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.”

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