Judge denies attempt to block approval of Los Cerritos wetlands land swap for oil wells

A Los Angeles Superior Court Judge ruled that the California Coastal Commission did not abuse its power when it approved a land-swap deal in 2018 that will allow for the rehabilitation of 150 acres of wetlands, but also the development of up to 120 new oil wells.

In a 22-page tentative ruling, Judge Mary Strobel denied a request to stop the project in the Los Cerritos wetlands in the southeastern part of the city. Strobel’s ruling said that the commission did not misinterpret the Coastal Act in approving the deal, and the public benefits of the project were correctly weighed before voting to approve the deal.

The ruling could pave the way for the long-running project to move forward. Objections to the ruling can be filed over the next 10 days.

“The City views this as a significant victory for the environment and a clear path forward towards rehabilitating and permanently protecting the wetlands for all who wish to enjoy them,” Mike Mais, an assistant city attorney for the city, said in an email.

The lawsuit was filed by the recently formed Puvunga Wetlands Protectors, a nonprofit created by local environmental advocates who are seeking to block the land swap to protect the existing wetlands and historic tribal lands.

While the suit names the Coastal Commission as the main plaintiff, other named parties include Beach Oil Minerals, the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, owners of a seasonal pumpkin patch and the city.

The suit alleged that the Coastal Commission abused its power in approving the project in part by not requiring that the potential adverse impacts of the project were fully mitigated. It asked the court to block the approval of the land swap because the commission “abused” its discretion.

“The commission failed to uphold the Coastal Act’s resource protection requirements, accepting a fatally flawed compromise under the guise of wetland restoration,” the suit said.

The Coastal Act is a 1976 law that requires the commission to maximize and maintain the public’s access to the coast, protect public recreation opportunities as well as protect and enhance marine and land resources.

The Coastal Commission approved the land swap in August 2018 and a permit for new oil wells to be drilled in a 6-3 vote in December of 2018. Some members of the commission characterized the deal as its best chance to rehab some of the state’s remaining wetlands.

The deal included the exchange of 150 acres of wetlands located northwest of the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Second Street, which is currently littered with old oil wells and oil production machinery, for a smaller parcel of land across Second Street that would be the future site of up to 120 new oil wells.

That site would be connected to a storage facility site off Studebaker Road by a 2,200-foot above-ground pipeline. The developer, Beach Oil Minerals LLC, agreed to phase out old oil production wells, remove all equipment and restore the 156 acres of wetlands over the course of 40 years.

The commission used an override to approve the project which was otherwise inconsistent with some elements of the  Coastal Act.

“The natural resources, namely wetlands, are afforded special protections in the Coastal Act,” said Livia Beaudin, an attorney for Puvunga Protectors. “There would be no need to provide an override for developments that protect or enhance those resources.”

While the city and state officials championed the plan as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take back 150 acres of wetlands into public control, environmental groups objected to the deal because of its potential harm to the environment.

The suit claims that oil production would rise by 8,000% under the deal and there’s a possibility that the pipeline connecting the two new production sites, which crosses an earthquake fault line, could lead to an ecological disaster by releasing millions of gallons of oil into the area in a worst-case scenario.

There is also the potential for the wetlands to be submerged by future rising sea levels while the new oil production sites would remain above the rising tides. That was something that opponents seized on, claiming that the deal was merely allowing an oil producer to move to higher ground.

Editors note: The story has been corrected to show that the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority was named as a party to the lawsuit, not the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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