The planned U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Alameda Point healthcare facility and columbarium will eliminate about 12 acres of existing wetland on the former Navy aircraft runway area. The federal Clean Water Act requires that the VA compensate, or mitigate, for the adverse effects of their project. But the proceedings have been cloaked in secrecy.
In February 2017, five months after submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information related to wetlands, the VA provided a copy of a consultant’s study on the feasibility of expanding and enhancing a different wetland on VA property. But the document arrived with over half of the study either blacked out or stamped “Page withheld in its entirety.”
A year earlier, in January 2016, the VA quietly sought to buy its way out of doing the required mitigation at Alameda Point. It sought instead to purchase “credits” in the San Francisco Bay Wetland Mitigation Bank.
Letters of protest from the Sierra Club and the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge, a group devoted to expanding the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, prompted the VA to at least temporarily withdraw its wetland credits permit application. The VA then hired the ecological consulting firm H.T. Harvey & Associates to conduct a study on the feasibility of performing the wetland mitigation at Alameda Point. The study is dated August 8, 2016.
The VA’s Northern California FOIA Officer claims that the censorship of the wetland study was justified because the material is part of the “deliberative process,” and its uncensored release would cause “public confusion.” This type of exemption in the FOIA law was created to allow subordinates and staff members to engage in candid dialogue without feeling they are operating in a fish bowl. But the exemption, referred to by open government advocates as the “Withhold it because you want to” exemption, is widely abused by federal agencies.
A 2014 report by the Associated Press revealed that the use of the exemption was at an all-time high in 2013, despite attempts by President Obama to curtail its abuse. A few reforms to FOIA were signed into law in mid-2016, but any documents deemed by an agency to be part of a so-called deliberative process can be withheld or censored for 25 years, if they are not included as part of a final decision.
Thus, if the VA decides to buy wetland credits rather than replacing wetland at Alameda Point, the wetland feasibility study could remain censored for 25 years.
The VA redacted most of the table of contents and over 300 lines of text. Fourteen out of 57 pages were withheld in their entirety, including the appendix containing the “Soil Sample Horticultural Laboratory Results.” Much of the information deemed “deliberative” that would cause “public confusion” is under the heading “Existing Conditions.” Facts about the existing conditions of the salt marsh, ponds, seawall, soils, salinity readings, site topography and existing drainage, tidal flows, and flood risk from FEMA maps are heavily censored.
The authors of the feasibility study offer a glowing assessment of the potential for improving wetland on the VA property. But their conclusion that “Substantial opportunities exist to expand and enhance the existing wetlands complex in the study area at Alameda Point” is followed by blacked-out text. All 27 lines of text describing the benefits are also redacted, as are 28 lines of conceptual planning criteria.
Under the category of “Additional Mitigation Opportunities,” 22 lines out of 29 lines of text are blacked out. However, two of the opportunities can be discerned from portions that are not blacked out. One has to do with the condition of the seawall, which is experiencing erosion.
The other mitigation opportunity has to do with reintroducing a rare native wetland plant that has been eradicated from San Francisco Bay. The study says that efforts are underway to re-introduce California sea-blite (Suaeda californica) to the Bay. It’s currently listed as an endangered plant. The study further notes that Alameda Point is identified in the 1999 Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Project as historically supporting the rare plant and calls for its reintroduction to the area.
The VA’s FOIA Officer says that a wetland mitigation plan will be approved by August. Whether the plan will be to improve wetland at Alameda Point or improve wetland somewhere else via purchase of credits remains to be seen. The VA is required to have an approved wetland mitigation plan before any construction permits can be issued.
The censorship of the wetland study has been appealed to the VA’s General Counsel in Washington, D.C.
View the entire censored wetland study: VA H.T. Harvey Wetland Study (censored)
Sierra Club comment letter to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding February 2016 VA permit application to purchase wetland mitigation bank credits is here.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers February 2016 Public Notice of VA permit application to purchase wetland mitigation bank credits is here.