This is Part II of a series of excerpts from a lengthy OC Voice interview with Mayor Keith Bohr of Huntington Beach. We spoke to the mayor about the long delayed efforts to clean up the ASCON toxic waste site in southeast Huntington Beach and the nearby desalination plant planned by Poseidon Resources Inc.
Note that the interview was conducted last November, when George W. Bush was still president of the United States and prior to the ASCON study session referred to in the interview.
By John Earl
Q: There hasn’t been any change at ASCON toxic waste dump in southeast Huntington Beach for decades now. In every election every city council candidate has said we want to clean that up. Fundamentally, not a thing has happened.
Something has happened. We’ve had the polluters identified. They said ‘Yes we’re responsible.’ And they have five or six alternative plans that are listed by the Department of Toxic Substances. And we’re supposed to have a study session the first quarter of next year that says this is what DTS recommends as the clean up solution. And then we have to have the neighborhood talks. All of the cleanup choices include thousands of truck trips. Do you want it cleaned up to the point that you can put residential on it? I think that’s probably too expensive and the clean up people don’t want to do it and I think the neighborhood would probably say ‘We’d love that but we probably don’t want to do five years or whatever it is of clean up.” So we are moving.
In the city council candidates’ debate Dan Kalmick said the following about the proposed Poseidon Resources Inc. desalination plant that would be located in southeast Huntington Beach:
“Desalination for Huntington Beach is the wrong solution. The location is wrong and no one has offered to buy the water yet. Poseidon hasn’t successfully built a plant yet. It’s Tampa Bay desalination plant went through two bankruptcies before the municipal water district had to take it over and the HB plant would be twice that size. We don’t need it. Privatized water sets a bad precedent for water wars that are allegedly coming in the next 20 years. A 2007 Coastal Commission report raises questions about the project that Poseidon hasn’t answered. Electricity costs for running the plant were double what Poseidon said and it doesn’t make any sense to build it.”
What is wrong with what he said?
The Tampa Bay thing to me is kind of a moot issue because it was a different project and time. Tampa Bay city decided to take it over for whatever reason and change the design and it didn’t work. Well, we’re not taking it [the Poseidon desalination plant] over. We have zero responsibility for it, zero financial risk. So, that’s a private market issue.
Do they have anyone to sell the water too? Well, that’s also their burden. If their water, because of the cost of electricity or whatever is too expensive to make then either they won’t build it, they won’t sell it, they’ll go broke, [or] I don’t know. All those down sides don’t affect the city. I guess that’s what I felt good about. It’s only an upside to us. There’s additional drinking water whether we want it or they’re going to sell it to the grid. Revenues are projected at $67 million over the next 30 years coming to the city. If it’s not feasible because of once through cooling, even though they changed the technology, or it won’t get financed, none of those negatives affect us. If it doesn’t get built or doesn’t make money it doesn’t affect Huntington Beach. If it does get approved and gets built and they do sell water, then we make money.
Where does the $67 million figure come from? Whose reports is that figured based on?
It’s in the staff report. It’s broken down and it is part of the owner participation agreement [that says] how much they’ve got to pay us, how much they pay us on an annual basis, how much they pay for property tax, how much they pay for the assessment.
Isn’t that an estimate?
Of course it’s an estimate.
And that estimate comes from Poseidon’s figures?
No. It was our staff and theirs doing projections on how much it would cost to build and to reassess the property tax.
The plant in Carlsbad is going to operate with a subsidy to keep the water prices down. That’s what Poseidon is planning here in Huntington Beach too. That’s a financial risk to the people in Huntington Beach, isn’t it?
Why is that a risk to us?
If it [the water] goes to us or it goes to Orange County. The water comes from the same supply source, from the same water districts and they have to take on the subsidy. That helps raise the price of the water, doesn’t it?
Well, why would they subsidize it unless we needed the water enough and the prices started crossing [meaning that desalinated water lowers while the cost of imported water rises]?
They’re (Poseidon) saying that’s their plan and they’re depending on that, just as they are in Carlsbad.
We get two-thirds of our water from ground water so we’re a lot less dependent than say Laguna Beach, which gets 100 percent. And we buy our water through the grid from the Delta through MWDOC (Municipal Water District of Orange County). If theirs [Poseidon’s water] is more expensive we’re still going to buy it from where we buy it today. Somehow they have to gel into what makes sense for MWDOC. I don’t know when that time comes, but given the scarcity of water.
I was just at a water luncheon this week. They had two of the water experts talk about the Delta and if we had one earthquake up there and that broke, how 75 percent of that water is upstate and 75 percent of the usage is down state, and what kind of a situation would we be in. And how do you balance the environmental need to keep the smelt habitat intact.
What are you going to do? Are you going to build a peripheral canal? Surface storage? It’s a very complicated issue to be dependent upon that. That’s why I think it should be a three-pronged approach: conservation, absolutely we should. We’ve done good things. We have plenty of room for improvement on either how we get rid of lawns or less sprinkling in the days and don’t hose your driveways and all those easy things; the groundwater replenishment—don’t just let it run into the ocean so that we put it back in; and desal.
Now, if it [the Poseidon project] was a thing that the city took on like Tampa Bay or any kind of situation where we are at financial risk, I would never have voted for it.
But if the plant is built there and it fails as theTampa Bay plant failed, is it realistic to think that we’re just going to let some desal plant sit there and the taxpayers aren’t at some point going to have to take some responsibility for it? If they can’t find a buyer for it or—
So we would take over an infeasible inoperable desal plant? Why would we?
Or an infeasible bank?
Yeah, why would we?
I don’t know. What’s going to be done with it?
The city hasn’t, right? We haven’t taken over Levitz or any other operation in town, why would we take over that one? Now, if it somehow made sense [to take it over] because now we get that for free, and it was a matter that they didn’t have the capital infusion or there was some technology—maybe, but that decision we can make at that time. But we have no obligation to do such.
We don’t want a dead desal plant lying around do we?
Well, you wouldn’t really see anything. You would see a—you’ve seen the finished pictures, it would look better than what it looks [like there] today if they finish the—
What exactly would it look like?
They have a small single-story building and they have a couple of reservoirs. That will be brand new if they get that far. Aesthetically, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.
But it seems like it’s usually the taxpayers who get it one way or another for corporate failures. You’ve seen that with banks, with auto manufacturers, with electricity. So how can we get around having to foot the bill in some way in the future if the Poseidon plant doesn’t succeed—
From the city’s standpoint I guess it’s up to the council, just like the $700 billion bailout. The Congress decided it was better to put that out there than have the whole economy go to a depression, is what we were scared of. It’s still awfully dreary looking out there. I haven’t seen anything from the half they’ve used (this was before Obama took office)…I don’t know the answers to all that but there were decisions that they didn’t have to make, they decided that that solution was better than not jumping in at all.
Why couldn’t the city council have approved the kind of desalination plant that’s going in at Dana Point, that goes under the sand, is more economically feasible, less energy consuming and better for conservation, and it’s publically owned too?
I thought you didn’t want to have the financial risk?
It’s not a risk. That’s the big difference in that plant and the one that Poseidon is building.
You say that it’s more financially feasible. If that’s the case, my guess is they will change it. And I think that’s after it’s operating. It’s not more financially feasible for today’s model for them to go underground and filter all that water through the infill pipe they have today.
Because Poseidon wants to use the once through cooling, which they may or may not be able to use, and which creates a huge environmental problem according to scientists, which the Dana Point plant will not create.
And if they make the rule that you can’t do the once through cooling anymore then maybe that takes care of that issue. But I think they still have the right to use that infill pipe even if that kind of cooling goes away.
That’s the issue of debate. But wouldn’t it have been beter to approve that alternative to begin with?
That’s what has been brought to us to consider. I don’t know really. Maybe in 20/20 hindsight you can say this but—
It was one of the alternatives that critics say was not adequately considered in the EIR.
Right. Well, if we’re going to do all the things the critics were saying, it was just “No, no. No way in hell. We’ve got plenty of water. We can last for the next 30 years. Don’t even talk about it.
How are we going to last 30 years as far as our water and the emergency groundwater situation declared by the governor? And based on what I just saw at the water luncheon, it is completely infeasible due to costs to replace the water distribution system because you have to do those surface peripheral canals. You wait 25-30 years and then you decide what to do? I mean, look, we’re four years into this already. And then they [Poseidon] probably have another year of approvals, if they get them. And in this market I bet we don’t see anything for at least five more years. So that took ten years. Imagine if you waited 25-30 years. If you always write it to the perfect technology, the perfect project, you’ll never get anything.
What about the things that we can do? We don’t have to wait so long for conservation.
Can’t we do much more in this city than we’re doing?
Absolutely. I just said that and I will say it again. The good news in Huntington Beach is that we use less water now than we did 18 years ago. We’ve been doing conservation, so we’re going in the right direction. And we haven’t used up all of our conservation opportunities. There’s still a lot more room for improvement there. So, the combination: education and voluntarism along with regulation where you demand it. So those approaches still have a lot more potential for saving water.