Turning Water into Whine

Photo by James BunoanThe Poseidon Seawater Desalination Project proposes to build the nation's largest desalination plant right smack in the middle of Orange County's most famously polluted beach. But it came to a screeching halt Nov. 10 when the Huntington Beach City Council—acting at the request of the project's developers—voted to delay a vote on the desalination plant until Dec. 15.

At the council meeting, Mayor Connie Boardman said she was concerned about the fact that several state agencies, including the California Energy Commission and the California Coastal Commission, weren't satisfied with the environmental-impact report (EIR). City staff also told the council they had just received numerous letters from those agencies opposing the Huntington Beach Planning Commission's reccomendation that the council approve the EIR, as well as 39 letters from private parties opposing the project.

"We're asking the council for a continuance because it appears that some council members haven't been able to absorb all the details," Billy Owens, vice president of Poseidon Resources, said at the council hearing. "We don't want to catch the council fatigued or tired because of the ample public comment earlier."

That request essentially prevented the council from rejecting an EIR on the desalination plant that was stunningly short on science. Cynical at best and mendacious at worst, the EIR essentially argued the desalination plant would have no "significant" adverse affects on the environment because Huntington Beach's water is already so unhealthy.

When it was first made public nearly two years ago, the Poseidon project enjoyed widespread support among local environmentalists. Using cheap power and a reliable supply of heated water from the AES power plant next door, the desalination plant would create 50 million gallons of potable water each day and dump another 50 million gallons of concentrated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean. It seemed no less than a miracle cure to Southern California's chronic water shortage.

But when it came down to the details, even the city's planning commission—Poseidon's main ally in building the plant—could only weakly endorse the plant. A May 27 planning-commission staff report includes just four benefits to the city: additional property-tax revenue; an improvement of the "aesthetics of the site" through destruction of three fuel-storage tanks and installation of a new wall and landscaping; the addition of a new traffic lane on a nearby street; and cleanup of existing hazardous chemicals at the site.

On the downside, the EIR acknowledged that even more toxic chemicals, which would be used to clean the desalination plant's filters, would have to be stored at the site if the Poseidon project went forward. 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.

But toxic chemicals were just one of the seemingly countless concerns that appear to be leading to the Poseidon project's rapid downfall. Another was the highly concentrated brine the plant would discharge into the ocean. The EIR argued that the brine wouldn't harm marine life because fish "are mobile and can leave the area under these adverse conditions." But the California Department of Fish and Game wasn't convinced. On Nov. 4, 2002, the agency wrote a letter to the Huntington Beach planning commission saying the EIR "does not provide sufficient biological information for the department to adequately assess the biological impacts of the project."

That same day, the California Coastal Commission and the California Department of Parks and Recreation also criticized the EIR for failing to answer bacteria-related concerns. Both cite the desalination plant's water source—the foul waters off Huntington Beach—as the problem.

"The desalination plant takes water from the AES discharge pipe, concentrates it and discharges it," says environmental activist Jan Vandersloot. "If you have the AES plant putting out shit, and the Poseidon plant is next to it, it's still putting out shit. My contention is that the Poseidon plant will concentrate the shit, so it makes it worse."

The state Department of Parks and Recreation, employing less colorful language, said "any change in the quantity and quality of water transported through the AES outfall should be closely monitored for changes in bacteria levels." For its part, the Orange County Sanitation District warned that "mitigation measures must be implemented to . . . prevent any additional loading of bacteria onto Huntington State Beach."

In response to those letters, Huntington Beach's planning commission simply stated that the plant would have to obtain the same water-dumping permit the AES plant already has. Staffers pointed out that, while there was concern about ocean pollution in the "vicinity" of the project, the Poseidon plant was "not anticipated" to increase ocean water pollution. A final checklist of environmental-mitigation measures attached to the EIR makes no reference to any efforts to either monitor or reduce the levels of bacteria being dumped into the ocean.

One of the biggest concerns about the Poseidon project was the AES plant itself. "The AES plant is a dinosaur," said Vandersloot. "It's old technology. The AES plant would have been prolonged by the Poseidon project and would have prolonged the beach-pollution problems along Magnolia. There were nothing but bad things in this project for Huntington Beach."

Of course, the Poseidon project was never about helping Huntington Beach. The plant would have been owned and operated by Poseidon Resources Inc., a Connecticut company whose sole interest was selling water to thirsty South County cities. The EIR never identified Poseidon's potential customers, but the liklihood that the project's water would be used to support new home construction led the Huntington Beach Planning Department to declare that the Poseidon plant would have a significant impact by "directly or indirectly inducing population growth." (Poseidon's website boasts that the Santa Margarita Water District has already agreed to purchase half the plant's water—25 million gallons per day.)

"The Huntington Beach project's EIR provides the best example in the state of how not to go forward with desalination," said Marco Gonzales, an environmental attorney who represents the Surfrider Foundation. "They moved too quickly, they didn't consider the environmental impacts, and they didn't identify the end users of the water. The project would facilitate new development, and that's one of the criteria that makes desalination really unattractive in Southern California."

"In the EIR, they are supposed to analyze the impact of the project—specifically who the water is for—but they didn't want to do that because it will be a bone of contention," said Huntington Beach councilwoman Debbie Cook. "As far as I know, this project has no benefit for the city whatsoever."


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