with the land.

In reversal, Coastal Commission staff recommends approval of Newport Beach hotel and housing project

Los Angeles Times - Apr 29 In a reversal of its previous position, the staff of the California Coastal Commission (Commission) is recommending approval of Banning Ranch, an upscale hotel, retail, and residential development, on the last big block of private land on the Southland coast next to Newport Beach, subject to various conditions. Commissioners last October ignored a staff recommendation to reject the project and questioned staff's environmental evaluations of the 401-acre oil field. Since then, staff and the project proponent, Newport Banning Ranch LLC, have worked together to reduce the size of the project, which now calls for 895 homes (reduced from 1,175), a 75-bed resort hotel, and 45,000 square feet of retail space. The Banning Ranch dispute revolves around how much of the property is Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, a state Coastal Act designation that courts have ruled precludes housing development. The staff report identifies 55 acres of the tract as available for development, which is substantially less than what the developers want. The project's development partners, which include an oil company and an investment firm, say they will have to spend $30 million cleaning up the tract, which has been closed to the public since oil production began in the 1940s. They assert that unless the development is approved, it could be decades before the land is restored and the public gains access.

Judge gives green light to restart ExxonMobil Torrance refinery

Daily Breeze - May 2 A Los Angeles Superior Court judge Monday denied an environmental group’s bid to halt the imminent restart of the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, ruling that the public interest is best served by allowing gasoline production at the plant to resume. The Refinery Safety Network filed suit last week in an attempt to stop the company from resuming production, citing health and safety reasons. ExxonMobil intends to restart operations without using pollution-control equipment to reduce the possibility of another explosion like the one in February 2015 that crippled the plant. In a six-page ruling issued on Monday, Judge Mary H. Strobel found that ExxonMobil would be harmed economically if she upheld the legal challenge. The South Coast Air Quality Management District Hearing Board agreed in April to allow the company to restart the refinery while imposing conditions to reduce the potential harm from the excess pollution as well as a $5 million fine. ExxonMobil previously said its $537.5 million sale of the plant to PBF Energy is contingent upon a successful resumption of operations and claimed that 1,200 workers could be laid off if the refinery remains offline. The company has yet to announce a date when it will begin to restart the refinery but, once it does, students at nearby schools will be allowed to opt out of outdoor activities based upon health or air quality concerns. 

Hundreds of Hacienda Heights homes near Industry battery plant to be tested for lead and arsenic

San Gabriel Valley Tribune - Apr 28 The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) will begin testing soil from 300 homes and 27 commercial properties in areas of Hacienda Heights surrounding Quemetco Inc., a lead-acid battery recycling facility in the City of Industry, state environmental officials announced Thursday. Officials will look for high levels of lead and arsenic, which may have been emitted from the facility’s smokestacks and escaped as airborne dust from trucks and storage areas, according to DTSC project manager Jose Diaz. Although soil tests performed onsite at Quemetco and along its perimeter in 1991, 2004, and 2012 revealed exposures that required cleanup, the DTSC has now determined more extensive testing is required due to a change in acceptable blood lead levels in children. Residents of Hacienda Heights and Avocado Heights became concerned after the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon was shut down in 2015 after DTSC refused to issue it a permit, and Quemetco filed a request with the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) for a permit allowing it to increase its lead smelting operations by 25%, up to 24 hours a day, presumably because of demand from Exide’s former customers. Before that permit is granted, Quemetco must show it currently meets health standards for air emissions of lead, other metals, and in particular, arsenic, said Sam Atwood, a SCAQMD spokesman.

Court rejects effort to restore Hetch Hetchy

Modesto Bee - May 2 The group trying to erase Hetch Hetchy Reservoir from Yosemite National Park has lost a round in court. Tuolumne Superior Court Judge Kevin Seibert on April 28 rejected a claim by Oakland-based Restore Hetch Hetchy that the 93-year-old reservoir violates a state constitutional mandate that water diversions be “reasonable.” The court ruled that the state law is preempted by a federal law that allowed Hetch Hetchy to be built inside Yosemite and also that the group's claim was time-barred. The decision was cheered by officials in San Francisco—which supplies water to about 2.6 million Bay Area residents from the Tuolumne River impoundment and other storage—and welcomed by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which balk at the suggestion that Don Pedro Reservoir could help make up for the loss of Hetch Hetchy. The plaintiff plans to appeal the ruling.