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Toxins could kill wetlands proposal

November 17, 2009|Louis Sahagun

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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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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