VA Cloaks Point’s Future in Secrecy

City of Alameda This map depicts the wetlands at issue near the blue arrow. Other projects planned by the VA appear in the top left of the image.

 

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Alameda Point healthcare facility and columbarium will eliminate about 12 acres of existing wetlands on the runways at Alameda Point. The federal Clean Water Act requires that the VA compensate the city for the adverse effects that this loss will have on its project. 

The VA has chosen to cloak its proceedings in secrecy. In October 2016, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information related to these wetlands. In February, the VA provided a copy of a consultant’s study — with more than half the study either blacked out or stamped “Page withheld in its entirety.” 

In January 2016, the VA quietly sought to buy its way out of doing the required wetland mitigation at Alameda Point with “credits” in the San Francisco Bay Wetland Mitigation Bank. 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 — wrote letters of protest. These 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 study the feasibility of performing wetland mitigation at Alameda Point. The study is dated Aug. 8, 2016. 

The VA’s Northern California FOIA officer justified the censorship of the wetland study. He said that the material is part of the “deliberative process,” and its uncensored release would cause “public confusion.” The federal government created this type of exemption to allow staff to engage in candid dialogue without feeling they are operating in a fish bowl. However, federal agencies widely abuse this exemption, which open government advocates call the “withhold it because you want to” exemption.  

A 2014 Associated Press report found that the use of the exemption was at an all-time high in 2013, despite attempts by President Barack Obama to curtail its abuse. Obama signed a few reforms to FOIA into law in mid-2016. However, government agencies can still withhold documents they consider part of a “deliberative process” for 25 years, if they are not included as part of a final decision. 

If the VA decides to buy wetland credits rather than replacing wetlands at Alameda Point, the wetland feasibility study could remain censored for 25 years.

In the documents they finally shared with me, the VA redacted most of the table of contents and more than 300 lines of text. They withheld 14 of 57 pages 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.” They heavily censored facts about the existing conditions of the salt marsh, ponds, seawall, soils, salinity readings, site topography as well as existing drainage, tidal flows and flood risk from FEMA maps. 

The study’s authors offer a glowing assessment of the potential for improving wetlands 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 describing the benefits are also redacted, as are 28 lines of conceptual planning criteria.

Under the category of “Additional Mitigation Opportunities,” they redacted 22 lines out of 29. 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 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, 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 there.

According to the VA’s FOIA officer, a wetland mitigation plan will be approved by August. Whether the plan will improve wetlands at Alameda Point or improve wetlands 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.

 

Richard Bangert posts stories and photos about Alameda Point at alamedapointenviro.com.