California's Coasts Lose at the Expense of LADWP Politics

Last week, I wrote that July 19th would be the next test of the California State Water Board’s resolve in finally enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect California Coastal Waters from a damaging practice called once through cooling (OTC).

The votes are in and, it turns out, the Water Board wasn’t willing to stand up to LADWP’s political pressure to protect California’s coastal waters.

The State Water Board gave LADWP an extra 10 to 15 years to comply with the OTC policy for its three power plants, Harbor, Haynes, and Scattergood (extensions from 2015, 2019 and 2020 to 2029), despite the fact that the Board’s own expert advisory committee on energy and reliability made it clear there was not enough information to justify pushing the deadlines back to accommodate LADWP.

Some of the Water Board members said they needed more information before amending the regulations, but a majority voted to amend them anyway, giving LADWP exactly what they lobbied heavily for. 

Oddly, the board seems to have forgotten that as recently as last year, LADWP thanked the Board for accommodating LA by extending the schedule to 2020, saying in a comment letter that it would “make every effort to comply with the… date of 2020.”

The hearing was a something of a carnival.  LADWP, the owner of the three plants, was given unlimited time, and took over an hour and a half to persuade the board why it needed more time to phase out once through cooling, while all other speakers were requested to limit comments to three minutes each. 

LADWP showed pictures of wildfires, talked about earthquakes and brought out about every scare tactic you can imagine, claiming that without significantly more time to phase out OTC, California’s energy supply would be threatened.  Of course regulators should worry about these sorts of dire predictions if they were actually rooted in fact, but LADWP had only assertions and no analysis to back up these worst-case claims and seemed to play only into fear of the “what if.”   Unfortunately, it worked.

Ultimately Chair Hoppin picked the compliance date out of thin air. Hoppin brought LADWP General Manager Ron Nichols back to the microphone to get him to support a deadline 2029-- despite no analysis (except LADWP’s assertion that it needed until 2035) to suggest that  any delay was necessary.  

The Board had no estimate whatsoever of the increased impacts to coastal waters from the extension. 

Ron Nichols has reason to be happy. He showed he had the right stuff: he has the political skills to roll the State Water Board--and that he knows a good environmental law when he sees one: it has a loop hole wide enough for LADWP.

Board Member Tam Dudoc , asked the other members to head the advice of the expert review committee to not extend deadlines and to require LADWP to provide additional information before taking any action, but she was outvoted. 

Board member Fran Spivey-Weber voted with Hoppin – ignoring the analysis that it took the Board six years (a process which LADWP participated in) to form the existing schedule and claiming that ‘it doesn’t make a difference’ since any date was ‘arbitrary.’

In addition to extending the deadlines for these three plants, the Water Board made changes to the language of the policy that paves the way for other plant owners to seek extended delays in exchange for minimal mitigation fees and assurances. Unfortunately for all of us, it does make a difference.  It now looks like it will be decades before California finally protects its coastal waters from this destructive technology, if it happens at all.

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