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Toxins found in wetlands threaten to quash land swap

Published 11/17/2009 on Los Angeles Times

EPA requires more study of the area after tests find 2,000 times
the recommended level of carcinogenic PCBs in Los Cerritos Wetlands.
The deal to preserve the marsh area could founder in the meantime.

A tipster's recollection of a hazardous substance spill in Los Cerritos
Wetlands in the 1950s has led to the discovery of elevated levels of
carcinogenic PCBs that could derail a controversial proposal to restore
the degraded Long Beach salt marsh, officials say.

The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to present the results
of its study of the contamination to the Long Beach City Council today.


"The informant, who wishes to remain anonymous, was an apprentice
electrician in his late teens in the early 1950s," said EPA spokesman
Robert Wise. "He remembered seeing some transformers leaking hazardous
chemicals out there and said it was something we need to be concerned
about."

Soil testing revealed PCB levels as high as 21 parts per million in
certain locations — 2,000 times higher than state and federally
recommended ecological levels, Wise said.

"These numbers would pose an extremely low threat to humans," he said.
"It's an ecological threat. The wetlands are home to three federally
endangered species."

Now, concerns about potential liability costs are threatening to delay
or even quash a proposed land swap designed to protect the remnants of
the once-vibrant salt marsh at the mouth of the San Gabriel River.

"Time kills all deals, and it's slowly killing this one," said Mike Conway, the city's director of public works.

Few environmental issues in Long Beach have caused more controversy
than the land swap trumpeted a year ago as a way to preserve the
175-acre core of the urban wetlands bordered by Pacific Coast Highway,
Studebaker Road and Los Cerritos Channel.

Under the terms of the deal, 52 acres of city-owned land were to be
traded to local developer LCW Partners, which owns the wetlands. The
city then planned to sell the marsh to the Los Cerritos Wetlands
Authority for $25 million.

But it didn't turn out that way. After a year of battles with
low-income residents who complained the proposal would benefit the
city's wealthier eastern half and intense scrutiny from elected
officials and nearby homeowners, it was whittled down to nearly 38
acres of wetlands in return for a downtown service yard.

That proposal was in final negotiations in February when the EPA
alerted the developer about the discovery of PCBs, polychlorinated
biphenyls, in soil samples, city officials said.

However, the city did not learn about the problem until Aug. 17, two
weeks after the City Council agreed to proceed with the land swap,
officials said.

In a subsequent memorandum to the mayor and City Council, staffers
recommended that the city not close escrow on the deal pending
resolution of EPA actions, officials said.

"It makes me worried about what else might be out there," said Long
Beach City Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske. "From the beginning, there was
a group of us who said, 'This deal doesn't smell right.' "

In an interview, Kenneth Erlich, an attorney representing the
developer, said he had no idea why his client did not immediately
inform city officials of the EPA's discovery of PCBs on the property.

But now, Erlich said, "LCW is chomping at the bit to do the cleanup
work. But we can't because the EPA wants us to do further testing."

The land swap is the latest in a series of efforts over the last few
decades to place the privately owned coastal marsh into the public
trust.

If the proposal passes, the developers would retain control over
mineral rights and continue to pump oil from the wetlands, but the land
would be protected from commercial and residential development in
perpetuity.

"What troubles me is that the city apparently has not seen fit to do
its due diligence, and that is part of the reason we are in this pickle
now," said Mel Nutter, an attorney representing the Los Cerritos
Wetlands Land Trust, a group dedicated to preserving the wetlands.

"The city really doesn't know what it will be getting if this trade
goes forward," he said, "or what the property is worth, or whether a
state agency or wetlands authority is ever going to be in a position to
actually acquire this property from the city."

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