Spilling Salt

“It really confirmed our confidence in all we have said, but we remain cautious,” Kathy Biala says of the staff recommendation to the Coastal Commission. “It’s only a recommendation.”

For the first time ever, the California Coastal Commission will allow the public to participate remotely in its monthly hearing. On the morning of Nov. 14, there will be a video link from Marina City Hall so that residents who cannot make it to the commission meeting in Half Moon Bay may livestream their comments about the desalination infrastructure being proposed by California American Water.

This unprecedented new practice is just one of the ways that the commission’s new environmental justice policy, passed in March, is playing out. It’s happening as Cal Am seeks a permit to start construction of pumps on a Marina beach to supply a planned desalination facility just outside of city limits.

After the Marina Planning Commission denied Cal Am’s application, the company appealed to the Coastal Commission – the last stop in the appeals process before the courts.

An Oct. 28 report by commission staff recommends denying the permit due to the project’s relatively high cost, environmental risks and because an alternative water recycling project is available.

The report contains an entire section devoted to environmental justice concerns. “It’s one of the biggest projects that have come along that we have had to look at through the EJ framework,” says Tom Luster, an environmental scientist and lead author of the report. “It’s a classic scenario of a project proposed in a community that feels it’s not getting any benefits.”

Marina officials and community activists have longed said they don’t want to play host to infrastructure that would supply Cal Am’s customers on the Monterey Peninsula, with the exception of Marina, which has its own public water utility that draws from the aquifer underneath the city. Cal Am’s proposed pumps, known as slant wells, “could adversely affect” this groundwater supply, the report states.

The report identifies Marina as having “communities of concern” because of the prevalence of people with low incomes and people of color, and the “disproportionate amount of nearby industrial development,” including a landfill, composting facility and sewage plant.

“It’s clear from this report that this is about environmental justice,” Kathy Biala, a Marina planning commissioner and an activist with Citizens for Just Water. “All the risks and harms are placed in a disadvantaged community. This is exactly what gets played out everywhere there are powerful interests. We are at the mercy of the powers that be.”

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As part of its focus on justice, the report also points out that the desalination plant’s relatively high cost would result in a burden on those Peninsula ratepayers who are already facing economic hardship. Cal Am has 40,000 connections in the region, which make up about 1.3 percent of the 3 million connections served by Cal Am and its parent company American Water Works.

Cal Am President Rich Svinland says that his company has no choice but to pursue desal because state officials have ordered it. And he says the project is in the best interest of the region – even if not everyone sees it that way.

“We are always willing to work with people to resolve differences,” he says. “We have been trying to be a good neighbor and I know not everyone believes that.”

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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