Alameda Point Environmental Report: VA wetland study censored, April 20, 2017


The planned U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Alameda Point healthcare facility and columbarium will eliminate about 12 acres of existing wetland on the former Navy aircraft runway area. The federal Clean Water Act requires that the VA compensate, or mitigate, for the adverse effects of their project. But the proceedings have been cloaked in secrecy.

In February 2017, five months after submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information related to wetlands, the VA provided a copy of a consultant’s study on the feasibility of expanding and enhancing a different wetland on VA property. But the document arrived with over half of the study either blacked out or stamped “Page withheld in its entirety.”

A year earlier, in January 2016, the VA quietly sought to buy its way out of doing the required mitigation at Alameda Point. It sought instead to purchase “credits” in the San Francisco Bay Wetland Mitigation Bank.

Letters of protest from 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, 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 conduct a study on the feasibility of performing the wetland mitigation at Alameda Point. The study is dated August 8, 2016.

The VA’s Northern California FOIA Officer claims that the censorship of the wetland study was justified because the material is part of the “deliberative process,” and its uncensored release would cause “public confusion.” This type of exemption in the FOIA law was created to allow subordinates and staff members to engage in candid dialogue without feeling they are operating in a fish bowl. But the exemption, referred to by open government advocates as the “Withhold it because you want to” exemption, is widely abused by federal agencies.