Newsom pushes controversial Poseidon desalination plant

When Governor Gavin Newsom was photographed eating at a luxury Napa Valley restaurant during an increase in coronavirus cases, many Californians saw it as hypocrisy. However for opponents of a planned $ 1 billion eviction along the Orange County coastline, the optics were threatening.

The unmasked Newsom celebrated a lobbyist’s birthday for Poseidon Water, which is close to acquisition by the final government for one of the country’s largest seawater desalination plants.

Poseidon boasts that the facility will provide a local inexhaustible water source for Southern California. Critics complain that Newsom and his political appointees exert great influence to benefit a private company that would produce some of the state’s most expensive supplies.

Emails received by The Times and the environmental group California Coastkeeper Alliance under the state’s Public Records Act indicate that top officials from the California Environmental Protection Agency participated in a review of the water commission’s complex proposal. In addition, Newsom took the unusual step of replacing a member of Santa Ana’s Regional Water Quality Control, who was heavily criticized by the project.

Although the Huntington Beach facility fulfills the state’s goal of diversifying California’s water supply, it would undermine other environmental policies. The plant would require large amounts of electricity; it would sit by a rising sea; and it would continue the use of huge ocean consumption detrimental to microscopic marine life.

“The governor has spoken many times about the importance of … ensuring the sustainability of California’s water supplies,” the Newsom office said in a statement. “Regions across California need to continue to innovate on local projects as climate change makes our state’s water supply more unpredictable.”

Two people familiar with the approval process say water commission employees who would need to be given authorization for Poseidon’s entry and exit operations before the company could go to the California Coast Commission for final approval have been under intense pressure to advance the proposal.

During three days of online hearings in July and August, board members questioned whether the water supplies Poseidon would provide were needed, noting that the company had yet to lock in a firm buyer for the 50 million gallons a day the plant would produce. .

The most difficult questions came from William Von Blasingame, a retired electric company whose second term on the board was about to expire.

With the board’s decision still pending, Newsom’s office announced on Oct. 21 that the governor will replace Von Blasingame with Letitia Clark, a member of Tustin’s city council who received campaign contributions from pro-posing working groups during her 2020 -reelection campaign.

“Again, I think the governor intervened,” said Karl Seckel, an Orange County water official.. “It seemed pretty transparent that he didn’t want Von Blasingame to be involved in that decision.”

In an interview with The Times, Von Blasingame said he is surprised Newsom is not holding him back.

“Changing someone in the last days of reflection seemed very unusual,” he said.

Newsom’s office said the governor “has carefully reviewed all appointments and made many changes throughout his administration over the past two years to bring in new members to give a new perspective.” Newsom is confident that Clark will “represent the interests of his community in decision-making on the board,” the statement continued.

While the project hearing was beginning last summer, according to reports, Cal EPA Secretary Jared Blumenfeld also telephoned and sent messages to three other board members, contacts whom Poseidon opponents say violated state law.

The communications that Blumenfeld advocates as appropriate were revealed recently of the board.

In the texts and phone calls to board members Kris Murray, Joseph Kerr and Lana Ong Peterson, Blumenfeld did not tell them how to vote. But according to the revelations – in which the three recount separate communications with Blumenfeld outside of formal proceedings – he stressed that the board has a very important decision to make.

He asked when the board would vote, wondered how the meeting was going – which was the most direct – and mentioned the administration’s recently published Waterproof Documentation.

In a statement, Cal EPA said it was Blumenfeld’s and Deputy Secretary Kristin Peer’s job “to be in regular contact and coordination with people and members of the Regional Water Board and members on various issues. Secretary Blumenfeld contacted three members of the Santa Ana board to offer the help of his office and it was later decided, with great caution, that these conversations would benefit from being put on the public register. “

The fortified portfolio was one of the topics on which Poseidon recruited the office of administration and governor.

Over the past two years, the company has paid lobbying firms a total of $ 839,000 to represent its interests in Sacramento, according to government secretaries.

Most of that amount, $ 575,000, went to Axiom Advisors, the company headed by longtime Newsom friend Jason Kinney, whose French laundry birthday dinner Newsom attended.

Poseidon’s pursuit of state approvals was not limited to lobbying. Email exchanges from regional board employees show that corporate vice president Scott Maloni has repeatedly plunged into business personnel.

In one email, Maloni offered “some suggestions that could help people answer possible questions from board members that might arise” at a March 2020 meeting.

In another, he asked board manager Hope Smythe to include a specific slide in his March presentation that could “proactively alleviate any board questions or concerns” about the need for Poseidon’s supplies.

When the March meeting was canceled due to COVID-19, Maloni demanded “to know the staff’s plans to correct course and the resulting schedule.”

An April email exchange between two state board water scientists who worked on the desalination project also mentions a “Poseidon meeting at the governor’s office.”

The email logs include many scheduled messages for calls and online meetings with board and Peer, a nominee from Newsom who is Cal EPA’s special advisor on water policy.

A companion scheduled one online meeting on “registration” for Aug. 6, the morning of the third day of Poseidon’s hearing, at which the board was expected to vote. Along with Smythe and two state water officials, Peer invited Maloni and Poseidon senior vice president Peter MacLaggan.

After another roundtable discussion on August 7, board members decided to continue the hearing because they had long-standing questions about aspects of the project, including the appropriateness of Poseidon’s plans to mitigate the environmental damage from its ocean consumption through environmental restoration work.

After a September date was scheduled and then canceled, Smythe offered to continue the hearing on October 15.

Maloni, who rubbed in earlier in the year under delays related to COVID, responded that the company needs more time to digest new mitigating information. “It simply came to our notice then don’t think a mid-October hearing is feasible, “he wrote. It didn’t happen.

In early November, records show that Blumenfeld planned a conference on “Poseidon Registration” with Peer, Maloni and a state attorney.

Board members are expected to return to the Poseidon project in April when they consider changes to the proposed permit, including additional environmental mitigation requirements.

One thing that hasn’t changed is a condition that the company get all the necessary approvals for the environmental work before it can run the landfill.

Poseidon argues that the provision will extend the project’s deadline and prevent funding. The company proposed an alternative language to terminate the condition that the staff included in the license for consideration by the board.

In a statement, Maloni said the modified permit increases the number of coastal habitat projects from three to five and the restored habitat from 21 acres to 84 acres. He added that the hearing had to be postponed last fall because Poseidon lacked specific details about the new mitigation requirements.

“We are proud of the transparent and inclusive process and look forward to the permission of the Regional Board,” Maloni said.

To project opponents, the e-mail addresses of the regional board are clearly illustrated.

“Faced with an arduous battle to get the necessary votes, Poseidon … asked to postpone the October hearing so that the governor has time to remove member Von Blasingame from the decision-making process,” said Sean Bothwell, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance .

“With a more supportive board, Poseidon is now working hard for a ‘get out of jail for free’ card that will allow the project to start operating before all the necessary permits are obtained to mitigate the serious pollution and marine life effects it will create.”