Victory for North Bay oyster farm

December 12, 2007 8:55:54 PM PST
The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday unanimously agreed to allow an oyster farm in the North Bay to continue to operate. That farm works the environmentally sensitive waters of Drake's Estero at the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. It's a key breeding ground for harbor seals. Today's decision is a victory for the owner of the oyster farm who believes the park service is unfairly trying to shut him down.

With today's unanimous vote, the California Coastal Commission paved the way for the Drake's Bay Oyster Company and owner Kevin Lunny to move forward on much needed repairs at the oyster farm he took over in 2005.

"We really feel like this is a process that worked," says Lunny.

The commission's approval provides further support that the oyster farm is not causing serious environmental damage to the estero. The National Park Service has claimed it is.

In yesterday's report we told you about new allegations by Lunny. He claims a park scientist falsified data in order to make the farm look bad.

In a document, park scientist Sarah Allen says she witnessed a "white boat" with "two people" onboard disturbing harbor seals. Lunny produced time cards proving his workers were off at the time of that report. On top of that, Lunny's "white boat" was being repaired at the time.

In fact, the park service's own report on the estero has been pulled from its Web site. It is currently under scientific review. The inspector general's office has launched an investigation into accusations that the park service deliberately misled the public.

That was a concern for some of the people who attended today's hearing.

"As the California Coastal Commission does its work and moves forward in this, we need to understand that the science that the National Park Service has advanced has been called into question as fraudulent," says Michael Greenberg with the Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture.

Allen and park superintendent, Don Neubacher, were at today's commission meeting. They declined to comment on our report or on today's developments.

The move by the Coastal Commission today paves the way for the oyster farm to operate until its lease expires in 2012. That is, if Lunny obtains appropriate permits and doesn't negatively impact the area's wildlife.

Some environmental groups at today's meeting would like to see the area returned to wilderness when Lunny's lease expires.

"We think this will allow Drake's Bay Oyster to operate profitably, but protect the resources also, and that's our primary concern," says Gordon Bennett with the Sierra Club.

"This is a critical step to operating legally and properly in the next four or five years until 2012," says Neal Desani with the National Parks Conservation Association.

Senator Dianne Feinstein is watching these developments closely. She called the Coastal Commission's decision today an important step for the oyster farm.

As for allegations of scientific misconduct, she says, "if the park service did in fact manipulate data, this is a serious matter which should result in disciplinary action."

We will keep you informed of any new developments in this story.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel (ken.miguel@abc.com)

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