By Joe Geever
Yesterday, after hours of deliberation the California Coastal Commission voted to reject a request by public-interest groups to revoke a permit for the largest desalination plant in the western Hemisphere in Carlsbad.
The groups had brought the revocation request after it was revealed that Poseidon Resources submitted incorrect environmental impact data – drastically underestimating the amount of marine life that would be killed by the plant. After the vote Commission staff disclosed new allegations of wrongdoing related to the plants greenhouse gas emissions.
One Commissioner, who voted against revoking the permit this time, commented that the repeated disclosure of misleading information from Poseidon was having a “cumulative effect.” “It’s like a rain of new problems,” according to Commissioner Burke – signaling what may be a sense of weariness by the Commission over the project’s proponent’s lack of accurate disclosures.
Taking away a developers permit after it has been granted is an extraordinary move and the Commission rarely takes this step. But members of the Commission expressed serious concern that Poseidon had withheld information from Commission staff on how much marine life would be killed in the ocean water intake.
When that information finally came at the last hour, it turned out to be erroneous and far underestimated the marine life mortality. According to Commissioner Sara Wan, “This is the clearest case for revocation I’ve seen in my many years on the Commission.” Other members, however, were not convinced that Poseidon had “intentionally” submitted false information and so voted not to revoke the permit.
In the end it remains unclear how the next revocation request may be viewed by the Commission. If Commissioner Burke’s observations reflect those of a majority of the Commissioners, Poseidon is setting what appears to be a pattern of misleading and erroneous information on the project that may sway some to believe these multiple misrepresentations were intentional and the project really does require a second look.
The project’s next hurdle is at the California Debt Limit Allocation Committee, a panel that allocates tax-free bonds to fund projects with public benefits. Poseidon has similarly misrepresented the cost and financing, originally saying it would require no public financing and cost $270 million.
The company, however, is seeking $530 million in tax-exempt bonds (representing a $70 million taxpayer subsidy of the project) on top of $350 million ratepayer subsidy from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The committee, made up of state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, Controller John Chaing and Governor Schwarzenegger, will meet to decide if Poseidon should receive these funds on January 14.
Joe Geever is the Southern California Coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world’s oceans,waves and beaches.