A Collision of Priorities

Two of the state's most important public policy objectives, clean ocean water and more power, have collided in Huntington Beach in a test of priorities. The debate is over the reactivation of two gas-fired generators at AES Corp.'s power plant.

For the short term, more energy to meet the state crisis is on the agenda as part of Gov. Gray Davis' order that these generators be put into service. However, for the long term more attention surely will be needed to ensure that this particular plant is not seriously damaging the nearby marine environment.

This week, the California Coastal Commission opted for compromise, with duly noted reservations. It said it would support an Energy Commission proposal that any new operating permit be limited to five years, but it did so highlighting significant environmental concerns.

The tepid Coastal Commission endorsement of the reopening also was accompanied with a strong warning that far more money would be needed than the $1.5 million recommended by the Energy Commission to assess and mitigate damage to nearby marine life. That warning ought to be followed up with a substantial commitment to be certain that coastal waters do not pay too high a price for providing an additional share of power to the region.

The plant already has been a suspect in the pollution problems near Huntington Beach that closed beaches in 1999 and still are a concern for the city.

Scientists from UC Irvine have theorized that the 253 million gallons of ocean water that the power plant uses as coolant each day might be assisting currents in drawing back to shore the sewage released miles offshore by the Orange County Sanitation District.

As the commission properly noted, if this theory is proved true, then the power plant might have to undergo significant retooling of its cooling system to avoid using ocean water. While the commission has limited authority, it could force the power plant later to pay for damage to the marine environment.

The Energy Commission is to make a final decision later this month, but all these factors raise a flag for balancing the environment with the region's power needs. Moreover, Huntington Beach concerns that the "fast-tracking" of this plant include local oversight to protect the environment and economy need to be addressed.

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