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California Coastal Commission denies permit for Poseidon plant in Huntington Beach

A woman holds a sign opposing a desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
A woman holds a sign opposing a desalination plant in Huntington Beach as James Golden, Poseidon project manager, speaks at the podium during a California Coastal Commission hearing at the Hilton on Thursday in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

After more than two decades of buildup, the California Coastal Commission on Thursday night unanimously denied Poseidon Water a final permit to build a water desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

The 12-0 vote not to issue a permit followed an all-day meeting at the Hilton in Costa Mesa, featuring input from Poseidon representatives, Coastal Commission staff and dozens of individual commentators and groups.

Many of the commissioners said Poseidon’s controversial project failed to live up to the standards of the Coastal Act, which dictates how the land along the coast of California is either developed or protected from development.

Tom Luster, senior environmental scientist for the commission, told commissioners earlier Thursday that the project would kill marine life in about 275 million gallons of seawater per day.

“I cannot find a way to say that this kind of harm to marine life is acceptable through the Coastal Act,” Commissioner Dayna Bochco said. “It’s enormous … and it’s hard for me to accept that. As we all know, the ocean is under attack.”

Representatives for Poseidon speak during a California Coastal Commission hearing at the Hilton on Thursday.
Representatives for Poseidon, standing from left, D.J. Moore, a Lathan Watkins attorney; James Golden, Poseidon project manager; and Jennifer Roy, a Lathan Watkins attorney, speak during a California Coastal Commission hearing at the Hilton on Thursday in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The Poseidon project in Huntington Beach, which was to be built adjacent to the AES Power Plant, has been an issue since the late 1990s. The company planned to build a desalination plant, at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion, that would produce up to 50 million gallons of desalted water per day.

Poseidon has operated a desalination plant in Carlsbad since 2015.

Proponents of the Huntington Beach plant, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom, argued that it would provide a drought-proof source of drinking water in the future, and reduce Orange County’s reliance on imported water. The company sought to finalize an agreement with the Orange County Water District to buy the desalted water, before construction could begin.

However, as detractors note, mitigation has yet to begin on the Carlsbad plant years after it was built. They also expressed their beliefs Poseidon’s planned mitigation in Surf City would come up short, though D.J. Moore, an attorney representing Poseidon, pointed out that proposed Bolsa Chica mitigation was supported by the Bolsa Chica Conservancy and Amigos de Bolsa Chica.

“I really feel very strongly that in this case, the applicant has put the cart before the horse,” Commissioner Effie Turbull-Sanders said. “You cannot get an application and say, ‘Later we’ll do the mitigation, later we’ll get around to that.’ Our communities have been hearing that for far too long.”

Opponents of the Poseidon desalination plant in Huntington Beach hold up signs during a California Coastal Commission hearing
Opponents of the Poseidon desalination plant in Huntington Beach hold up signs during a California Coastal Commission hearing on Thursday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Last month, Coastal Commission staff issued a 200-page report recommending the commissioners deny Poseidon the necessary permit.

Anti-Poseidon attendees brought signs expressing their disapproval to the meeting, while one woman dressed as a piece of plankton.

The majority of public comments were also against the plant, often for differing reasons. Minority groups, including Oak View ComUNIDAD represented by Oscar Rodriguez, argued that water rates increasing several dollars per month are untenable for them.

Commissioner Kristina Kunkel cited Assembly Bill 685, which states that every Californian has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water, putting the emphasis on “affordable.”

Former Huntington Beach Mayor Jill Hardy said sea level rise was the main reason she could not support the project. Nancy Buchoz, a resident of southeast Huntington Beach for 46 years, feared additional construction as the adjacent 38-acre Ascon landfill site remains toxic and dangerous.

Donne Brownsey, California Coastal Commission chairwoman, speaks during a California Coastal Commission hearing Thursday.
Donne Brownsey, California Coastal Commission chairwoman, speaks during a California Coastal Commission hearing at the Hilton on Thursday in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

In a statement released late Thursday after the vote, Poseidon Water director of communications Jessica Jones thanked Newsom for his support of the project while expressing her disappointment with the outcome.

“We believe in the governor’s vision and his Water Resilience Portfolio, which identified the goal of maintaining and diversifying water supplies,” Jones said. “California continues to face a punishing drought, with no end in sight … Every day, we see new calls for conservation as reservoir levels drop to dangerous lows. We firmly believe that this desalination project would have created a sustainable, drought-tolerant source of water for Orange County, just as it has for San Diego County.”

California Coastal Protection Network executive director Susan Jordan had a different reaction, expressing particular satisfaction that the vote was unanimous.

“A lot of this burden falls on the applicant for not understanding that if they want to do a project on the coast of California, they have to comply with the Coastal Act,” Jordan said. “Their project was hugely disruptive and they never changed course. It was very hard getting here, but it was worth the hard work, because we knew that this project was terrible for the coast. We just had to be able to convince the decision-makers of that, and I think we did that here today.”

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