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Is desalination damned in Cambria? 

Mercury contamination and other environmental concerns plague Cambria's proposed desalination plant.

SALTY SITUATION :  A 15-year fight between Cambria residents and district officials over a proposed desalination plant is heating up again amid fears of mercury contamination and other environmental concerns - COURTESY PHOTO
  • COURTESY PHOTO
  • SALTY SITUATION : A 15-year fight between Cambria residents and district officials over a proposed desalination plant is heating up again amid fears of mercury contamination and other environmental concerns
Los Osos has its sewer battle, Morro Bay has its controversial smoke stacks, and Cambria has its perpetual dispute over a proposed desalination plant. Residents there have been fighting with the town’s leaders for more than 15 years. Most recently, a proposal to drill testing wells drew loud criticisms from people worried about the environmental consequences of disturbing the fragile Cambrian coastline, particularly after officials claimed there wouldn’t be any environmental impacts.

“A lot of people in town got very concerned when the service district tried to—well it didn’t try—it filed for a categorical exclusion saying basically since in their opinion … there’s no negligible impact on biological entities that we could just skip the environmental review and go right to drilling,” resident Jim Webb said. Webb helped create several coastal protection areas in Cambria and was one of about 15 people who spoke at the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) Jan. 5 special board meeting. “A lot of us thought that was a bit hasty and not well supported.”

If approved, a desalination plant would treat seawater pumped from underground aquifers on the coast.

District board members decided to delay their vote until more of the potential consequences are addressed, which may result in some environmental review in the form of a mitigated negative declaration. One of the feared consequences, a problem almost unique to Cambria, is whether the construction of testing wells would break loose pockets of mercury left in the soil from historic mining operations.

The district is the first stop in the approval process of the testing wells and indeed the desalination proposal as a whole. The Army Corp of Engineers will take over the project next and attempt to gain approval from the California Coastal Commission.

On Jan. 11, in response to the district’s special meeting, California Coastal Commission Environmental Scientist Tom Luster wrote a letter to the Army Corp of Engineers warning that the well-testing proposal, despite the claim of no substantial environmental impacts, needed more work.

“Documentation submitted to the CCSD shows mercury contamination in and near Santa Rosa Creek and its associated sediments,” Luster wrote. “Because the project site includes areas that were likely within the creek’s historic channel areas, it may also contain some level of mercury contamination.”

Last July, New Times reported that potentially dozens of local inactive mines were abandoned with no cleanup measures and are leaking processed mercury into nearby water sources. The State Water Quality Control Board found one such mine, the former Oceanic Mine, was bleeding mercury runoff into the Curti Creek out into the Santa Rosa Creek and possibly into the Pacific Ocean.

According to Lynne Harkins, a Cambria resident and one of the most outspoken on Cambria’s mercury problems, the Oceanic Mine produced nearly three million pounds of mercury in its lifetime.

Asked about mercury, Cambria District Engineer Bob Gressens said it will be tested for, but probably isn’t as serious an issue as it may seem.

“What is the potential? I think it’s rather low in my estimation,” Gressens said. “But we’re going to test for it nevertheless and include precautionary steps [such as] bagging all the samples.”

But Harkins has already tested for mercury. She collected samples in the proposed testing site and had them analyzed for mercury and methyl mercury, the more toxic organic form. Harkins said her self-funded tests showed concentrations of three parts per billion for methyl mercury, which may sound insignificant, but in fact exceed federal and state regulations for the less-toxic inorganic variety.

“This stuff is really toxic in any amounts,” Harkins said.

But the mercury issue is just one sliver of a much larger environmental critique of the testing wells. Luster’s letter also identified deficiencies in how the district had addressed threats to steelhead trout, sea otters, and the potential for hazardous waste spills.

If Cambria addresses the issues, wins approval, digs the wells, and ultimately builds the desal plant, it would join only seven other communities on the California coast to have one.

If approved, the district would drill three water-monitoring wells and scrutinize them periodically over about two years. District officials would bore another six or seven holes to collect sediment samples and test for mercury and other materials.

Despite the public outcry, the well testing is designed to paint a picture of underground water the desalination plant might tap, treat, and pump to homes.

“Our intent of the investigation is to define different alternatives of where facilities could be located so that we can put them into an environmental impact report that will analyze numerous alternatives,” Gressens said.

So do it, many residents would respond. Harkins and others view the district’s approach—ramrodding the well proposal through without tying it to the desalination plant—as a way to piecemeal a project that many have argued against since it was first proposed in 1993.

“I don’t see how you can separate testing these wells from the whole of the project,” she said.

Jack McCurdy, a member of the local Sierra Club conservation committee, said the Sierra Club is following the issue closely and may soon take a more formal position.

“It seemed like the board was trying to put it on the fast track before the community got aware of it,” he said.

The district has tried before to build a plant. In fact, they had a proposal essentially ready to go in 2006, but it was appealed to the Coastal Commission and shot down. That project was proposed in San Simeon on a state beach, north of the current Santa Rosa Creek location. District officials took another stab at the San Simeon location in 2008, but have since moved the project to where the Santa Rosa Creek dumps into the Pacific.

While residents tend to harp on the environmental worries, the real driving fear is a desalination plant means more water, which means more ability to develop, which means more people. District officials added a stipulation in a water master plan that puts a cap of water hookups at 4,650 at dwelling units, or a population somewhere between 7,724 and 10,469 people, but it hasn’t seemed to quash such fears.

The town currently relies on the San Simeon aquifer for its water needs. Officials began exploring the desal option after they had to close their Santa Rosa Creek aquifer due to MTBE contamination, a gasoline additive. For now, that contamination and the corresponding water limitations are effectively keeping the small town small. And many seem to like it that way.

“Desalination is going to fundamentally facilitate growth and create the necessity to pay for it,” Harkins said.

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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