Despite eloquent pleas from sport fishermen and divers, the State Lands Commission on Friday approved dismantling artificial Belmont Island off Seal Beach and moving its rock base to the state's Bolsa Chica Artificial Reef.
Opponents had argued that the former oil production facility provides a reef-like habitat for scores of sea creatures.
"I'm saddened to see the political process does not put together the science needed to see . . . what's going on in the marine environment," Milt Shedd, a founder of Sea World-San Diego, told commission members meeting in Los Angeles. "Resources the world over are being destroyed because we manage resources by the seat of our pants."
Controversy has been brewing for months over the island, which was built about 1 1/2 miles offshore in 1954. Oil production there ceased in 1995.
Shedd was one of several sport fishermen and divers who urged officials to do more research into leaving in place the "rip-rap," or rocks that surround the island's concrete support. Their contention that the island is teeming with invertebrates, fish and crustaceans added fuel to a debate raging in Sacramento about what to do with obsolete oil rigs.
But water-quality, navigation and liability concerns prompted the commission to approve plans by ExxonMobil Corp., which owns the island, to dismantle it and haul the rip-rap to the artificial reef about four miles off Huntington Beach--a decision that some activists said is too hasty.
"It's a shame to remove the island before doing more research to find out what we're destroying," said Tom Raftican, president of the United Anglers of Southern California. "It's got tremendous value for not just recreational fishing but . . . the entire marine environment."
According to a July study, the ecosystem supported by the island's rip-rap habitat is diverse, including abundant levels of gorgonian coral, mussels, short-spined sea stars, rock scallops, tube-building mollusks, barred sand bass and black croaker fishes.
That system, though, "is not necessarily unique," said Jeff Planck, a senior engineer with the lands commission.
The shelter offered by the island equals less than 1% of the total near-shore habitat available within a 1 1/2-mile radius of the site, he said.
Even if the rip-rap were going to be left in the ocean, most of the island, which stands in 42 feet of water, would be dismantled.
The study found that "removal of the 'topsides,' pilings and leveling the rip-rap to 6 to 8 feet above the sea floor would likely reduce the diversity and abundance of the existing biological community."
Most of the island has to go because of U.S. Coast Guard concerns about navigation safety. The island is close to the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.
Water quality near the island has been compromised by the discharge of the San Gabriel River into the Pacific Ocean, making kelp survival questionable.
But the greatest obstacle is that no public or private body has offered to assume liability for boating or diving accidents if the rip-rap were left in place, Planck said.
Now, pending California Coastal Commission approval, the 16,000 tons of quarry rock will be moved to the Bolsa Chica Artificial Reef, which is managed by the state Department of Fish and Game. The entire cost of the dismantling project--$25 million to $30 million--will be borne by ExxonMobil.
Dave Parker, a senior biologist with the fish and game agency, said the rock will add significant habitat to the 220-acre artificial reef. Such a large quantity of rock would typically cost the agency about $1 million, he said.
The artificial reef, one of more than 30 in Southern California, is thriving, Parker said. Lobsters, crabs, barnacles, rock fish, bass and "quite an array of Southern California near-shore reef fishes . . . already exist there," he said.
The Belmont Island issue is part of a larger debate over the controversial "rigs-to-reefs" proposal now being considered by the Legislature.
Under current state and federal law, decommissioned oils rigs must be removed entirely, the wells must be capped and the sea floor restored to its natural condition. Rigs-to-reefs proponents say the thriving underwater communities found on the rigs' Tinker Toy-like supports should not be disturbed.
State Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) has sponsored a bill that would allow oil companies to leave parts of the rigs' underwater steel structures in place, even after the platforms are removed. Oil companies would save millions of dollars in decommissioning costs but would still have to pay a substantial sum--perhaps 75% of the savings--into a marine research endowment fund.
The California Endowment for Marine Preservation bill is scheduled to come before the Senate Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee on Jan. 11.
The Legislature's decision could determine the fate of seven oil platforms off Seal Beach and Huntington Beach. Those rigs are set to be decommissioned in coming decades, some as soon as 2005.
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From Rock Island to Reef
An 8-foot layer of rock that would remain after an oil island is dismantled would not be a viable habitat for fish, the state lands commission ruled today. Divers and sport fishermen had hoped to retain the rock pile at the island's base for fish habitat and recreation.
Belmont Island, other oil structures
San Gabriel River
Bolsa Chica Reef
80'-100' depth of water at Bolsa Chica Reef site
42' depth of water
6-8' height of rock divers wanted to keep in place. the rock pile could be no higher than 8', orit becomes a navigation hazard.
Fish inhabit vertical structures, which will be removed
Source: State Lands Commission