Poseidon’s Poisonous Pollution Plan: Airborne Toxins over HB!

First, this public service message:

Coastal Commission meeting on Poseidon is Thursday in Costa Mesa

So EMAIL all of the members of the Coastal Commission and tell them:

THAT YOU OPPOSE THE POSEIDON PLANT!

“Not THIS Desal project! Not THIS toxic site! Not THESE rapacious and reckless investors!”

Here is the email contact information for selected members of the Coastal Commission. (All of them get phone calls through the same number, you need not call.) They need to hear from Californians who care, not just corporate lobbyists! You may find points worth mentioning in your writing in this post and the previous posts on this meeting.

  • Donne Brownsey (Chair) donne.brownsey@coastal.ca.gov
  • Mike Wilson mike.wilson@coastal.ca.gov
  • Meagan Harmon meagan.harmon@coastal.ca.gov
  • Caryl Hart (Vice Chair) caryl.hart@coastal.ca.gov
  • Effie Turnbull effie.turnbull-sanders@coastal.ca.gov
  • Dayna Bochco dayna.bochco@coastal.ca.gov
  • Sara Arminzadeh sara.arminzadeh@coastal.ca.gov
  • Carole Groom carole.groom@coastal.ca.gov
  • Linda Escalante linda.escalante@coastal.ca.gov

BE POLITE WHEN YOU WRITE! (INCLUDING YOU, VERN!)

You can also ATTEND THE MEETING OF THE COASTAL COMMISSION in Costa Mesa on Thursday, May 12! (At least you can try; I’m not sure how many the room will accommodate or how early you’d have to arrive.)

Here’s the agenda. So far as I know, no street protests are planned, except perhaps from Plumbers and Pipefitters who don’t care about the issues raised here. We’ll update this if and when we get more information.

You can stream the meeting online; at these links you can:
SUBMIT WRITTEN COMMENTS (trying to find link, but you can certainly email if I can’t) and
SIGN UP TO SPEAK ON THURSDAY on items 9/10 (combined) (submit request before 5:00 Wednesday)

We now return you to our story on how construction would spread toxins over Huntington Beach and beyond.

Crowd at Coastal Commission hearing, 2013. Yes, this has been dragging on and on — BUT IT COULD END THIS WEEK!.

YES, WE SAID AIRBORNE TOXINS, CARRIED INLAND BY THE WINDS!

To the list of moral, economic, and environmental hazards already plaguing the proposed Poseidon water desalination plant, we can now add this: the prospect of airborne toxins (and some waterborne) endangering lives, and home values, in Huntington Beach.

Before delving into this now fast moving story, some of you may have seen a development related to the theme of poisoning a community.

In case you missed it, we noted in our first installment that the California Coastal Commission’s Staff Report has come out with a negative recommendation to Commission members on the Poseidon desalination project. At that link you’ll also find two statements — one by a retired teacher worried about scams, the other by the President of a mobile home owners association right near the construction site — that raise issues beyond those dominating the staff report, including a closer focus on the idea that construction and operation of the plant will introduce serious toxins into the environment.

1. WE’LL BEGIN WITH A BRIEF RECAP

Let’s get caught up with the three big statements from that installment. First, our quote from Linda Pérez of the Sunrise Foundation:

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.

And, remember the letter from Mary Baretich of the Cabrillo Mobile Homeowners Association in the area, who after complaining about the noise and rumbling and traffic accompanying construction, turns to something more grave:

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.

Finally, we noted, the Staff Report mentions this only briefly, around pages 182-183 of the 204-page single-spaced report:

The proposed project location is in an area with a concentration of industrial development and a history of contamination problems. Although the area is bordered on one side by the beach and wetlands, it is also the home of the Orange County Wastewater Treatment Plant, and a cluster of heavy industry that includes two natural gas power plants within Poseidon’s project location, the former ASCON Superfund site that is still being remediated, and the Magnolia Tank Farm. Nearby residents and EJ stakeholders refer to this industrial area as the “toxic triangle,” noting that the site is a brownfield and that much of the soil is likely toxic. Until recently, the Tank Farm included above ground oil storage tanks, but the tanks have recently been demolished and the site is now proposed for medium-density housing. Northeast of the site is a former dump that has since been turned into a park, soccer fields, skate park, tennis courts and other amenities that serve a nearby local high school, elementary school, and community, as shown in figure 2. Nearby residents have raised concerns about adding more industrial development to an area already dealing with these existing harms, citing a disproportionate impact. The ASCON site is in the process of being remediated, but that process was slowed in 2019 amid complaints of respiratory health issues from nearby residents. 217 There are now some air monitoring trucks and signs posted around the fenced-off site asking residents to call the South Coast Air Quality Management District if there are dust issues and warning that the soil contains arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, benzo(a)pyrene and dibenz(a,h)anthracene. Residents are wary of part of Poseidon’s proposed project, which would involve trenching a water delivery pipeline route along Hamilton Avenue, thereby disturbing the soil adjacent to the landfill cleanup site and possibly mobilizing contaminants in the soil and groundwater. They also note that the demolition and construction would require hauling toxic soil off-site to a landfill likely located near EJ communities or remediated on site.

As noted in our second installment, Poseidon has brought in a spokesperson with plenty of experience in both explaining away the deficiencies of a Poseidon desal plant and with defending against accusations of massive public endangerment by toxic substances. That experience came from the relatively straightforward and devastating incursion of lead (from old pipes) into the drinking water of Flint, Michigan. In this case, as we’ll see today, the situation will be a lot more complex and will deal in a far wider variety of poisons.

Today, we’re going to get into exactly how that sickening situation comes to be.

Just left of where it says “Hamiiton” is where tens of thousands of unsuspecting students like me attended high school. Can we protect them now?

2. A SICKENING FEELING

Here, I have a confession to make. When I first read Linda Pérez’s writing above, I wasn’t sure whether to believe it.

So I did some research — and for a while I really didn’t know whether to believe it! I realized that the Huntington Beach protests had been about the toxic waste dump (the ASCON site, across from Edison High School) which is about a half-mile away from the AES site, previous site of the Gas Cogeneration Station, which is where Poseidon would be located. I had a sickening feeling: Could someone have mistakenly conflated the toxic threat of the ASCON site and wrongly attributed it to the AES site? (I’ll end the suspense early in the service of narrative clarity: no, they didn’t.)

I contacted Scott Wilson Badenoch, Jr., a Senior Clinical Fellow at the Environmental Law Clinic at UCI’s Law School, among other impressive credentials. He’s an expert in “brownfields” — sites that have been in industrial use for enough time to become significantly polluted — and has taken a keen interest in this project. As Badenoch explained, the Superfund ASCON petroleum landfill is an example of such a brownfield, with a century’s worth of toxic petrochemical waste. But Poseidon’s AES site is also a brownfield — a highly toxic site with a half-century’s worth of discharges of energy-related materials — and has been in more active recent use. It is itself comparably bad to the petroleum dump!

Badenoch explains that in Poseidon’s 3000-page plan for Poseidon, it asserts that it must dig through ASCON site to make the AES site feasible. That’s strike one.  The sheer amount of a full century’s worth of toxicity at the ASCON site guarantees that anything in the vicinity is touched by the toxic plume emanating from it. That includes the AES site, the nearby homes, and … Edison High School, my alma mater, which I attended for three years in the mid-70s. (And as a Charger alumnus, I can say this: We always thought that the gigantic electric transmission towers next to the athletic field would be what would kill us. We didn’t even know that there was what would become a Superfund toxic waste dump right across Magnolia Avenue — where there’s now a community center!)

Poseidon admits several times in its application that there are likely toxins on the site, but it doesn’t deal adequately with the consequences of this admission. If you’re dealing with a brownfield with just a little bit of pollution, digging up and replacing the top couple of feet may be enough. But with a brownfield like ASCON — which was industrially designated as an energy site – you will have to dig down much deeper, generally at least 10-20 feet and often many times that depth, to dispose of the toxic ground. They don’t do non-toxic stuff there!  Given the high water table in the area, this will be difficult. (And that water carrying toxins creates its own additional problems.) One can’t do much to this fix up a site like this in less than decades. All of the roads near there — including PCH — would have be dug under, and is likely additional toxicity there as well. (They’ve been subjected to the toxic plume from ASCON for a long time.)

Badenoch’s evaluation of the AES site is similarly grave. (And we didn’t even get into the earthquake issues.) Earlier, the AES site was covered by oil wells. Some of those likely have never been capped, or were capped poorly, by what is now considered obsolete technology.  This means that, when you dig and hit one, there’s a serious chance that it will explode. Beyond the obvious damage to those right near the blast, that means that a large portion of the surrounding terrain is going to get a shower of some truly nasty toxins — because hydrocarbons under pressure break down into much nastier stuff than gasoline and heating oil.

Badenoch notes that both the toxic ASCON site and the AES site are identified as hazardous waste sites under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (or “RCRA”) They differ in that ASCON has discrete waste pits — although over the century it’s likely that toxins have migrated between pits. AES doesn’t even have pits; its ground is just an undifferentiated mish-mosh of poisonous stew. Badenoch says that he doesn’t even need (or want) to see testing of exactly what’s lying around beneath the AES site; based on his experience, he knows that it will be heavily toxic.

When I challenged him on this in our discussion, he pulled out the vicious tool of … common sense. There’s “no mystery to it”: it’s a brownfield.  It’s soaked with petroleum products compacted beneath it for up to 50 years; plumes of toxins from ASCON have been there even longer. That has a highly predicable, well-known result. The mess we would find beneath it needs to be cleaned up — deeply, carefully, thoroughly — and then properly restored.

Badenoch is especially bothered by Poseidon’s stark negligence of its responsibilities — and, seriously, whatever your estimate of the honesty and care of the people behind the Poseidon project has been, it’s about to get much worse.

Soaky Goes Seal Hunting
And that doesn’t even count the terrified sea mammals facing a ruined aquatic environment!

3. THE MISSING REMEDIAL PLAN — AND MAYBE THEIR PLAN AROUND IT

Badenoch notes that, when a company (or other entity) is doing a major development and encounters toxicity on or within its grounds, it is (unsurprisingly) supposed to develop a “remedial plan.” That plan, reasonably enough, is to consider (1) the nature and scope of the emergency, (2) the risks to each community potentially affected by it, and (3) how the company will work to eliminate (or at least significantly mitigate) those risks before moving further.

Poseidon has apparently done none of that — incredibly, they don’t even like to admit that toxicity is an issue! — and so the public has no record of Poseidon even having a remedial plan, let alone what that plan isIF they have even, to this day, started to develop one!

Poseidon is acting like so long as no one has officially delved into the area that it wants to excavate to document the scope of the problem, it can pretend that there’s no problem, BUT THERE ARE PEOPLE LIVING NEAR THERE — AND OTHER PEOPLE WHO WOULD BE AFFECTED BY AIRBORNE TOXINS! This is where we get into a “Flint lead in the water” sort of situation — and I’ll add, speaking as a lawyer, potential personal legal liability that can’t be snuffed away in a corporate bankruptcy. (That’s why it’s so poetically perfect that they brought in the spokesperson for the entities that caused the Flint Lead Pollution Crisis to be their spokesperson here, as noted in our previous post!)

Allowing Poseidon to move forward in these circumstances would be insane. But let me add to that conclusion based on my own experience in construction law: Sometimes, it’s all about the insurance.

I’ve seen situations in which a failing proposal isn’t necessarily trying to get to the point where it could be completely active, but only far enough so that its insurance can kick in and cover the losses. (If I recall correctly, this situation arose with the decommissioning of San Onofre’s reactors, where they apparently wanted to get one questionable reactor to run for long enough that they could claim that it was “working,” before letting it be shut off for good, to get their insurer on the hook. But I’m not going to spend time researching that even again just to have a nice analogy.)

I’ve wondered whether Poseidon’s desperation to move forward as quickly as possible is not even about getting to the point where it can deliver on its promises, but simply to reach some milestone that lets them get something back for its investors, if they have insurance. I don’t have access to the documents I’d need to know that — but the Coastal Commission should obviously have its attorneys look into what insurance Poseidon has for this project and when that insurance kicked — or kicks — in, to various degrees and with various amounts of coverage. Is that what is driving digging up toxic dirt and spreading it around the community, to show that they got the project underway, perhaps knowing that the toxicity would at some point prevent them from delivering on their promises anyway?

Hey, it’s just a theory — but the Coastal Commission should sure know whether its true before it approves anything!

That possibility may also explain Poseidon’s negligence. It may think that so long as no one has officially (and literally) dug deep into the area that it will be excavating, the sort of recklessness that might obviate an insurance policy would be hard to prove. (I’d think that gross negligence about knowing what toxins may be under their site and what they would do with them should be enough to cancel any policy — but being able to flutter their eyes and claim ignorance may be their last desperate plan for a payout. And that would explain their reluctance to take a really good look.

As the Coastal Commission prepares for its next hearing, the prospect that construction of the desal facility may (actually, it’s “will”) literally unearth some major toxic pollutants — wafting into densely populated south Huntington Beach, potentially causing both harm and new lawsuits (where taxpayers, not Poseidon, would cover damages) — complicates matters even more.

Soaky, having gained weight after years of feasting on the delicious lies of Poseidon advocates.

4. AND A BIG HAT TIP TO MARTIN WISCKOL!

We’ve been covering this story for over a decade, most of the time with scant company, but we do understand that part of our role in the journalistic food chain is to get far enough into a story that a larger publication — the Voice of OC, the late OC Weekly, the OC Register, the LA Times, the New York Times, The Onion — will be either piqued or shamed enough to grab onto it. So here’s a shout out to recently retired reporter Martin Wisckol of the Register, who has been all over this story for the past few years: from HB residents’ uprising over Superfund-grade toxins floating over its homes (based on projected digging of the Edison H.S.-adjacent site), to the resumption of the cleanup under stricter conditions, to the threat that the permitting process posed to Poseidon. I knew Wisckol as the Register’s main politics reporter, where we shared several “last day of filing at the Registrar of Voters office,” and it’s great to know that before leaving the Orange Lady he went on to even better things.

Wisckol helpfully did the math in one of the articles, explaining how lucrative this guaranteed profit arrangement is for investors: “Groundwater currently costs about $600 an acre foot, which is enough for about three households a year. Imported water costs about $1,100 a year, while the regional board has pegged the cost of Poseidon’s water at $2,300 or more an acre foot. Poseidon would produce 56,000 acre feet a year, enough for about 450,000 residents.”

And, if all goes as it did in Carlsbad, when much of the water ended up going back to the ocean because it couldn’t be stored, much of OC’s Poseidon water may not even be used. In Wisckol’s valedictory story for the Register about Poseidon, Wisckol noted that because South County water agencies haven’t signed up for the exorbitant water, the current plan is literally to pump it back into the groundwater for later use. Is that how natural aquifers work, just like gigantic storage tanks? It may not matter much to Poseidon, so long as they soak up utility bills from ratepayers for every gallon.

Carlsbad Desal Plant with Soaky in the pool
Before targeting Orange County, Poseidon opened a smaller project in Carlsbad. It went badly!

5. SO WHERE ARE WE NOW?

For those who need to explain this issue to those unfamiliar with it, the Poseidon Desalination Project — brainchild of an avaricious East Coast (i.e., “foreign” to California) investment group — has been designed to:

  • pump in seawater from off of Huntington Beach (yes, the one with the oil spill problems)
  • remove the salt and dump it back into the ocean
  • sell it to local water districts (notably the Orange County Water District, which serves most of OC outside of wealthy South County
  • and then probably pipe it to relatively parched South County.

Awfully nice, you may think, of the rest of South County to do this favor, requiring substantially higher water rates, to benefit South County! Well, that’s what you get when a private interest essentially purchases the majority of a public board — weird things happen. But, of course, it’s the poor and working class households of the OC basin who would face the worst economic hit — but, for policymakers, that’s what poor people are for!

The OC Water Board is the only one that has come anywhere close to inking an agreement with Poseidon — but thanks to some smart legal analysis and actions by Supervisor candidate Vicente Sarmiento it has probably fended off an implied contract with Poseidon making a partner in an agreement. Poseidon is now seeking money from the state for its construction project — presumably aided by agents of its good friend Governor Newsom, who was such good friends with Poseidon’s lobbyist that he went to The French Laundry, during a pandemic, against his own health care directives, to attend the lobbyists birthday party.

Yes, that was Poseidon’s lobbyist.

Poseidon contends that it is right on the cusp of approval, which as you’ll see below is not true. Its argument is that it has already gotten the approval from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board (the — sigh — “SARWQCB”). This approval was gained after Governor Newsom fired William von Blasingame — the most informed, responsible, and dogged critic of Poseidon on that board, just before this critical decision. (We can presume that that was at the behest of Poseidon’s lobbyist. Unfortunately for Poseidon, its representatives (and Building Trades despot Ernesto Medrano) had legally prohibited “ex parte” (outside of public hearings) contacts with Board members during its deliberations. These violations were so blatant and outrageous that Board member Kris Murray — Poseidon’s other plant! — reported them! (Good for you, Kris! No use staying on a sinking ship, huh?)

Irvine’s judicious, courageous, and discerning William von Blasingame, at left. At right, “lovable” Poseidon mascot “Soaky,” out for guaranteed exorbitant cash, at any cost, from beleaguered ratepayers.

The SARWQCB’s (sigh — put more thought into your acronyms, people!) approval sent the matter to the Coastal Commission. Poseidon portrays itself as only one vote away from being ready to start construction, but it’s not quite so simple — and not nearly as easy as its previous victory. First — Newsom’s buddy lobbyist had to be switched off of the project, presumably because of what the pros call “optics.” Second, Newsom has control over only three of the eleven members of the Coastal Coalition — and a repeat of his purge of Von Blasingame there would not only be so obvious that even voters and Democratic officials would get it, but might really cheese off other Board members, who are holding in their hands a seriously damning Staff Report and don’t like to be played for suckers or turned into punks.

The other important thing to know about Thursday’s meeting is that … it may not even address this issue. The issue was supposed to come up last month, but did not. If things look bad, and that’s certainly my current forecast, Poseidon might demand another extension — and while I’m not saying that this is so some of the local Poseidon people, who promised investors that approval of the “soak-the-non-rich” product would be a cinch, to get into a witness protection program — well, I’m also not saying that it’s totally implausible. potential “no” votes on that Board with Letitia Clark, and appointing Joe Kerr and another suppliant “yes” vote to vacancies. On the Coastal Commission, though, the Governor controls only three of the eleven seats, so while he may try to prop up Poseidon’s side of the battle it will be much harder for him to tip it over. And this news won’t help him!

Soaky getting ready to fill up the Poseidon
Illustrator’s conception of a flood of Poseidon lobbyists descending on politicians and regulators! (Not shown, Building Trades honcho Ernesto “Jobs at any cost, so long as it’s not my people’s cost” Medrano, who was caught up in the “ex parte communications” problem discussed above.

Can anything save Poseidon at this point? Sure: the ignorance of elected officials about what you’ve read here, and their confidence that the public doesn’t really care about this issue, might pull their chestnuts out of the fire. And Poseidon’s agents, each inhabited by the spirit of Soaky, are probably doing their best right now to convince them of “alternative facts” and of public apathy. But — that can be cured with some phone calls! You literally want to call everyone who represents you in government, whether they’re directly involved or not, to get across the meta-message that people are up in arms about this and that there’s nowhere for politicians to hide. Call candidates too — and write them to ask their positions on this!

Treat it like an emergency — because for the people who will be sucking in air from twin toxic waste dumps, and whatever else might be coming when they have to dig under PCH and other streets that have had years under the toxic plume — an emergency is exactly what it is. Now get going!

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.)