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SFO Offers 15:1 Wetlands Swap for New Runway

San Francisco Airport officials have proposed an airport runway expansion that has a novel tradeoff for environmentalists. In exchange for filling up to 1,400 acres of San Francisco Bay for new runways, the airport proposes to restore 29,000 acres of bay wetlands that are located east and south of the airport. The proposal, which is to be formally presented at the end of January, is already proving controversial in the environmental community, and is strongly opposed by Cargill Salt, whose land could be taken by eminent domain to restore bay wetlands. A landfill of such magnitude has not occurred in the bay in 30 years. There is little dispute that the airport's runways need improvement. The runways are close together, and in poor weather the number of landings are limited due to concerns about visibility. Flight delays are common. The airport proposes expanding its four runways at a cost of between $1.3 and $1.5 billion. The longer runways are supposed to reduce noise for local residents, as well as to accommodate larger jets. The matter is still far from settled. "We're not opposed to the airport's project, but we have no intention of going out of business or being sacrificed so the airport project can proceed," said Jill Singleton, Cargill's Public Affairs Manager. Singleton said that 12,000 of the 29,000 acres at issue are part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, and that the company has perpetual operating rights on refuge properties. Craig Breon, an official with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, has participated in meetings of local stakeholders that the airport has held over the proposal. Breon said that in June 1998, the airport told a group of local leaders that it was planning to expand only 300 to 400 acres into the bay. Now it's up to 1,400 acres. "That's difficult to take," he said. Breon said the airport should study how the landfill will impact water circulation and water quality. San Jose's water treatment plant is already undergoing a $100 million upgrade because its outflow is affecting wildlife in bay wetlands. Breon said the Audubon Society had not taken a position, but said, "I'm enthusiastic about the possibilities." Restoring Cargill's salt ponds to wetlands, he said, could increase wildlife and water quality for the region. Some endangered species might be delisted with the new acreage, he said. He suggested that Cargill may eventually decide to leave the region anyway because it may be more economical to make salt elsewhere. Other groups, such as Save San Francisco Bay, have taken a more hard-line approach in opposition to the proposal. The proposal has also been criticized by Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, a state agency that limits new bay fill activities. Travis said that BCDC had threatened legal action several years ago when SFO proposed a $2.4 billion terminal expansion project. That expansion is currently underway. "BCDC objected, contending that spending billions to expand SFO's ground capacity would irrevitably increase pressure to fill the bay for more runways," Travis wrote in a recent op-ed piece in Engineering News Record. "BCDC stopped its legal opposition only after the then-director of the airport stated, 'Current runway configurations will adequately handle projected airplane operations well into the next century.'" But now, said Dan Seaver, a community affairs specialist for SFO,"It would appear that we will not have adequate capacity in 2010." Seaver said it takes between six and 11 years to build a new runway. As an alternative, Travis suggested running ferries from SFO to Oakland's Airport as a way to make better use of the underused Oakland facility. He noted that the two airports are nine miles apart by water. "Running high speed ferries between the two could allow flights that cannot land at SFO in bad weather to be diverted to Oakland and allow passengers on domestic flights landing in Oakland to make connections on international flights to SFO," he wrote. Any expansion of Oakland's airport would impact wetlands, said Breon. And San Jose International Airport is currently undergoing expansion, he said, but that is only to meet its own future growth needs. Travis suggested also looking at the possibility of joint civilian and military use of Travis Air Force Base in Solano County. Contacts: Dan Seaver, Community Affairs Specialist, SFO, (650) 794-5031. Craig Breon, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, (408) 252-3748. Jill Singleton, Public Affairs Manager, Cargill Salt, (510) 797-1820. Will Travis, Executive Director, S.F. Bay Conservation and Development Commission, (415) 557-8775.