California Coastal Commission staff has recommended the state agency's board
deny PG&E's request to conduct high-energy seismic surveys offshore of Diablo
Canyon nuclear power plant.
The Coastal Commission is set next week to consider the controversial proposal to allow the surveys to occur in mid-November and December.
The testing, prompted by a state law written by outgoing state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, is intended to give PG&E and regulators a better understanding of the earthquake faults off the shore of Diablo Canyon -- information that became more critical following the tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan last year.
But in a staff report, Coastal Commission staffers say they believe the project "would still result in significant disturbance, injury and loss of marine biological resources" despite the monitoring program that PG&E intends to implement as part of its proposal.
Commission staff also wrote that there isn't enough available information to conclude that the utility's project is the least damaging alternative. For example, PG&E has reassessed some data collected during previous seismic surveys, but that reassessment was done at least a decade ago and covered only part of the available data, according to the staff report.
"Staff therefore believes additional analysis of the full set of available data using updated techniques may result in the opportunity for a smaller or shorter proposed survey," the report states.
PG&E officials are evaluating Coastal Commission staffers' recommendation and will work with them in the days ahead as the Nov. 14 meeting approaches, company spokesman Blair Jones said.
"PG&E is committed to conducting this proposed seismic research safely and in an environmentally responsible manner," he said. "Similar research is performed around the world without harming marine life. Our proposal includes an effective science plan, the correct research vessel, and comprehensive marine life protective and monitoring programs."
PG&E has already made steady progress toward completion of seismic studies, including two- and three-dimensional onshore mapping, as well as low-energy offshore work, Jones said.
However, PG&E cannot move ahead with plans for the high-energy three-dimensional seismic surveys offshore without Coastal Commission approval. The utility is in the process of getting 10 regulatory permits it will need to conduct the surveys.
Some agencies are waiting for the Coastal Commission's decision before issuing permits or approvals, Jones said, including the National Science Foundation, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"If the commission decides they won't grant a permit, we'll have to evaluate why they made such a decision to determine our next steps," Jones said.
In August, PG&E obtained a crucial permit from the State Lands Commission, which specified a smaller period of time for the work to be completed.
In September, the state Public Utilities Commission approved PG&E's request to pass along the $64 million cost of the surveys to its customers.
The CPUC sent a letter to the Coastal Commission in mid-October urging it to approve the permit, adding, "It is very important ... that PG&E remain on schedule and within budget for performing these off-shore seismic surveys."
The proposed seismic surveys would consist of emitting extremely loud blasts of sound into the ocean using air guns every 11 to 20 seconds in three areas of the Pacific, from near Cambria to Pismo Beach, over a 33-day period.
The proposed period of active air gun operations and surveying would be limited to about 17 days, including about nine days of surveys, five days of limited air gun operations to test the equipment and two contingency days should any parts of the survey need to be repeated, according to the staff report.
PG&E has planned an extensive monitoring program to minimize effects, including stopping use of the air guns if marine mammals are close enough that their behavioral patterns could be disrupted.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies have concluded that no marine mammals are expected to be injured or killed as a result of the surveys.
However, the sonic blasts will result in what the federal government calls "Level B harassment," or any human activity that causes disruption in behavior patterns, such as migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering.
One of the monitoring programs will measure the long-term effects of the seismic surveys on fish populations, something that has not been done before.
The potential harm to marine life has become a flash point in the local debate over the testing.
Last week, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors listened to testimony from about 70 people who spoke at length about potential harm to sea life.
The board then voted unanimously to send a letter to the Coastal Commission urging it deny the project as currently proposed because the plan had not met specific conditions the supervisors outlined in an earlier letter to the State Lands Commission.
The supervisors had asked that a third party team of experts review the technology PG&E plans to use to ensure that it is state-of-the-art, that fishermen and other commercial enterprises affected by the survey be adequately compensated for their losses, and that all environmental impacts are understood and addressed.
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