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A seawater desalting plant is one step closer to polluting the Huntington Beach coastline before the company running it fully makes up for the environmental damage and marine life loss the facility will cause.

The Governor-appointed Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board granted the Poseidon Water Co. its needed permit for the desalination facility, on a 4-3 vote at a special meeting Thursday, clearing a final hurdle for the company toward bringing the project online.

Gov. Gavin Newsom put his own personal stamp on the project, ousting a vocal project critic off the board last year and replacing him with a regulator who ended up supporting even further relaxed restrictions on the project before the vote.

The plant will suck in 100 million gallons of seawater per day, desalt half of it into more expensive water that officials say could hike residents’ water bills, and spit the other 50 million daily gallons of saltier, concentrated wastewater brine back out into the ocean.

The project will go next to the State Coastal Commission for approval.

The local water board authorized the permit, but with certain conditions — among them being the plant could only begin to discharge wastewater into the ocean once the company presents a bulk of its mitigation project’s design plans and gets them approved. 

Yet the original idea was to prohibit the company from polluting local waters until it fully nailed down the plans and permits for its mitigation projects altogether. 

That was until Poseidon objected to those provisions over the course of two hearings last Friday and Thursday, arguing such a restriction would hold up financing and essentially kill the project that supporters say could protect the region from the increasing frequency of droughts and climate change.

Board directors, led by Daniel Selmi, further conceded on some of those restrictions Thursday, voicing a need to “compromise” to make the project work while also purporting to hold Poseidon accountable for its promises to make up for the problems the plant would bring about.

That was the tone for most of the meeting — as opposed to whether the project should even happen at all.

Yet Poseidon still opposed the more lax restrictions, saying it would only kick the process further down the road and the board would be in the same position they were Thursday in the next few years.

The following board members sided with Poseidon in arguing for even more lax restrictions on the company’s ability to pollute the coast before fully addressing the damage: 

  • Kris Murray, who critics have raised questions about over her past political ties to Poseidon 
  • Leticia Clark, who Gov. Gavin Newsom — heavily lobbied by Poseidon — put on the board just several months before the vote in replacing a critic of the project, William von Blasingame.
  • Joe Kerr, a firefighter and current candidate for Orange County Supervisor

“There is going to be an unmitigated discharge here for a period of time,” Selmi said before the vote. “Our job is to minimize that amount of time.”

It was the last hearing before the vote — one in which board directors repeatedly allowed Poseidon to jump in and dispute some board members’ criticisms of the project and dismiss some concerns as false.

In no portion of that final meeting did the board grant critics of the project — environmentalists and community activists — any time at all to do the same.

The board at one point even called for a 15 minute pause to the meeting to allow Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni some time to review staff’s revisions to one of the proposed permits that his company put forward.

The dynamic of the meeting had troubled board director Daniel Selmi, some time before the vote:

“I do think we have to be a little careful about bouncing back and forth with him (Maloni) because I know there are environmental groups that would love to stand in front of us.”

Selmi said during one portion of the meeting — which was supposed to be some of the board’s final remarks yet Murray asked Maloni to again jump in — it shouldn’t be “a chance to reargue the points, basically reopening the public discussion without giving the public an opportunity to talk about it.” 

“That bothers me a little.”  

That issue persisted later on in the meeting, to which Selmi again said: 

“I would repeat my admonition earlier that the public hearing is closed here …  I don’t think that’s fair to the other members of the public out there who are undoubtedly livid that we’re even listening to him (Maloni) on this…”

Still, Selmi was among those who approved the project to go forward.

A coalition of environmentalists opposed to the project, who went unheard Thursday, slammed the board in a written statement to reporters after the vote: 

The board “largely gave in to Poseidon’s request for a get-out-of-jail-free-card to pollute, watering down enforceable mechanisms to hold Poseidon accountable for environmental mitigation work.”

“Over two days of hearings, advocates pushed the Regional Water Board to heed the cautionary tale from Carlsbad, where Poseidon built and began operating a desalination facility,” wrote the coalition, which included organizations like Azul and the California Coastkeeper Alliance.

The coalition said it would look to appealing the decision. 

Yet Poseidon’s project has withstood at least seven legal challenges by critics to its permits awarded through various state and regulatory agencies, most recently when the state Court of Appeal denied a challenge to the project’s permit approved by the State Lands Commission. 

Supporters of the project say that with the threat of climate change, desalination presents a surefire solution to problems like drought that pose risks to Californians’ water supply and availability. 

Board members like Kerr and Clark on Thursday spoke from experience about the times they, as a public servant, needed access to natural resources to address public emergencies and disasters but couldn’t. 

They, like other proponents, said the project could prove to be an asset in the coming years amid increasing frequency of drought and climate change.

“There are voices that say we don’t need this water source. And everyday we hear the warnings that we may be facing a mega drought,” said Jim Leach, director of external affairs for the Santa Margarita Water District, supporting the project during public comment at the Friday hearing.

Leach added: “We need this water sooner than later. We need to start now.”

Yet critics say the project could have been scaled down. Staff and some board members at the regulatory agency repeated what they’ve been saying for years: Poseidon had refused to scale down the water intake and size of the facility because it didn’t fit their business model.

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