Enviros Turn the Tide

What started off under the radar ended up in the spotlight.

On June 18, the city council unanimously rejected a lease at Alameda Point for a digital data storage facility that would have been part of “the cloud.”  Just six weeks earlier, four councilmembers wanted to bring it back with minor tweaks to the language of the lease.

The facility proposed by Nautilus Data Technologies was touted as revolutionary and green, but environmentalists disagreed.  Using a “once-through” cooling system, the facility proposed cooling down its equipment by sucking huge amounts of Bay water through its servers and discharging the warmed water back into the Bay.  This system has been used to cool power plants, but the state is now phasing it out.  The proposal met with strong opposition from San Francisco Baykeeper, the Sierra Club, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, Alameda Point Harbor Seal Monitors, and concerned residents who all questioned why Alameda was considering allowing such a facility at Alameda Point.

The proposed lease was originally posted on the February 19 city council agenda’s consent calendar, where matters are considered routine and do not require discussion.  The harbor seal monitors thought it was anything but routine, and they sounded an alarm after noticing that warmed water would be discharged at the edge of the Bay Trail near where the seals haul out.

The city staff report said the project was exempt from needing an environmental impact report, but the seal monitors countered that assumption saying that regulatory agencies would have to sign off on the project.   As a result, the item was removed from the agenda and brought back on April 2, again on the consent calendar, with the water discharge pipe now shown as going under the harbor seal float and through the rock wall jetty.  This time city staff included five more exhibits with a list of needed permits, including an environmental impact report.

At the April 2 council meeting, the matter was again pulled from the consent calendar and discussed under the regular agenda.  The Sierra Club voiced concern that the warmed water might cause a harmful algae bloom, so the matter was continued to May 7.  On May 7 the council voted to move forward with lease negotiations.

But by the time the matter returned on June 17, the environmental community had weighed in, and both the community and the city council had become more informed about the associated risks of the proposed cooling system.

The facility’s only major supporters were Alameda Municipal Power because of increased revenue, and the Building and Construction Trades Council of Alameda County AFL-CIO because they thought the project would provide a platform for economic growth and job creation.

At the June 17 meeting, largely persuaded by a letter from Baykeeper stating that the proposed cooling system is an antiquated approach and harmful to the marine ecosystem, Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft led the parade of no votes.  While not wanting to say no to millions of dollars, Ashcraft said “money isn’t everything.”  She echoed the call to find truly innovative technology and bring it here.

Councilmember Jim Oddie’s previous dissenting position was reinforced by all those who spoke in favor of treating the Bay as a fragile ecosystem that was not meant for a laboratory experiment.  We need to speak for the wildlife “that can’t speak for themselves,” said Oddie.

Councilmember Tony Daysog thought that regional and state regulations are strong enough to ensure that a project does right by the environment.  “But it’s not to the state and regional organizations that I am accountable,” he said.  “I am accountable to the residents of Alameda.”  Daysog said he had not received one email from an Alameda resident in favor of the project.  “The residents have clearly spoken, and it’s not a project they want to see happen here.”

After all the risks and concerns had been highlighted by the environmental community, the entire city council was ultimately convinced to deny the lease.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

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