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Commission postpones desal mitigation decision

The California Coastal Commission on Friday continued an item indefinitely to select a mitigation site to offset the impacts of the proposed desalination plant in Carlsbad but the commissioners have more questions than answers.

Plant developer Poseidon Resources of Carlsbad and Coastal Commission staff had recommended the commission approve mitigating the site by developing a wetlands mitigation project at the junction of the Otay River Floodplain and the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge. It didn't work out that way.

There are numerous issues with the proposed site -- not the least of which is when the California Independent Systems Operator will authorize the demolition of Dynegy's South Bay power plant in the same vicinity. Without that decommissioning, it appears the favored mitigation site could be torpedoed.

The power plant, which only operated for about 30 days last year and a mere eight days thus far in 2010, has long been considered an eyesore, but even with its limited use, the ISO has been unwilling to decommission the plant until other power sources -- such as the controversial Sunrise Powerlink -- are in place.

Commissioners, in Oceanside for the hearing, were not only bothered by uncertainty over when the South Bay power plant might disappear, but were concerned that Poseidon didn't offer an alternative -- a Plan B as it will -- if the power plant isn't demolished within the next couple of years.

"At what point do we go to plan B?" asked Coastal Commissioner Adi Liberman.

"Poseidon did do an alternatives analysis. It's just not before us," said a frustrated Coastal Commissioner Esther Sanchez.

Commissioner Sara Wan seemed most concerned with the fact that nobody knows when the power plant will no longer be around.

"We're not necessarily going to find out what we need to know. It leaves us with a great deal of uncertainty," Wan said.

Commission staff agreed in its interpretation of a study on the alternative sites that the Otay River site was the best option.

"According to the study, the Otay River Floodplain site held the greatest promise for a successful mitigation project, largely because it provides adequate acreage and has an existing conceptual restoration plan developed through a programmatic EIR completed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in August 2006," the staff report stated.

The Otay River site was deemed superior among six options because among other things, it would go where the power plant exists and is already the location of a natural estuary. Poseidon considered a site in the Tia Juana River Valley as a distant second best.

Construction of the initial phase of the desalination project began in November of last year. The project is expected to be completed in 2012.

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