The Poseidon Misadventure

Photo by James BunoanThe Huntington Beach City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on the Poseidon Seawater Desalination Project, a proposal to build the nation's largest desalination plant in the middle of Orange County's most famously polluted beach.

Using the ocean-water cooling system of the nearby AES power plant, the Poseidon facility would filter 100 million gallons of seawater to produce 50 million gallons of drinking water daily.

At first, the project looked like a slam dunk. Given Southern California's chronic water shortage, who could argue against a new source of drinking water? But amid growing concerns over the project's environmental effects—and the likelihood that its water would fuel construction of new homes in South County—it's become almost impossible to find anyone who supports the project. Anyone but Poseidon, that is.

Last week, Poseidon senior VP Billy Owens showed up at the Weekly's offices to pitch the project ahead of Monday's council vote. Following that meeting, we came up with 10 reasons the council should say no:

1. The water created by the Poseidon plant would cost more than twice as much as water from local reservoirs, the Colorado River Aqueduct and other sources. Poseidon executives say their water will cost roughly $800 per acre-foot. (An acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover one acre of land at a depth of one foot). The cost of water from other sources: $250 per acre-foot.

2. In a state already running on the brink of electricity blackouts, the Poseidon plant would require enough electricity each day to keep the lights on in 30,000 to 35,000 homes.

3. Poseidon claims the desalination plant would benefit the city because the company would tear down storage tanks left over from the city's oil-boom days, add a traffic lane to Magnolia Avenue, plant several trees around the project site, and clean up existing hazardous waste there. But the project's environmental impact report (EIR) makes it clear that Poseidon would store even more hazardous chemicals on the site. Those chemicals—some of which would be flushed into the Pacific Ocean during an emergency—include hypochlorite, ammonia, lime, ferric sulfate, polymer, sulfuric acid and sodium bisulfate.

4. The project's EIR says Poseidon has only one customer so far: the Santa Margarita Water District will purchase half of the plant's water—25 million gallons per day. The obvious winners in the Poseidon project, then, are South County homebuilders, who plan to throw up 14,000 homes in Rancho Mission Viejo alone.

5. Poseidon would be attached to Huntington Beach's AES power plant, an aging and inefficient facility that is already under attack for its impact on the environment. The California Energy Commission (CEC) estimates that AES's cooling system kills 100 percent of the marine life sucked from the ocean. Transforming a curse into a blessing, Poseidon cites that figure as evidence that its project couldn't possibly be worse than AES's system.

6. What AES taketh away, it also giveth: tiny marine organisms sucked into the cooling system are ground up and sent back into the ocean, where the resulting flotsam becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. A recent CEC study found that the ratio of bacteria to water in the AES plant's intake and discharge vaults is so high that measuring equipment can't calculate it. Over the last few years, officials have repeatedly closed the stretch of beach in front of the AES plant because of high bacteria levels. A state study on the AES plant found the plant contributes 16 percent of the bacteria that ends up on the beach itself.

7. Both the California Coastal Commission and the California Department of Parks and Recreation say the Poseidon plant would make that bad problem worse, conceivably doubling bacteria levels in offshore waters.

8. And who doesn't like a little salt with their bacteria? While the Poseidon plant would supposedly create 50 million gallons of potable water a day, it would also create 50 million gallons a day of discharge water that would be twice as salty as the original seawater. The effect of that brine on the local marine life could be disastrous. The project EIR argues that this brine wouldn't harm local marine life because fish "are mobile and can leave the area under adverse conditions." But the California Department of Fish and Game claims the EIR "does not provide sufficient biological information for the department to adequately assess the biological impacts of the project."

9. Huntington Beach would get bacteria and brine, but not water. Despite assurances by the company that Huntington Beach could buy the water if it wants to, Councilwoman Debbie Cook says the city doesn't need it. And no one is arguing that the city's annual take from the project—about $2 million in tax revenue—would come close to paying for its environmental costs.

10. Finally, there's no proof the Poseidon Seawater Desalination Plant will actually work. On Oct. 31, Poseidon's only other project, the Tampa Bay Seawater Desalination Project in Florida, went bankrupt just a year after opening. The reason: tiny mussels had clogged the screens of the plant's water intake system, forcing it to shut down so frequently that operators couldn't turn a profit. Poseidon says they had nothing to do with that plant's failures—that they were bought out of the project by their partner, who hired a contractor who insisted on cutting costs by using cheaper equipment. Perhaps. But until the moment the Tampa Bay plant went out of business, Poseidon was still hailing the project as the business model for its proposed project in Huntington Beach.


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