PG&E asked the Coastal Commission to hear its application at the November 14-16 meeting in Santa Monica instead of the October meeting. Details will be posted on the commission's web site.
While this is welcome news, the project remains devastating to the environment, with even less justification. The data that can be gathered from this small area will add little is anything to the knowledge of the threat of earthquake faults to Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant.
Over objections of Central Coast residents and environmental groups, Pacific Gas & Electric plans to map earthquake fault zones near its Diablo Canyon nuclear plant by blasting high-decibel air cannons under the surface of the ocean.
PG&E's plan calls for towing a quarter-mile-wide array of underwater "air cannons" that emit 250-decibel blasts into the ocean every 15 seconds for 12 straight days. The sonic reflections would be picked up by underwater receivers and analyzed to provide detailed 3-D images of the geometry, relationships and ground motions of several fault zones near the Diablo facility, which generates enough energy to meet the needs of more than 3 million Northern and Central Californians.
"What we're after with this survey is the geophysical equivalent of a CT scan — a combination of imagery and information that we could slice and dice and scrutinize in great detail," said Jearl Strickland, director of nuclear projects for PG&E. "These kinds of surveys are being performed right now around the world with no problems."
Opponents say the method threatens sea creatures from Central Coast rockfish to whales, and they dispute PG&E's claims that there are no alternative, less harmful technologies available for the job.
"We're not saying seismic testing isn't needed," said Andrew Christie, director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. "We want them to take the time to explore potential alternatives that could do less environmental harm and provide better data."
Of particular concern are potential effects at the Point Buchon State Marine Reserve, a protected sanctuary, as well as on a population of about 2,000 harbor porpoises that reside in and around scenic Morro Bay. Harbor porpoises are acutely sensitive to manmade sounds, which makes them especially vulnerable to hearing loss and injury during the survey.
PG&E says environmentalists' fears are unfounded. The utility acknowledges that environmental effects will be significant and likely to include temporary displacement of most of Morro Bay's harbor porpoise population. But PG&E says it believes the survey's benefits outweigh the environmental costs. The California Public Utilities Commission ordered PG&E to conduct the risk assessment.
The utility initially planned to survey 90 square miles of coastline for 30 days beginning Nov. 1. But facing questions from state permitting agencies about potential environmental effects, PG&E on Thursday scaled back the scope and duration of the project's first phase to demonstrate its safety and effectiveness.
The modified proposal would survey 51 square miles, stretch over 12 days and focus on portions of the Hosgi, Los Osos and newly discovered Shoreline fault zones in the Estero Bay area. It would not reach into the Point Buchon area.
If all goes according to plan, the project will be expanded next year to include two other areas targeted for surveys near Diablo Canyon, including a portion of Point Buchon.
The California Coastal Commission plans to vote Nov. 10 on PG&E's request for a coastal development permit needed to begin work offshore. Later, the California Department of Fish and Game must accept or reject PG&E's request for permits to harass, but not injure or kill, protected fish and marine mammals in the survey area.
In a recent letter to the Coastal Commission, the Natural Resources Defense Council warned that approval of the permits would "set a harmful and legally dubious precedent of allowing adverse impacts to the biologically significant habitats and species in California's marine protected areas in the absence of compelling public need to do so."
The organization also argued that the survey is not essential to assessing earthquake risks and is not likely to result in improvement in the nuclear plant's safety. In a separate letter to the commission, the Surfrider Foundation suggested that in-depth analysis of existing seismic data and "worst-case-scenario models" would provide equally effective emergency preparedness and response strategies.
Other critics have suggested that PG&E use a larger vessel capable of towing longer lines attached to 10, instead of four, geophone receivers to record the echoes of the blasts. That way, researchers could cover a wider area in a shorter period.
PG&E dismissed that idea because a larger vessel would not be able to traverse relatively shallow waters, which it says is essential to the study.
The survey was scheduled for November and December to avoid the peak breeding seasons of harbor porpoises and southern sea otters, as well the highest densities of migrating blue, fin and humpback whales. Certified "protected species observers" will be onboard vessels at sea and in airplanes, on the lookout for injured animals and carcasses. High-intensity blasts will be preceded by low-frequency sound waves aimed at scaring off fish and marine mammals.
If a sea otter were observed in the vessel's path, or a whale were spotted within a mile of the operation, the air cannons would be shut down within seconds, PG&E said. The number of southern sea otters in the proposed study area is 352, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The death or injury of an endangered species would trigger an investigation that could potentially result in prosecution, according to Christine Patrick, spokeswoman for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
"All those precautions might help animals that can swim away," said environmental activist Julie Tacker of Los Osos. "But what about those that can't, such as abalone, clams and starfish?"
Those kinds of animals tend to congregate near shore and are not expected to be affected by the air cannons, which would be pointed straight down in water more than 75 feet deep, PG&E officials said.
Similar high-energy seismic surveys are planned for 2013 in coastal waters off Southern California Edison's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in northern San Diego County.
Locally, Matt Fountain of New Times covered the Fish & Game Commission meeting:
Pacific Gas & Electric took a verbal beating from the California Department of Fish and Game Commission when the energy company went asking for a permit to conduct its upcoming seismic studies, which will result in some degree of harassment of local marine life populations.
On Sept. 24, the five-member commission voiced concerns over the surveys, but admitted they have no authority over whether department staff issues the permit or not. Department staffers told New Times that they’re holding off on finalizing the permit until a laundry list of other state and federal agencies have had the chance to weigh in.
Following the roughly 40 people who spoke before the commission against the proposed studies, commissioners minced no words in voicing their opposition to expected “take” of marine wildlife, as well as possible effects on marine protected areas directly to the north of where the surveys are to take place.
“It’s a marine life protected area, not a marine life killin’ area. And as long as I’m here, we’re not going to recommend to the department anything that’s killing anything we’re trying to protect,” Commissioner Jim Kellogg told a cheering audience.
PG&E Spokesman and Pismo Beach Mayor Pro Tem Kris Vardas—abandoned by his fellow PG&E staffers who left for another meeting—testified that the company is in the process of spending approximately $4 million on a monitoring program to make sure no wildlife is harmed, including an underwater remote-operated vessel to scan beneath the waves for signs of injured fish and marine mammals.
Should wildlife be found injured or worse, operations would be shut down and investigated by the U.S. Marine Fisheries Service, as the waters would essentially become “a crime scene,” which goes beyond the scope of PG&E’s permit, Vardas said.
The commission also seemed baffled about what useful information the studies would glean, and how it would contribute to the ultimate goal of improving understanding of the seismic risk around Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
“I’m not convinced that nuclear safety would be advanced, as some people have alluded to,” Commissioner Michael Sutton said. “The only useful significant outcome I can see in this is that it might give us sufficient information that the seismic risk is so great that the plant should be decommissioned.”
The California Coastal Commission is expected to decide on whether to issue a coastal permit at its Oct. 10 meeting.
“I would encourage [the coastal commission] to proceed with caution,” Commissioner Richard Rogers said. “Any uncertainty of this magnitude is a very dangerous thing.”
Aside from the coastal commission and the Department of Fish and Game, PG&E still needs permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation before it may begin the studies.
New Times cover story put the damage into visual terms.
Fountain also wrote about problems with the research vessel that will be hired to do the work:
It’s the same type of testing used to explore for offshore oil deposits.
According to the NSF’s Zacharias, the foundation has yet to solidify its contract with PG&E.
However, both State Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo)—whose legislation mandated the studies—and county supervisor Bruce Gibson—who sits on the project’s Independent Peer Review Panel to oversee its operation—have been outspoken over their concerns about the Langseth not being “up to industry standards.”
The vessel came into service in 2008, but has only been operating in its current joint role as an academic-commercial seismic vessel for a little more than a year, following several years of dry-dock and various improvement upgrades. According to records of its stakeholder committee, it’s encountered mechanical and environmental problems in the past, and questions over whether it is fitted with the most up-to-date equipment have come up.
The 2008 minutes of a Marcus Langseth Oversight Committee meeting features a laundry list of various mechanical improvements it needs to get in “working condition.”
According to minutes from 2010, the Langseth’s operator reported marine mammals and smaller fishing vessels “snagging” the towed arrays during a 2009 cruise. In a separate cruise that year, the Langseth was forced to de-obligate a $1.3 million contract when a software-related problem caused an issue with the ship’s multibeam following a supposed upgrade.
In July 2011, the ship’s committee reported buying a new steamer and other equipment from Western Geco—a company Gibson had urged considering for the survey—worth a reported $5 million to $6 million, according to the report. The used equipment was purchased for a mere $400,000.
“This is helping to bring the gear to more modern standards,” the report reads.
According to a December 2011 report, approximately $8 million has been spent on upgrading the Langseth since 2008.
Others have pointed out that the boat is owned by the NSF, which is currently one of the agencies from which PG&E is awaiting approval.
A Federal Register notice detailing PG&E’s requested take was posted Sept. 19. Public comments will be accepted until Oct. 15.
Given approval by the California Coastal Commission—expected in mid-October—and the California Fish and Game Commission, surveys are expected to commence in November.