Coastal Commission denies enviros’ request to yank desalination plant permit

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By Rebecca Bowe

A coalition of environmental organizations argued yesterday that a permit issued to Poseidon Resources to build a massive desalination plant near San Diego should be revoked, because the company failed to provide complete information to California Coastal Commission staff.

At a CCC meeting held in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Chambers in City Hall yesterday, commissioners listened as advocates from the Surfrider Foundation, San Diego Coastkeeper, and the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, who filed the request for permit revocation, argued that Poseidon purposely tried to mislead CCC staff by submitting incomplete and inaccurate information about technical aspects of its desalination facility.

The CCC granted Poseidon its permit in November of 2007. The 50 million gallon-per- day facility, which is under construction, has drawn sharp criticism statewide from labor and environment groups who argue that the expensive, highly energy intensive plant would contribute to higher greenhouse gas emissions and do nothing to encourage water-conservation efforts. Concerns have also been raised about the harm it could do to the marine ecosystem and the high price tag for tap water cycled first through a power-plant cooling system, and then through the desalination process.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports the construction of the facility as a reliable water source for arid Southern California, and his representatives were in attendance at yesterday’s meeting. Last month, the Metropolitan Water District agreed to subsidize costs for the privately owned and operated plant, and Poseidon will go before the state’s Debt Limit Allocation Committee (which consists of Schwarzenegger, the state controller, and the state treasurer) to request tax-exempt bond status in mid-January.

San Francisco Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who sits on the Coastal Commission, argued in favor of pulling the permit, saying it represented “a proper juncture for us to revisit the issue” and warned that the highly controversial project might be “rife with procedural and structural errors.”

Mirkarimi had an ally in Commissioner Sara Wan, who said that in 20 years, she’d only seen two permit revocations -- but noted that this was the clearest example of a company intentionally trying to mislead regulators that she’d ever witnessed. Focusing on a diagram of the facility’s intake system that Poseidon failed to submit, Wan said she believed the commission staff had been “deliberately misinformed.” The omission was particularly troublesome, she said, because it allowed them to escape scrutiny over whether they could meet an Environmental Protection Agency requirement.

“There’s no way they could have not understood what EPA requirements are,” she argued. “Frankly, it’s very unusual to have a smoking gun, but there certainly is one here.”

However, a majority of commissioners were inclined to agree with CCC staff, which recommended denying the request because “no grounds exist for revocation,” according to a staff report. The staff essentially argued that despite the omission, it was rooted in a misunderstanding, and Poseidon hadn’t intentionally tried to mislead the CCC.

The grounds for revoking a permit after it’s been issued are extremely narrow, and it’s up to the parties who request a revocation hearing to prove that it is warranted. According to a note in the CCC staff report:

Because of the impact on a permittee, the grounds for revocation are necessarily narrow. The rules of revocation do not allow the Commission to have second thoughts on a previously-issued permit based on information that comes into existence after the granting of a permit, no matter how compelling that information might be.... The grounds for revocation are confined to information in existence at the time of the Commission’s action.

The commission voted 9 to 3 to deny the environmental groups’ request, thus keeping the permit intact. But just after the vote, CCC Executive Director Peter Douglas noted that another request for revocation had been submitted on different technical grounds, and CCC staff was reviewing it. “Frankly, we have not yet decided at our level whether we are going to recommend a revocation of the permit,” he said.

Speaking later by phone, Sup. Mirkarimi told the Guardian that he thought Douglas' "epilogue" validated the concerns that he had raised. “Half the people who voted against the revocation were probably regretting it,” he said. The project as a whole needs serious reexamination, he said, and added that with other desalination proposals coming down the pipe, “this sets a really bad trend.”

Comments

Every environmentalist I've heard on desalination is opposed. - There is a good article on the subject from Scientific American which clearly shows why it is so bad, at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-impacts-of-relying-...

Posted by Eric Brooks on Dec. 11, 2009 @ 8:03 pm

Rebecca - I know SFBG is not a credible news entity, but please have some journalistic integrity and please do your homework. Two environmental groups do not constitute a "coalition." The Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation is a phony group created by Marco Gonzalez, a San Diego litigator who formerly represented the Surfrider Foundation but was recently fired after he told Surfrider they had no chance of prevailing in their litigation and he was only hoping to delay the project.

You are misleading your readers, even if they dont want to know the truth. In fact, there is no opposition statewide from "labor groups". The San Diego County building trades support the project because it will create thousands of jobs.

Posted by kelli on Dec. 11, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

Hi Kelli. If you do not believe SFBG is a credible news entity, then why are you on our Web site? Here's an excerpt from my earlier reporting on this issue which names the labor union referenced above.

"Aside from doing nothing about conservation and continuing to require huge amounts of energy for transmission, these plants also have no real community benefit, minimal job creation, and, most importantly, a questionable success and effectiveness," members of Service Employees International Union Local 721 wrote in a letter to the Metropolitan Water District.

The article also names other environment groups involved, and there are many who've expressed reservations about Carlsbad (to learn who they are, refer to this list from the "Coalition Against Proposed Carlsbad Desalination Facility"): http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:5LW56339qYgJ:www.desalresponse...

Posted by Rebecca Bowe on Dec. 13, 2009 @ 8:19 am