Ben Hueso—City Council president, California Coastal Commission member and state Assembly candidate—really, really wants there to be a desalination plant in Carlsbad. Whenever he’s been asked about the prospect of Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources constructing a plant to turn seawater into potable water, he’s expressed his strong support for the project. He supports it so much that he’s even willing to let the company write salutary letters that he then sends under his own name.
Poseidon’s proposed plant would take in 304 million gallons a day of seawater and provide 50 million gallons a day of drinking water to the San Diego region. As threats of water rationing hang over the region like the storm clouds we wish would come, the company has received renewed support from elected officials—from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Chris Kehoe to the Carlsbad City Council. And Hueso.
The documents, obtained by CityBeat under California’s public-records law, show that on at least two occasions, Poseidon vice president Scott Maloni sent e-mail to Hueso’s chief of staff, Alonso Gonzalez—himself a candidate for City Council—drafts of letters Maloni wanted Hueso to send to the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Both letters emphasized Hueso’s position as a Coastal Commissioner, and both asked the water board to vote to approve the desal plant. In both cases, Hueso sent the letters unedited.
Hueso is well-placed to help the company. He’s generally supported by the environmental community. As San Diego’s City Council president, he’s one of the most influential politicians in the region. And then there’s his voting gig on the Coastal Commission, which is charged with protecting the state’s coastline and whose approval Poseidon needs to start construction.
Poseidon has had, at best, a fractious relationship with staff members of the various oversight agencies from whom it needs approval. Its application for a permit from the Coastal Commission was particularly difficult. These staffers—typically experts in their fields who give advice to the political appointees who make the decisions—repeatedly had to ask Poseidon for additional information, each time becoming more insistent as Poseidon’s letters in response went from polite compliance to defiant challenges. Eventually, staff recommended that the commission’s board deny the application for lack of information, a recommendation the board overruled. Commission staff then had to evaluate Poseidon’s plan to mitigate the environmental damage it would inflict by sucking in those 304 million gallons of seawater. In the end, staff decided that Poseidon should be required to restore 55.4 acres of wetlands at a site to be determined later (itself a rarity—normally the mitigation plan names a site).
At its August 2008 meeting, the commission approved Poseidon’s mitigation plan. Hueso introduced the motions necessary for approval, reading from documents created by Poseidon for that purpose.
“It’s nothing particularly nefarious,” said Gabriel Solmer, legal director for San Diego Coastkeeper, which opposes the plant. “It’s relatively common for applicants to write the motions for the commission’s approval. But what I’ve never seen before was how these were color-coded so the right motion was read at the right time.”
However, the information the commission had was incomplete. It didn’t know that Chiara Clemente, a scientist with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Board, had found significant problems with the data Poseidon had provided. Because of some statistical errors and a mistake in converting from metric to imperial measurement, Poseidon had underestimated, by at least a factor of four, the number of fish its intake pipes would kill (as first reported by The San Diego Union-Tribune). The initial estimate had predicted that .96 kilograms of fish would be killed each day, but the number wound up being between 4.7 and 7.2 kilograms per day. Water board staff had noticed these errors and asked Poseidon about them in a February 2008 letter, but no one had told the Coastal Commission.
The water board, meanwhile, was scheduled to hear the project in February 2009, with final approval set for April. On Jan. 19, Poseidon’s Maloni e-mailed a letter to Gonzalez, Hueso’s chief of staff, and asked for the letter to be sent to the water board. Maloni’s e-mail also expressed hope that Hueso would send a staffer or an intern to the meeting to read it into the record. (The e-mail also indicated that Maloni and Gonzalez spoke on the phone about the letter). The draft is identical to the letter Hueso submitted on Jan. 21, which can be found on the water board’s website. Hueso sent Gonzalez to the February meeting, and Jessica Jones, assistant project manager for Poseidon, sent Gonzalez a long e-mail the night before the meeting with various details and instructions on when to arrive.
By March, Clemente, the water board scientist, had begun to get a clearer picture of how Poseidon had underestimated the fish kill. Her findings were disseminated to other water board staff and beyond. As the issue was set to come back before the board, Coastal Commission environmental scientist Tom Luster sent a letter to the water board emphasizing this problem and other issues the Coastal Commission had not known about when it made its findings.
“We recommend the Board not adopt Poseidon’s analyses as the basis of a board decision about the amount of mitigation needed,” Luster wrote.
That letter prompted Maloni to have Hueso write a second letter in support of the project. Again, the draft Maloni sent to Hueso is identical to the one attributed to Hueso on the water board’s website. In particular, the letter seems to be attempting to override Luster’s missive, repeatedly emphasizing Hueso’s role as a voting commissioner.
“As the maker of the motion, the intent behind my support of the mitigation was based on my understanding that the 55.4 acres was capable of providing comprehensive mitigation for the effects of the intake structures on the ecosystem,” the letter said.
The water board ended up delaying its decision until May, though it has indicated it won’t listen to any new evidence on the matter. Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas told CityBeat that his staff is examining the ramifications of the math error to see if changes to the commission’s mitigation plan are needed.
Calls to Hueso, Maloni and Poseidon senior vice president Peter MacLaggan were not returned by press time.Meanwhile, though plant opponents are bothered by the fact that Hueso had his letters written for him, they seem to think it’s just a symptom of a larger problem.
“I think it’s unfortunate that Poseidon has undue influence during the entire process of approval,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of Coastkeeper. “I think that Coastal Commissioner Hueso may have been caught red-handed, but I don’t think he’s the only one caught up in this. At every level, you really have the staff with the expertise trying to put the brakes on this project—at every point, it’s overruled by political appointees that Poseidon has a lot of influence with.” Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.