The Salton Sea Authority is advancing a plan to build up to 200,000 homes around the state's largest lake on land that includes a former atomic weapons testing site. The plan could also move the boundaries of a national wildlife refuge, a key stopover for more than 100,000 migrating birds.
The agency wants to sell the defunct Salton Sea Test Base to developers and use the proceeds, as well as property tax revenue generated by the new houses, to pay for cleanup and restoration of the polluted, odoriferous lake.
But it is unclear whether the former base is safe for human habitation. The base was a research and testing site for the now-defunct Atomic Energy Commission until 1961 and was also used for 1,100 missile tests.
"All we want to do is create the opportunity for development to occur ... to create a revenue stream for our plan," said Imperial County Supervisor Gary Wyatt, chairman of the Salton Sea Authority board. The government agency charged with revitalizing the Salton Sea includes Riverside and Imperial county water district and other officials.
"You create a lake that has good, clean water," Wyatt said.
Citigroup Inc., a multinational financing corporation, has bid to underwrite more than $600 million in bonds to finance the plan, if Congress will guarantee the funds and give the Salton Sea Authority up to 15,000 acres of federal land. The agency's board is slated to vote on the Citigroup proposal Oct. 27, part of a lengthy approval process by federal and state officials. The homes would be built over 30 to 40 years.
Farmers, environmentalists and state water officials say that if not done right, the development plan could generate billowing clouds of choking dust and sharply reduce wildlife.
The authority would like to move parts of the refuge east.
"The snow geese, they've been coming here for generation after generation. If one day ... those fields aren't there, I don't know where they're going to go," said Chris Schoneman, manager of the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge.
Others question whether the 7,800-acre former test base on the lake's sandy western shores has been adequately cleaned up. The site is unfenced, but a large sign warns in Spanish and English that "Unexploded Ordnance and Dangerous Explosive Parts May Remain in This Area."
"So would you like to put your house on that test base?" said Dale Hoffman-Floerke, chief of the Colorado River and Salton Sea office for the state Department of Water Resources.
"Unequivocally, no, I wouldn't put my house there."
The base and the lake were used for testing of mock bombs for the Manhattan Project, which created the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
The Atomic Energy Commission site was later taken over by the Navy Department of Energy, and Environmental Protection Agency documents show that it was contaminated in at least 23 places.
"The question is how badly contaminated this whole area is," said Daniel Hirsch, president of Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit group that has studied risks from former nuclear facilities for 35 years. "The fact that they had 1,100 missile tests, they had spilled toxic substances requiring cleanup, that they used the sea for practice bombing ... it's a red flag that you should not release that site for development."
Jill Votaw, Navy Base Realignment and Closure spokeswoman, said a cleanup was completed in 2000 that removed munitions left by soldiers who had trained for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm of 1990 and 1991. She said questions about past use of the site could not be immediately answered because the information was in archives.
She said she did not think the Navy would be responsible for materials that might have been used or left by the Atomic Energy Commission. She said current Navy staff did not know whether any radioactive material was used or found at the site, but she said that "if we did find it ... we would have made sure it was cleaned up."
Salton Sea Authority director Ron Enzweiler said the sign about unexploded ordnance was out of date and that there was "no record" of nuclear activities or material. He said the site had been cleaned up to a standard that makes it safe for wildlife, and that before houses were built it would be further tested and cleaned up if necessary.
"In either case we'll work through the Salton Sea congressional delegation to have it cleaned up to residential land-use standards and then transferred to the [authority] so we can resell the land to developers to help pay for restoration of the Salton Sea," he said in an e-mail.
He said a cleanup report by the Navy in 1999 did not mention radioactive material. He pointed to state Department of Toxic Substances Control documents that said the site had been used only to test mock atomic bombs filled with lead or concrete.