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Malibu Lagoon Cleanup Turns Messy

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(credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

(credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

MALIBU (AP) — It seemed like a green dream: clean water groups, scientists, state agencies and surfers were communing with each other to restore a stagnant seaside lagoon.

But environmental issues in Malibu, one of California’s most scenic stretches of coastline, are never simple and this one has become especially murky. In a town where ecological activism thrives, green comes in many stripes. Residents have fought to keep leaky septic tanks to prevent more development. And one of the latest dust-ups is a proposal by U2 guitarist the Edge to build what he claims are environmentally friendly mansions that some say are not so green.

Seven months since the Coastal Commission approved the multimillion-dollar plan one-time participants have become enemies and squared off in a battle that is unusual in a conservationist culture where disagreements are rarely aired publicly.

Lawsuits have been filed. Accusations of people selling out are flying. Each camp is arguing over who has better experts. One of the nonprofits even alerted police that protesters were mobilizing on Facebook to disrupt their annual fundraising dinner this week.

On Friday, a judge issued a preliminary injunction to halt the project, but that is unlikely to settle the matter or quell criticisms lobbed between conservationists.

“Everybody supports this, it’s just these fringe groups,” said Mark Abramson of Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, who has spent a decade working on the project. “They followed this unbelievable process of public participation and got the best of the best to work on it.”

The site in question is a 13-acre lagoon located where Malibu Creek meets the Pacific Ocean at famed Surfrider Beach. Streams tumble down through canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains, past an upscale strip mall and across a coastal highway where they eventually make their way into the lagoon.

Now part of a state park, the wetlands were used as a dump by the state Transportation Department until the 1970s when it was converted into baseball fields.

An effort to restore the wetlands in 1983 dredged out a lagoon and created three channels but also created stagnant water. With little oxygen in the water for fish, green scum and dead zones thrived in the channels, say scientists.

On a recent day after some rains, the pungent odor of guano mixed with the scent of the surrounding California sage brush. Ducklings swam upstream through the low waters. White egrets stood in the lagoon as brown pelicans roosted on a sandbar.

The restoration plan calls for herding all the fish and other animals from the three channels into the main lagoon and creating berms to keep them there temporarily during wetlands work. The three channels will be reconfigured into a single wider channel that scientists say will allow for better water flow and encourage a larger variety of birds and marine life.

A bridged path to Surfrider Beach would be removed to make room for the new wider channel. A second entrance to the beach would be widened and picnic tables and bird watching areas would be added.

Work was scheduled to start next month and finish by October, but is now likely to be delayed by a year until a court makes a final decision on the proposal. A hearing is scheduled in October.

The project, which has been supported by the Santa Monica Baykeeper, Surfrider and Sierra Club chapters, is estimated to cost as much as $6.5 million, bond money that is coming from the Wildlife Conservation Board and Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission..

Opponents, including the Wetlands Defense Fund, Access for All and Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network, filed suit in San Francisco last year to stop the project because they said it would violate the California Coastal Act by damaging sensitive habitat and demolishing a public access point. The lawsuit also contends that proponents did not consider an alternative plan by a scientist named in the suit.

Marcia Hanscom, who heads two organizations opposing the project, said bond money is “overtaking rational thought” and blinding restoration supporters. She also said proponents don’t understand wetlands.

“The people who are related to this project have a marine biology bias and I don’t believe they understand the habitat on the land,” said Hanscom, who has a degree in communications. She said she lives with a biologist, so she “gets a lot of it by osmosis.”

Steve Hoye, with Access for All, is particularly upset about the loss of one of the original entrances to the beach and said input by those who oppose the restoration plan have been ignored.

“There’s no corruption here, we just don’t agree with their program,” he said. “They’ve really refused us entry into the process. Nobody takes any notice of what we have to say, they just blithely go forward and we don’t like it. If you’re not in the clique you don’t get listened to.”

Some in the restoration camp say opposition arose after they refused to hire Hanscom’s boyfriend, Robert “Roy” Van de Hoek, on the project’s scientific team, saying he was unqualified and too much of an advocate to be unbiased.

“They were on the original lagoon task force that signed off on this project in the first place,” said Suzanne Goode, senior environmental scientist for the project’s lead agency, California State Parks. “Roy did have a very emotional outburst at one of the meetings so from that moment forward I felt there was going to be a lawsuit.”

Hanscom and Van de Hoek, who worked for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service has a degree in biology and geography, denied supporting the project or angling to be on the scientific team.

“It’s not true, it’s a false statement. I’ve never tried to be on the science advisory committee of Malibu Lagoon,” he said. “I think we have been ignored.”

Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, which prepared the current restoration plan in collaboration with two state agencies, said he doesn’t understand why the accusations have become so personal.

“We now have people lying about us, questioning our technical credentials, saying we’re accepting bribes,” said Gold who has degrees in biology, terrestrial ecology and a doctorate in environmental science and engineering. “It’s the lowest kind of opposition.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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