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Poseidon withdraws Huntington Beach desalination permit application; coastal commission tables vote (Update)

After eight hours of discussion and public comment, the California Coastal Commission decided Wednesday to  put off a vote on an application to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

The commissioners voted unanimously to hold off a final decision on the controversial proposal. Shortly after, the company seeking to build the plant, Poseidon Water, withdrew its application.

The commission staff wants Poseidon to do a study of the ocean floor off Huntington Beach to determine the feasibility of using subsurface intakes to bring water into the proposed plant.

Commission staff had recommended approval of the project if Poseidon used those intakes. And there was a motion before commissioners to vote on that recommendation.

Environmental groups Orange County Coastkeeper, the Surfrider Foundation and the Sierra Club have been fighting the project. They say the proposed plant's use of open ocean intakes would harm marine life and the ocean ecosystem. They also said the plant's use of energy would generate greenhouse gas emissions.

Pamela Crouch, with Orange County Coastkeeper, said  the "no decision" is a win for opponents. She said it became clear as commissioners deliberated that Poseidon didn't have enough votes to get its application request approved.

"It is a victory for us because it means that Poseidon did not have the votes they needed to pass their project," Crouch said after the meeting. "It is also a bit astonishing that after all these years, – it's been seven years that we've been suggesting we work together – it finally took this to get them to just do the right thing."

The company wanted to use existing open-ocean water intakes to bring seawater to the plant. Opponents say those intakes harm marine life, and the state has required they be phased out by 2020.

Poseidon Water Vice President Scott Maloni called the commission's action a "win-win." He said the company will study subsurface intakes, work with Commission staff and resubmit its permit application, at a later date.

"Because we get to continue to demonstrate that we believe that this is a feasible site using feasible technology, the commission gets the additional studies they want," Maloni said after the hearing. "This project has taken us 15 years, we're not going to just go away. We're going to spend the time it takes to obtain the permits we need and this allows us that opportunity."    

Maloni said there's no timeline for the company to do that and there is no timeline for Poseidon Water to resubmit its development permit application – but Maloni said the application would likely be refiled sometime next year.  

"I don't think it'll take very long to conduct the studies themselves, because ultimately the Commission staff has to determine whether they feel the studies are adequate," said Maloni. "In terms of time, it just depends on the Coastal Commission staff. We'd probably resubmit [coastal development permit application] right away to start the process and then we would start the studies."

During the hearing, several commissioners indicated they were prepared to vote in favor of requiring Poseidon to use subsurface intakes. But a motion was made to continue the issue and allow Poseidon to study using subsurface intakes.     

"After seven years, the commissioners punted," said Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman.

More than 300 people packed the hearing in Newport Beach. During public comment, audience members held up and waved various signs in support or against the project.

Poseidon said the plant would be capable of producing 50 million gallons of fresh water a day for Orange County.

The company went through a decade-long approvals process for a similar desalination plant in San Diego County. The Carlsbad facility is now under construction.  

Once Poseidon Water resubmits its application for a coastal development permit – expected in 2014 – the process will start again, and another lengthy hearing is expected. 

It took 10 years for Poseidon to get through the approval process and legal challenges before they started construction on their desalination plant in Carlsbad.

The Huntington Beach project may also take as long too – assuming it's approved. Poseidon Water received the first permit for the proposed project in 2006.