Plan to Improve Navigation for Channel in San Francisco Bay Withdrawn

dredging project canceled by US Army Corps of Engineers
San Francisco Bay area (file photo)

Published Dec 1, 2020 4:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it was terminating an ongoing study designed to improve navigation in a stretch of San Francisco Bay. The Corps cited funding concerns in its decision to withdraw the current efforts to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), while environmental groups hailed it as a win for their causes.

The proposal focused on improvements to a portion of the shipping channel used by oil tankers to reach the inland refineries. Advocates cited the challenges of access to the refineries saying that vessels are either forced to wait for high tides or the shippers need to use smaller vessels to reach the refineries. The proposed dredging of the channel they said would lower the number of vessels operating in the bay as well as reduce shipping costs contributing to lower fuel costs for the consumer.

A coalition of environmental and community groups had consistently opposed the plan. They cited concerns about stirring up toxins in the bay by dredging, which they said would contaminate tap water, as well as the dangers of having larger oil tankers operating in the bay. They said larger vessels sailing at higher speeds would endanger the area’s whales and other marine life while deepening the channel would also permit the expansion of the area's “toxic industries,” including not only the oil and gas business but also the export of coal.

The San Francisco Bay to Stockton, California Navigation Study proposed the dredging the channel from the central San Francisco Bay to a point just east of the Benicia-Martinez Bridge near Avon, California. It would have included the Pinole Shoal Channel, and the Bulls Head Reach portion of the Suisun Bay Channel. According to the Army Corps, the section of the channel under study is authorized for a depth up to 45 feet, but currently maintained to 35 feet mean lower low water. The recommended plan would have deepened the existing channel depth along the 13.2-mile stretch to 38 feet.

The Army Corps of Engineers had published an initial notice of intent for the project in 2016 and followed up at the end of 2017 with a notice to prepare the environmental study. The notice for the final report was published in the Federal Register on March 6, 2020.

The Port of Stockton, which had been serving as the non-federal partner for the study, notified the Corps in May that it would not be able to act as the cost-sharing sponsor for project design and implementation. After that, the Corps contacted the Contra Costa County, which also informed them that they were unable to act as a cost-sharing sponsor for project design and implementation.

Saying that it had determined that there is no other entity interested in supporting the project implementation, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to terminate the study and file the notification for the withdraw.

Several environmental groups that had been opposing the project over the past four years immediately hailed the outcome. The environmental group Baykeeper, which is focused on the San Francisco Bay issued a statement from its Executive Director Sejal Choksi-Chugh saying, "Today’s cancellation of the dredging boondoggle is a big win because it was nothing more than a hand-out to the fossil fuel industry that posed a significant risk to the health of our Bay and Bay Area communities.” They repeated their contentions that the project would have endangered tap water and that large vessels on the bay would have negatively impacted the environment and increased the risk of an environmental disaster.

“Good riddance to this boondoggle of a project, which would have wreaked havoc on wildlife and public health,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Using taxpayer money to dig a 13-mile ditch through San Francisco Bay to help oil companies refine more tar sands oil was a terrible idea.”

The oil industry in the San Francisco Bay, like in many other parts of the world, was already undergoing an evolution. Some of the plants in the area have announced plans to refocus on renewable products, while most of the plants reduced operations due to the declines in demands resulting from travel restrictions and consumers staying closer to home during the pandemic.