The Cambrian

Viewpoint: Holes in ‘The Drilling Project’ letter about mercury

Ifeel compelled to respond to Rick Hawley’s cleverly worded, but grossly inaccurate, letter entitled, “

“The Drilling Project” (Editor’s note: The letter was included as a paid advertisement in the form of a flyer inserted in the July 8 Cambrian and scheduled for inclusion in the July 15 and 22 Cambrians). Mr. Hawley’s letter omits a number of key facts, twists others and recklessly asserts that somehow the desalination test wells approved by the California Coastal Commission pose a risk to the public health. I am reminded of the admonition given by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes — freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment; however, there is no right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.

Mr. Hawley’s comparison of the Coastal Commission’s approval of the desalination test wells to the federal government’s approval of the BP offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico is a cheap shot that has no basis in fact. The California Coastal Commission, an agency with a well-deserved reputation as one of the toughest environmental review and enforcement agencies in the nation, considered all of the alleged impacts associated with the test well project (including the allegations in Mr. Hawley’s letter that he presented to the Coastal Commission in person) and concluded that it merited approval.

Further, the Coastal Commission staff report on the desalination test well project addressed the mercury and methyl mercury issue and concluded that there is no risk of release of contaminants into the environment with the conditions of approval imposed by the commission. In fact, the Corps of Engineers has arranged for the test well borings to be done by a machine that bags the core samples as they are removed from the ground to ensure that no excess material is released. A video clip of this technology was shown to the commissioners at the Coastal Commission hearing on the test well project. Mr. Hawley was in attendance at that meeting.

Peter Douglas, the Executive Director of the Coastal Commission, whose pro-environment credentials are unassailable, informed the Coastal Commissioners that the review process followed by the CCSD, the Corps of Engineers and Coastal Commission staff was proper and thorough. He correctly explained that the environmental impact report that Mr. Hawley says the CCSD has avoided will be done for the full desalination project after the results of the pump tests on the test wells are in. It is safe to say that nobody pulls the wool over the eyes of the California Coastal Commission and its executive director,

particularly when it comes to desalination projects.

The timing of Mr. Hawley’s letter is very suspect. We’ve all known about the presence of old mercury mines in the Santa Rosa Creek watershed for decades. According to the diagram that accompanies Mr. Hawley’s letter, mercury is present in Santa Rosa Creek, a major source of Cambria’s drinking water. If the threat of mercury and methyl mercury contamination is real, why is Mr. Hawley only now raising the issue?

Mr. Hawley’s inflammatory remarks regarding mercury and methyl mercury contamination have no place in the debate over desalination. Let's have the debate. It will be a healthy exercise for Cambria because it will remind us all about the need to address our critical water shortage. As we have the debate, let’s stick to the facts and avoid the kind of scare tactics that divert attention from the real issues.

Greg Sanders is president of the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors.