Residents Fight Poseidon Project: Looking Back to 2006

Note: This story was first published in the print newspaper, Orange Coast Voice, in December, 2006. The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board is scheduled to vote on the Poseidon project on July 31, 2020. This and other previously stories are being recirculated between now and July 31 for concerned readers who seek background on the project and wish to contact the Regional Board with their concerns at RB8-PoseidonHB.comments@waterboards.ca.gov . Please share this article on social media; and, please donate to the Surf City Voice to help support our efforts to inform you.

By John Earl
Surf City Voice (previously Orange Coast Voice)

AES power generating plant at corned of Newland and PCH in Huntington Beach. Photo: Surf City Voice

Concerned local residents and environmental protection groups are suing to force the City of Huntington Beach to withdraw certification of a desalination plant and restart the approval process in compliance with all applicable environmental protection laws.

Designed to be one of the largest of its kind ever built in the Western Hemisphere, the proposed desalination plant–which would convert 100 million gallons of seawater into 50 million gallons of drinking water per day–would sit on 11 acres of land adjacent to the AES power plant in SE Huntington Beach on the corner of Newland Ave. and Pacific Coast Hwy.

The project woudl be developed by Poseiodn Resources Inc., a multi-national private corporation that is a “leading developer of water and wasterwater public-private partnerships in North America” and the largest owner of private water facilities in Mexico, according to its parent company, Warburg Pincus, a massive investment firm with holdings in over 120 companies around the world, in a variety of industries, including healthcare, media, technology, and energy.

The project was approved last February after several years of contentious debate.

Poseidon and the HB City Council majority (Hansen, Bohr, Coerper, and Green) along with support from local construction unions, depicted the project as an environmentally friendly and risk free financial windfall for the city that would aide in shoring up local infrastructure and guarantee water in times of local shortage or statewide emergency.

Project opponents pointed out that Poseidon had yet to construct a successful desalination plant and that its Tampa Bay plant was shut down for lengthy repairs after suffering serious technical failures, multiple bankruptcies, and huge cost overruns at taxpayers’ expense.

The Tampa Bay plant has been inoperable since 2003.

Predictably, in the ongoing debate over private vs. public ownership of water resources, Poseidon supporters blamed local government for its Tampa Bay failure. They claim that Poseidon will be taking all of the financial risks for its proposed Huntington Beach project.

But Residents for Responsible Desalination (R4RD), a local opposition group born in SE Huntington Beach next to the proposed plant location, brought up a myriad of concerns that it says were ignored or inadequately considered in Poseidon’s Environmental Impact Report.

Some of those issues provide the basis for the current lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and Orange County Surfriders Founation in Superior Court against Poseidon, the City of Huntington Beach, and the AES power plant whose Once Through Cooling (OTC) process intake system would supply Poseidon’s seawater.

The lawsuite focuses on seven alleged deficiencies in the EIR approval and permitting process:

  • Failure to consider the impacts of the desalination project independent of the AES power plant;
  • The City acted illegally by failing to deny the project despite feasible alternatives;
  • There is no need for the desalination plant;
  • The EIR did not sufficiently discuss potential growth inducing impacts;
  • The City allowed for project impacts to be studied and mitigated after project approval, not before;
  • The City failed to publicly recirculate the EIR after significant new information became available about the project’s effect on marine life;
  • The City’s findings for the project are not supported by the evidence of record.

In response, the City’s legal brief says that relevant environmental issues received a “comprehensive” five-year review and that in approving the project it made a “fully informed decision supported by substantial evidence and in a manner required by law.”

Joe Geever, Surfrider’s regional representative, told the OC Voice that one of the city’s biggest mistakes was that it “didn’t inform the public how that plant would operate in the absence of a once through cooling system” in the likely event that AES is forced to change to a system that is less damaging to marine life.

AES power generating plant at corned of Newland and PCH in Huntington Beach. Photo: Surf City Voice

The AES generator is cooled by seawater sucked into the plant through seafloor intake pipes and then dumped back into the ocean with concentrated brine extracted by reverse osmosis. Every form of sea life passing through the intake system is killed–a total of hundreds of millions of organisms each year, a fact that the lawsuit also claims was inadequately reviewed by the city.

The failure to consider the desalination plant separately from the OTC system implicated a variety of potential impacts, Geever said, “including energy consumption, quality of the discharge water, [and] cumulative impacts.”

The lawsuit claims says new and stricter federal and state marine-life protection regulations will require AES to cut marine mortality by 90 percent or more, thus eliminating its OTC system by 2008.

Plaintiffs say that Poseidon would continue to rely on the OTC system after AES abandons it, but with less seawater intake that would result in a higher and deadlier concentration of extracted brine dumped back into the sea, killing local marine life–a possibility not considered by the EIR.

Joe Geever

“You don’t have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that once-through-cooling will go away,” Geever says. “All you have to do is show it’s reasonably foreseeable that once-through-cooling will not be available, and that’s what we’re saying.”

But the city says there are a “multitude of compliance measures” that AES could use to conform to environmental law while continuing to use its antiquated system, including the loophole option of using the best technology available for reducing damage to the environmental at a specific site, relative to the cost of compliance.

Geever says that Surfrider is challenging the cost loophole in federal court and that the other mitigation measures referred to relay on wetlands restoration projects as an alternative to reducing the number of marine animals killed during intake. Opponents reject that trade-off, but it will probably be prohibited by law soon anyway, Geever says.

In fact, the city responds, nothing in current environmental law indicates that AES will have to cease using once-through-cooling or reduce the volume of its seawater intake. “Consequently, a project independent of the HBGS [AES] is not ‘reasonably foreseeable.”

In any case, the city says, whether AES continues to use once -through-cooling is irrelevant because Poseidon would have the option to purchase that system for its own use, which would start a hole new permit and environmental review process.

“That’s after the fact,” says Geever. “We think that they need to tell us what the impact of them [Poseidon] using those pipes and pumps would be before they get their permits to build the plant.”

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