One of the most vocal critics of a controversial seawater desalting plant proposed for the Huntington Beach coastline will no longer be on the state’s local water board when it votes to approve the project later this year.
That’s because Gov. Gavin Newsom — who appoints all the directors of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board — just ousted him.
Director William von Blasingame of Irvine, who’s repeatedly poked at and raised alarm bells over the project during recent board meetings, will be replaced by Tustin City Councilwoman Leticia Clark, according to a Wednesday announcement by the governor’s office.
Newsom’s decision possibly clears the way for a project that’s been criticized by local environmentalists over the plant’s potential environmental damage and hiking of water rates in the surrounding, predominantly working-class and Latino neighborhoods that can’t afford it.
His move also comes after the company pushing the project, Poseidon Water, spent $614,500 lobbying Sacramento on desalination issues and the governor’s water policies this year alone, according to the company’s latest lobbying disclosure forms made available by the state. Last year, Poseidon spent $406,000 on lobbying.
The company’s vice president and representative during water board hearings on the project, Scott Maloni, didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Given the company’s lobbyist spending, von Blasingame’s ouster wasn’t unexpected to activists.
They had been raising these concerns since late summer as the expiration of von Blasingame’s term as a regulator drew near and Newsom in the weeks leading up to Wednesday had refused to say whether or not he would reappoint him.
Still, von Blasingame’s removal is “deeply troubling” to people like Sean Bothwell, an environmental attorney and director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance.
“How far is the governor willing to go to tip the scales in favor of the … project?” Bothwell said on Wednesday. “Is he really going to go against the local residents and the environmental justice advocates’ concerns?”
Bothwell additionally criticized Poseidon for resorting to “immense political pressure in order to get what they want, otherwise the replacement of Mr. von Blasingame would not have been necessary.”
Andrea Leon Grossman, who has spoken out against the project on behalf of the Latino environmental justice group Azul, said the project goes “into direct conflict with environmental justice, with the human right to water and water affordability.”
At stake is a piece of Orange County’s northern coast, marked by oil rigs and an existing power plant, where the project would suck in more than 100 million gallons of seawater per day, desalt half of it for drinking water, and discharge the other half as saltier, concentrated brine.
Supporters say the desalination facility would create a surefire water supply and reduce the region’s reliance on imported water, amid the anticipated effects of climate change, by producing around 50 million gallons of drinkable water per day and creating construction jobs to build the plant.
Opponents say Poseidon’s project isn’t needed and would hike local water rates, kill nearby marine life, and damage surrounding coastal ecosystems as well as nearby low-income and predominantly Latino communities.
Bothwell expressed optimism that Clark will approach the project with an open mind.
“Ms. Clark has excellent credentials and I hope she is a fair, open-minded public official. I am optimistic that she is willing to listen to, and be briefed by, all stakeholders on all issues surrounding the controversial Poseidon – Huntington Beach project,” he said. “And hopefully she comes to the regional board with an unbiased opinion of the project proposal.”
Clark declined to comment Wednesday, deferring to the governor’s office.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.