In the latest move of a longstanding dispute between environmentalists and ocean desalination proponents, several environmental organizations have appealed last month’s approval of a pollutant discharge permit for Poseidon Resources’ proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
In their appeal request last week, four environmental advocacy groups allege that the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board did not properly analyze whether the plant used “the best available site, design, technology, and mitigation measures feasible … to minimize the intake and mortality of all forms of marine life,” as required by state law.
“The Poseidon proposal, and the regional board’s approval of the facility, flies in the face of the state’s efforts to eliminate marine life mortality from industrial withdrawals of seawater,” Joe Geever, water programs manager for the Surfrider Foundation, asserted in a news release.
“We’re certain Poseidon’s plan does not comply with the law, and will not comply with the state’s pending guidelines on how to best locate and design seawater desalination facilities.”
Poseidon stated it was “unsurprised by the latest challenge.”
“The petitioners’ latest petition lacks merit and will undoubtedly be dismissed,” read an email from the company. “These same groups have filed 19 legal challenges in all. … As of today, all 19 challenges have been unsuccessful. We have every confidence that the 20th challenge that was filed today will follow suit.”
The Surfrider Foundation, Residents for Responsible Desalination, Orange County Coastkeeper and the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation assert that better technology, such as “pressurized spray brine,” can lower the plant’s impact on marine life but wasn’t considered by the regional board. They also declare that the board improperly allowed “after-the-fact restoration” to replace requirements for designing the best-available facility, in violation of state and federal law. The permit also undermines a recent state policy to reduce harmful effects of power-plant seawater intakes, they claim.
The groups are asking for the permit’s approval to be reversed and returned to the regional board for a re-evaluation based on the “best available site, design, technology, and mitigation measures feasible” regulation and the once-through cooling policy, which aims to significantly reduce the impact of power plant seawater intakes on the marine ecosystem.
If the state board opts to review the appeal, it has about nine months to issue its decision, said Lori Okun, assistant chief counsel to the board.
The regional board approved the pollutant discharge permit on Feb. 10. Voice of OC reported last week that environmental advocates and a good-government expert have raised concerns over a vote on the permit by one of the regional board members, Fred Ameri, who was an executive at the firm that conducted most of the environmental review work on the project.
The Huntington Beach facility, along with another proposed Poseidon plant in Carlsbad, would be the largest desalination facilities on the West Coast. They face opposition from environmentalists, who insist that in addition to affecting marine life, the plants use far more electricity and are more expensive than alternatives like reclamation and wastewater treatment.
Poseidon counters that the impacts are insignificant and that science and the law are on its side.
“Sound science and the law stand squarely behind our Carlsbad and [Huntington Beach] desalination projects and opponents are resorting to desperate measures in hopes of delaying a needed water project that will provide a new source of high-quality drinking water to Orange County,” the company stated.
In an interview, Geever said a new statewide policy on ocean desalination intakes is expected by early next year, which may place even more stringent requirements on the proposed facilities.
“Once that’s done, we’ll know what the rules of the road are,” he said. “Until that’s done, the regional boards have to strictly apply the law as it’s written.”
— NICK GERDA
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