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Ocean pollution: Environmentalists vs. the DWP

October 3, 2010 |  8:50 pm

Kelp 
State regulators have issued a plan to allow the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to push back rules meant to keep coastal power stations from harming plants and animals living in ocean waters.

A proposal released Thursday by officials at the State Water Resources Control Board would give the DWP and other electric utilities the opportunity to delay the agency's deadlines for upgrading natural gas-burning plants that use seawater to cool their boilers.

The recommendation, if approved by the five-member water board, would deliver a victory to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's "jobs czar," First Deputy Mayor Austin Beutner, who has spent the last four months arguing that the proposed regulations, if left unchanged, would cost the DWP nearly $2.3 billion and lead to a citywide increase in electricity rates.

Beutner, who is also interim head of the DWP, attempted to stage an end run around the water agency six weeks ago by persuading lawmakers in Sacramento to draft a bill rolling back the new rules. By the time that bill was abandoned, officials with the water board were in talks with the utility over rewriting the regulations.

The changes, if approved, would cut the cost of complying with the ocean cooling regulations in half, Beutner said. DWP senior assistant general manager Lorraine Paskett said the DWP would still meet the water agency's environmental goals, but on a schedule that would avoid "rate shock" for its customers.

"I don't want to be presumptuous and say they're going to accept our schedule" for upgrading each power plant's operations, Paskett said. "But I'm hopeful, given the discussions we've had."

Representatives of three environmental groups warned that the proposed changes run afoul of the federal Clean Water Act and said they may lobby the water board to reject the amendments. "It does seem surprising to me that the mayor's office would support the gutting of a policy that is intended to protect marine life and protect our coastline," said Liz Crosson, executive director of Santa Monica Baykeeper.

Clean water groups have long demanded that utilities across the state halt their reliance on "once through cooling," a process that consumes hundreds of millions of gallons of seawater per day, killing fish, kelp and other marine life. Those organizations have called for utilities to install generating units that use recycled water or other methods to cool their operations.

Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy for the State Water Resources Control Board, said his agency proposed the changes after DWP officials said they realized that they could not meet all of their long-term environmental goals without imposing "substantial" rate increases. In addition to the ocean-cooling measures, the DWP is looking to wean itself off of coal and move to renewable sources of electricity, such as wind and solar power, Bishop said.

The water board originally imposed its ocean-cooling regulations in May, calling for a generating unit in the DWP's Harbor plant on Terminal Island to be replaced in 2015, and generating units in the Haynes plant in Long Beach to be replaced by 2019. The DWP's Scattergood plant in Playa del Rey was given until 2020 to replace its ocean-consuming equipment.

The latest proposal, which goes to the water board in December, would allow the DWP to continue using ocean water as long it promises to ultimately end the practice and replace outdated technology at the end of its useful life.

The DWP expects to replace three or four generating units before 2015, reducing ocean water use by 53%, Paskett said. Two units at Haynes may need until 2026 and one or more units at Scattergood may need until 2031. A single unit at the DWP's Harbor power plant may need until 2040, she said.

The new regulations would require the DWP, as an interim pilot program, to install mesh screens at each of its power plants, state officials said. In addition, the state water board would charge the power plants that fail to meet the deadline $3 for every million gallons of ocean water used.

-- David Zahniser

Photo: Kelp, found in abundance off Southern California, is a habitat for black sea bass, sea otters and other imperiled wildlife. Environmentalists say that hot water released into the ocean by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is endangering marine life. Credit:  Rick Loomis/L.A. Times

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