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Corps Scales Down Plan for Marina Sediment Removal : Environment: Opposition to burying silt that contains harmful substances in a new wildlife habitat spurs a delay in formal request.

August 11, 1994|RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faced with strong opposition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has scaled back a proposal to haul tons of contaminated silt and sand from Marina del Rey to the Port of Los Angeles to use as fill for a new marine wildlife habitat.

In a concession aimed at winning approval for the controversial project, the Corps said it will seek permission to immediately remove only 130,000 cubic yards of the material, containing lead and dozens of other harmful substances, instead of the 530,000 cubic yards it had proposed.

The action Tuesday came as the Corps asked the state Coastal Commission, meeting in Long Beach, to delay until September its request to remove the sediment, which has accumulated at the mouth of the county-owned marina and threatens to choke off boating.

At the behest of Los Angeles County officials, the Corps wants to remove the sediment, place it in special plastic tubes and bury the tubes in a shallow area of the harbor at San Pedro as part of the wildlife habitat project. (The state required that the habitat be created to offset the environmental effects of a major port expansion.)

But opponents warn that the dredging could cause environmentally damaging materials to spread at the mouth of the marina, and say the containers, which have never been approved for such a project in California, may leak once they are placed in the harbor.

The Coastal Commission had been scheduled to hear the matter Tuesday. The commission staff had recommended that the plan be rejected.

Opponents said there was little in the latest proposal to allay their concerns.

"If (the Corps and the county) haven't dealt with unanswered questions in 2 1/2 years, there's no reason to think they'll be able to in another month," said Roger Gorke, science and policy analyst with Heal the Bay, an environmental group.

Meanwhile, an official with the County Department of Beaches and Harbors, which governs the marina, expressed optimism.

"We think that as the coastal staff and other agencies find out more about the technology involved (with the tubes), they will see that what is being proposed isn't unreasonable," said James A. Fawcett, the department's chief of planning.

Authorities have already closed 40% of the marina's north and south entrances to boating, and warn that unless the sediment is removed, runoff from heavy winter rains could choke off the marina entirely.

Fawcett said that "barring weather that is truly out of the ordinary," the removal of 130,000 cubic yards of the material "would get us through the winter with a measure of safety."

Besides being used for pleasure boating, the marina is the headquarters of a Coast Guard air-sea rescue unit whose proximity to Los Angeles International Airport is considered vital in case of a plane crash at sea.

The marina's problems are largely the result of runoff from nearby Ballona Creek, which drains a 126-square-mile area from near Downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Ocean.

During heavy rains, the creek pours up to 10 billion gallons of water a day into the ocean, depositing huge amounts of contaminated materials near the mouth of the marina. In places, sand, silt and dirt are barely three feet from the surface, making it difficult for pleasure boats to navigate.

Dredging by the Corps has been a fact of life since the giant pleasure-boat harbor was built in the 1960s. But in recent years disposal has become problematic, as federal rules have become stricter.

In 1990, the Corps sought permission to dump the sediment into the ocean off Palos Verdes Peninsula, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency refused, saying the material was unsuitable for ocean disposal.

Two years ago, the Coastal Commission reluctantly allowed the Corps to use huge dredges to flatten the bottom of the marina channel, in a procedure known as a "knockdown," after county officials warned that the marina was about to be choked off.

At the time, the commissioners urged the county and the Corps to find a permanent solution, saying they were not likely to approve another stopgap measure.

Tuesday, Commissioner Madelyn Glickfeld accused the Corps and county officials of dragging their feet.

She expressed concern that the commission was now being asked to consider "a matter of great local importance" in September, at its meeting in Eureka, 600 miles away in Northern California.

The Corps has said that unless it dredges the 130,000 cubic yards of sediment before the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30, it will lose $1.7 million that has been allocated for the project.

To further complicate matters, Port of Los Angeles officials are wary about the plan, fearful that accepting the sediment will trigger a new round of regulatory hurdles just when they are ready to go forward with a planned $150-million port expansion.

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