$1.37 million cleanup of toxic pilings in the bay could help herring habitat

Birds sit atop wooden pilings that used to belong to marinas at the old El Campo resort site on San Francisco Bay, about half a mile northwest of Paradise Beach Park in unincorporated Tiburon. Coated in a toxic preservative, they’re slated for removal, but the landowner says they provide a bird sanctuary. (Elliot Karlan / For The Ark)

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the April 6, 2016, edition of The Ark. It earned second place for Environmental Reporting in the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s 2016 Better Newspapers Contest.


Conservationists want to remove hundreds of creosote-soaked pilings from the waters around Tiburon’s historic El Campo marina site, saying they are toxic to fish, but the project has run afoul of property owners who say at least some of the pilings should stay.

The California State Coastal Conservancy has secured a $1.37 million grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that it will pass on to Ducks Unlimited for the removal of the pilings at two sites in San Francisco Bay, with the goal of improving and creating spawning habitat for Pacific herring and other species.

In unincorporated Tiburon, the project would remove 250 pilings that poke above the water line and at least 65 more detected on the bay floor at the old El Campo pleasure grounds, about half a mile northwest of Paradise Beach Park. The other site is at the former Red Rocks Warehouse in Richmond, along San Pablo Bay.

Conservationists say the wood pilings present a navigational hazard and that the creosote — a distillate of coal tar that was used as a wood preservative in marine environments — leaches toxins into the water.

“There has long been a concern that chemicals leaching from creosote-treated structures harm Pacific herring, which constitute the last commercial fishery of a native species within San Francisco Bay,” conservancy staff wrote in a March 24 report.

But Norman Traeger, whose 23-acre land-and-water site is one of two privately owned properties on which the pilings are located, has his own concerns about removing them. He says they provide a resting spot for pelicans, gulls and other bay bird species.

And he and his wife, Carol, just like the look of them.

“Part of the issue is aesthetic,” Traeger says. “They’re part of the historic landscape of the property.”

Most of the pilings are the remnants of a planned marina built in the 1960s but quickly abandoned, said Belvedere-Tiburon Landmarks Society archivist and Tiburon Town Historian Dave Gotz. Very little remains of the original El Campo landing built in 1890, where the ferryboat Ukiah from San Francisco would dock filled with picnickers and day trippers coming for a day out, Gotz said.

The resort, developed by the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad, featured picnic tables, row boats and even a dance pavilion and bowling alley.

The site’s name was changed to Paradise Park in 1917 — not to be confused with the current Paradise Beach Park to the southeast. In the 1960s it was developed as a marina but later abandoned after a severe storm.

There are more than 33,000 submerged and partially submerged creosote-coated pilings scattered throughout San Francisco Bay, the remnants of docks, piers and marinas, according to the San Francisco Bay Substrate Habitat Goal Report, published by the Coastal Conservancy and other groups. More than 500 are in Marin.

The first piles were put in the bay in 1849, and they were in widespread use by the 1920s before use of creosote-treated marine structures was banned in 1993 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, according to the San Francisco Estuary Institute.

Herring like to use hard structures underwater to lay their eggs, but studies have shown decreased hatching of eggs on creosote-soaked wood, and that toxic effects persist on herrings eggs even from 40-year-old pilings.

A paper published by University of California at Davis researchers in 2000 found that embryos collected from creosote pilings in San Francisco Bay had a 72 percent decrease in hatching success compared with embryos collected from other parts of the bay and exhibited “severely deformed larvae.”

The Coastal Conservancy’s project would remove more than 650 pilings between the Tiburon and Richmond sites, encourage the regrowth of eel grass and Olympia oyster beds and install nontoxic “fabricated reef structures” underwater where herring could lay their eggs.

Traeger remains unconvinced, however, that the pilings are still toxic after a hundred years of leaching into San Francisco Bay, and he points out that the pilings offer a resting spot for the many birds that come to feed on the herring in the area.

“The pilings create a protected area because the boats can’t get in and out,” Traeger says. “It’s kind of a marine sanctuary.”

He says he would like to see some of the pilings left behind, and that negotiations are still underway with Coastal Conservancy project manager Marilyn Latta, as well as officials at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Latta, who is on sick leave, could not be reached for comment at press time.

“We are very concerned about being good conservators,” Traeger says. “We want to be good stewards of the land.”

Kerry Wilcox, Waterbird Program Manager at the Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary, agreed that the pilings provide valuable roosting locations to local sea birds.

“It provides some remedy to the roosting sites that have been lost due to shoreline development,” he says.

There has been some talk, he says, of trying to mitigate the loss of bird perches, perhaps by replacing the pilings with non-toxic structures or wrapping them.

Contributing writer Gretchen Lang of Belvedere covers the environment. She spent 15 years abroad writing for newspapers including the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune.

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