A semi-toxic tour east of Martinez

1402875767821By Jon Carroll   SF Chronicle   August 6, 2014

On the road again, searching for places to touch the bay and, by extension, finding out about the shoreline. Strictly a two-person expedition, not at all a guided tour. I find what you’d find if you decided to find it.

We decided to turn right at the Martinez exit, heading east into … something. The map was silent about what that might be. No towns inhabited this stretch of shoreline.

Almost immediately we came to a sign: Waterbird Regional Preserve. Who knew? The road led away from the bay, up the knob of a hill. There was a parking area; there were interpretive signs. In the parking area, there were two cars besides ours. Both featured men sitting in the front seats using their cell phones.

Lonely divorced dads on a Sunday? Cheating husbands sexting their girlfriends? Drug dealers waiting for customers? We have seen such men before on our travels, always sitting in parking lots attached to scenic locations, just killing time or waiting for Godot.

So how did this park come to be, you ask. Funny story there. An informational signboard overlooking McNabney Marsh, as it turned out to be called – a lagoon-like body of water apparently teeming with birds at some other time of the year – explained it all.

In 1988, there was a big oil spill from the Shell Oil refinery just up the coast. Its huge tanks are clearly visible along the ridgeline opposite the marsh. McNabney Marsh was flooded. Gunk everywhere.

The company hastily formed a Natural Resource Fund. That entity rehabbed the marsh and the land around it – it had been home to both a chemical company and a copper factory – and gave it to the East Bay Regional Park District. So it’s one of those corporate guilt parks; there are others around the Bay Area.

We walked around a bit, explored the grove of eucalyptus and pepper trees (you don’t see a lot of pepper trees around here), and moved on down the highway. The land around us was flat, with a few low golden hills reaching down to the bay. But wait! What is that odd thing to the left?

It looked like a park. It had paths stretching deep into the wetlands. It had benches at vista points. It even had a useful informational sign, although it was much too far away to read it. There was also a locked gate and a “No Trespassing” sign.

And we saw two guys in there, walking their dogs. Locked gates? We laugh at locked gates. Or we squeeze through their sides.

We walked down to the bay. Unseasonably cold today. I imagined it would be more beautiful in the fall, when the Pacific Flyway disgorges a bunch of migratory birds every day. We got to the informational signboard. There was nothing on it.

We talked to the dog walkers. Their hunting dogs – I didn’t ask which breed – frolicked around, loving the open space. One dog had black wire netting around his face. “To protect him from foxtails,” the owner said. They get in a dog’s eyes, nose and mouth. Swallowing a foxtail can be an extremely unpleasant situation, particularly for the dog.

“What did this used to be?” I asked. He said it had originally been an auto junkyard, but the ground had become so toxic that it was forced out of business. The city of Martinez spent a lot of money to fix it up – hence the paths and benches – and tried to give it to the East Bay Regional Park District.

The park district didn’t want it. The city didn’t want to maintain it. So there it sits, on land of unknown toxicity, waiting for the benches to fall down. Toxic waste seems to be the theme of the day on this stretch of shoreline.

Onward we pressed. There were two dumps, both definitely not accepting toxic waste. There was also a stretch of bay fenced off with “Hazardous Waste” signs and barbed wire on top of the fences. The theme of the day continued. The sky, in sympathy with the day, darkened.

A stone quarry, another dump, a sign: “End of County Maintained Road.” We pressed on. The road narrowed and twisted around, looked as if it was going to come to a stop. Then, at the very end: the Martinez Gun Club. Suddenly there was a broad swatch of deep green grass and the distant sound of human conviviality.

Toward the bay was a line of stations. Men and women with shotguns stood and called “pull.” The little clay pigeons darted out, keeping low to the ground. There was the sharp crack of a firearm going off. Some pigeons disappeared in a flurry of shrapnel; others proceeded unimpeded.

We walked into the clubhouse. It was a welcoming, chatty place. We sat at the bar and had iced teas. I suspected that these folks and I would disagree politically about almost everything, but it sure was nice to see a smiling human face after all that toxicity.

In which we see the industrial towers and fewer birds than you might think.
Alice waited a little, half expecting to see it again, but it did not appear, and after a minute or two she walked on jcarroll@sfchronicle.com.

About Martinez Environmental Group

We are a community health and environmental group located in Martinez, CA.
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