Coastal Commission Staff Report Smacks Down Poseidon Plan

The Poseidon project is now in the hands of the Coastal Commission, which is to consider the project’s merits at an upcoming May 12 meeting in Costa Mesa. (It was originally to be considered in March, then postponed until April, and if Poseidon doesn’t like the way things are shaping up it might still be postponed until June.) Yesterday, the Coastal Commission’s staff weighed in with its own recommendations on the matter — and things do not look good for the rapacious East Coast investors who have already dumped $100 million into obtaining approval.

The staff report (careful, that’s one big PDF!) is 204 single-spaced pages, which one source described as of a length and detail unprecedented in memory. It provides a wide variety of reasons — damage to both aquatic and human life; the mismanagement of its smaller Carlsbad plant, which has led to expensive fresh water sloshing back into the sea; the fundamental lack of credibility that Poseidon would follow through on its promises — for Commission members to deny approval for the plant.

The Register, at the link above, quotes one Poseidon source as saying that this would “effectively be the death knell for desalination in California,” but this isn’t true: it would mean that this project, with these investors, at this site, under these terms, does not deserve support. Plants at smaller scales, in less sensitive locations, with less onerous conditions, may still be possible — especially as technology improves — and may be pursued by government entities that aren’t driven by a thirst for profits, as is the case with OC’s famed Water Reclamation project. What this means is that Poseidon’s dream of sticking ratepayers with the cost of a bad — but profitable! — plan would end before it turns into a nightmare for everyone else.

The negotiations with the Coastal Commission have largely involved requirements that Poseidon do some good works outside of Orange County to compensate for the damage done to Huntington Beach and environs. That might be a good deal for, say, Palos Verdes, but not for OC. (To take one example, no one seems sure about how the introduction of heavy brine into the near offshore might affect HB’s famous waves, a linchpin of local tourism.) It’s more clear that salinization of the near-offshore would be bad for the microorganisms at the bottom of the food chain, upon which the local fishing scene depends.

Worse yet, the Staff Recommendation did not even delve deeply into the potential effects on the health of coastal — and even not so coastal — Orange County residents by construction of the site, though it does offer up the evocative phrase “toxic triangle.” While the paper notes the seismic and environmental risks to the plan — for example, rising sea water, the proposed plant’s proximity to a flood channel that it could (to understate things) negatively impact — it only in passing (around pages 182-183) addresses a major concern of nearby residents: unearthing decades (for the site itself) to a century’s (for a nearby toxic waste dump that Poseidon says it will have to dig under) worth of toxic waste. This was the topic of a piece I was working on last night before the CCC staff recommendation blew it apart, but I’ll include the beginnings of the story here as well.

First, here’s a piece recently published by Linda Pérez of the Sunrise Foundation in La Opinion, translated below, that echoed many of the concerns that you’ve seen expressed here (and increasingly elsewhere) about the Poseidon ripoff. But she also identified one that I hadn’t previously heard or thought of. It’s towards the end of her story, but I’ll call it out here as well because it’s worth reading twice:

Poseidon desalination is a toxic swindle

On the surface, desalination sounds like a bright idea. But transforming ocean water into something safe and drinkable on a large scale takes more than a magic wand. It requires hundreds of millions of dollars, huge amounts of energy, and a place to dump the salty sludge created by the process.

The foreign-owned Poseidon company has been trying for more than 15 years to enact this pipe dream on the California coast. They now have targeted Orange County, promising to turn a highly contaminated site in Huntington Beach into a water plant. But the more of this scheme I learn about, the worse the taste it leaves in my mouth. When I saw that Governor Gavin Newsom has joined in pushing it, my stomach turned. The deal that Poseidon proposes is not potable; it’s poisonous. None of us should swallow it.

The sales pitch from Poseidon paints a pretty picture of its operations. But the reality is a declaration of war on marine ecology. Its massive intake suction destroys sea creatures essential to the coastal ecosystem by the millions. It then dumps thousands of gallons of hyper-briny dreck back into the ocean.

And for what? Desalination is the most expensive source of water in the world. Ratepayers in Orange County could be saddled with costs four times higher per gallon than other sources of H2O in Southern California. Sure, the investors in Poseidon could make out like bandits, but where does this Robin-Hood-in-reverse arrangement leave regular folks? Ordinary customers would spend more money out of pocket in higher bills, incur more utility debt, and face greater danger of shutoff when they can’t pay.

On top of that, any construction at the Huntington Beach site on Pacific Coast Highway would stir up contaminants so noxious that it’s listed as a state toxic hot spot, among the worst 1 percent in the nation. Who pays for the injuries and illnesses that stem from residents’ exposure to arsenic, lead, mercury, benzene, asbestos, and other dreaded compounds made airborne through dust carried inland on coastal winds? Property values in Huntington Beach could also take a hit.

Seniors like me have to keep up our guard about scams. Whether it’s phone calls, emails, or even knocks on the door, those seeking to play on our fear, our kinship with the vulnerable, or our hopes for the next generation in order to take our money can be clever in their grifting. The sales pitch by Poseidon and its army of lobbyists to get the money and gain approval for this desalination plant sets off my alarm bells.

As an immigrant, I am used to correcting people who hear me speak with an accent in meetings and assume for that reason I don’t understand what’s going on around me. As a parent and grandparent, I have heard a lot of excuses over the years and learned to press for the truth. What irks me about Poseidon is their campaign seems to treat me and other Californians as gullible. We must show them that we are NOT, and tell the Governor, state Treasurer, and anyone with a smidgeon of say-so on this scheme to stop this swindle while we still can.‍

Linda Pérez is a retired school employee, former president of her union, and advocate for healthcare and the environment. An elected member of the L.A. County Democratic Party, she lives in Hollywood.

I’d like to call your attention to the third paragraph from the end, beginning with “On top of that.” That alludes to the problem mentioned briefly on pages 182-183 of the Staff report. For more information on that, we can look at a letter entered into the records of a March Huntington Beach City Council hearing by Mary Baretich, President of an adjacent mobile homeowners association, which I reproduce in full. It starts out as a relatively commonplace objection to nearby construction — and then it takes a turn that distinguishes it from the pack. The portions in boldface are the most relevant ones):

In the past, when AES built their new Generation facility, the 3-acre Newland Street strip of land along Huntington By The Sea Mobile Estates (HBTS) was used as a parking lot and had tall field lights in place. AES erected a temporary fabric wall above the block wall along the HBTS community to take care of the dust, but not to help with the noise from the traffic or construction.

Lots of truck traffic, car traffic, etc. during the building of the facility.

It is anticipated, as written in early reports, that Poseidon will be building 33 pumps which will be going 24/7 and the anticipated noise and vibrations (because we are all on the Santa Ana River wetlands) will be quite disruptive. The Newland 2-acre strip will be used for worker parking once more. Mobile homes do not have double-pane windows and the anticipated noise will be overwhelming.

It is understood that the tearing down of two of the old AES units will be starting about the same time as Poseidon plans to start work on the desal plant. This will cause additional traffic. And as you pointed out, the toxic substances located on the land where Poseidon proposes to be built must first be removed before new soil can be brought in to create the 10 to 15-foot elevations against flooding and Tsunamis. Traffic down Newland to PCH and then up Beach Blvd. will impact the residents of HBTS, Cabrillo and the Waterfront RV Park, and cause the very real impact to the residents’ ability to evacuate in case of fires, flood and earthquakes.

The land in this area is primarily Santa Ana River wetlands, and prone to sinking, and is very unstable during earthquake shaking. The pipeline that Poseidon proposes is to run on Hamilton Street, right alongside the Ascon Toxic Waste Dump and any earthquake can cause cracks in the cement casing, thereby allowing contaminated water from Ascon to be sucked into the pipeline (because of the rushing water pressure). This will bring the contaminants to our Aquifer. Add the Boron, neurotoxins from the periodic algae blooms, and periodic oil spill contaminants, and we have “real” potential nightmare situations possible.

The proposed Poseidon facility is in the Coastal Zone (attached). We have not heard any recent reports from the Coastal Commission.

There have not been any meetings for the past two years with Poseidon, and none by them in the past with the homeowners in either HBTS or Cabrillo Beachfront Village.

We have a Home Owners Association here in Cabrillo. I am the President here. HBTS is reorganizing their HOA.

Both parks consist of low to moderate income level homeowners, along with renters of park-owned homes. These are Family parks. The majority of the residents are Caucasian. [Ed. note: if this last sentence strikes a jarring note, I don’t think that it’s a statement that Caucasians should be treated better than racial/ethnic minorities, but that in fact they usually are when it comes to environmental justice, and that this is a social class as well as racism issue.]

A lot of homeowners still have mortgages on top of their space rents, utilities, insurance, and maintenance of the homes – similar to conventional homes. Homeowners in the 306-space HBTS and in the 45-space Cabrillo pay between $1900 and $2800 for their spaces (not including utilities). The renters of homes pay between $3300 and $3700.

Mary Jo Baretich

I don’t mean to disparage concerns about traffic and noise by saying that they are fairly common when construction projects are proposed; they deserve to be taken seriously, but weighed against competing benefits, perhaps with an eye towards figuring out some just compensation to those affected. But — toxic waste, contaminating aquifers, exacerbated by foreseeably likely floods and earthquakes? This is not your run-of-the-mill NIMBYism! This is the sort of thing that should jolt residents in the area — and as you’ll see in tomorrow’s installment, in adjoining inland areas, into action. The May Coastal Commission meeting is coming up soon — and the trip from Huntington Beach to Costa Mesa is reasonably quick.

Poseidon will certainly be desperately spending money to gin up support for its project with all of the power it can muster. Will the more plentiful opponents, from near and far, at least make their own voices heard? We’ll get into reasons why they certainly should tomorrow, when we delve more deeply into the toxic waste issues.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)