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State regulatory changes could require Poseidon to reapply for discharge permit for proposed desal plant

State regulatory changes could require Poseidon to reapply for discharge permit for proposed desal plant
Poseidon Water Vice President Scott Maloni says the company has made changes to operational plans for its proposed ocean desalination facility in Huntington Beach to comply with proposed state standards. (Brittany Woolsey)

State water officials confirmed to environmental groups this week that the developer of a proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach would need to reapply for one of its permits if state regulatory amendments go into effect.

In response, Orange County Coastkeeper, the Surfrider Foundation, the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation and Residents for Responsible Desalination said they would drop their 3-year-old appeal of the permit.

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The State Water Resources Control Board sent the groups a letter Thursday stating that Poseidon Water would need to resubmit or revise its permit application with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board regarding how the plant would discharge brine, a highly salty byproduct of the desalination process.

"What the letter says is, just as we suspected, that [Poseidon] would have to reapply for their permit," said Ray Hiemstra, associate director of programs for Costa Mesa-based Orange County Coastkeeper. "Now they would have to comply with the statewide policies."

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The letter's author, Philip Wyels, assistant chief counsel for the state water board, said the permit, which was approved by the regional board in 2012, is not being revoked or deemed invalid. However, Poseidon would need to update its intake and discharge plans with the regional board to comply with amendments to the state's ocean regulations.

In May, the state water board approved amendments to its ocean plan that would establish regulations for desalination plants. The amendments focus on salinity limits, monitoring and reporting requirements, how ocean water is taken from and discharged into the ocean and which sites and technologies should be used.

The amendments have not taken effect. The state board plans to submit the changes in coming weeks to the state Office of Administrative Law, which would have 30 business days to approve or deny them, Wyels said.

Poseidon Vice President Scott Maloni said the company has known since the permit was approved that it would need to modify its plans and reapply to comply with new regulations.

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"We've acknowledged that that was going to be required in due course," he said.

However, Maloni contended that it can't be required until the AES power plant, which neighbors the proposed Poseidon plant site at Newland Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, has stopped using its water cooling system, which Poseidon plans to use.

AES has proposed switching to an air-cooled system and plans to have the upgrades finished by 2024, around the time Poseidon would revise its permit with the regional water board, Maloni said.

Hiemstra said Poseidon would not be able to go forward with construction — should the project be approved by the California Coastal Commission — if it is using its current discharge permit.

Maloni said the company has made changes to its operational plans to comply with the proposed state standards. He said a traveling screen, which rotates in front of the opening of the water intake pipe, would be used to reduce the likelihood of marine life becoming trapped in the pipe. He said the company also plans to place a diffuser on the outflow pipe to better disperse the brine leaving the facility.

The company originally had proposed a mesh filter for the intake and planned to dilute the brine with more seawater before it was released into the ocean.

Environmentalists have asked Poseidon to use subsurface intakes, which are pipes that are placed under the sand and use sediment as a natural filter. However, a draft report created by a panel chosen by Poseidon and the California Coastal Commission concluded recently that such intakes would not be economically viable for the company.

Should the desalination regulations go into effect, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board would determine whether Poseidon must submit a new application or a revision of its existing permit to comply with the new standards, Wyels said.

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