Thursday, October 11, 2012

Send NMFS comments on seismic testing

Comments need to be submitted by October 15. Below is what I sent. Feel free to excerpt from my letter in writing your own.

P. Michael Payne
Chief, Permits and Conservation Division
Office of Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

To the National Marine Fisheries Service:

I ask that you deny the Incidental Harassment Authorization for which Pacific Gas & Electric has applied in connection with its seismic testing project.

The National Science Foundation’s draft Environmental Assessment differs substantially in its estimates of marine mammal take from the Final Environmental Impact Report adopted by the State Lands Commission in granting the permit for this project. The EA states:

It is unlikely that the proposed action would result in any cases of temporary or especially permanent hearing impairment, or any significant non-auditory physical or physiological effects. Some behavioral disturbance is expected, if animals are in the general area during seismic operations, but this would be localized, short-term, and involve limited numbers of animals.”

The SLC FEIR specifically notes Significant impacts on Harbor porpoises, Fin whales, Humpback whales, Blue whales, Bottlenose dolphins and Southern sea otters. This discrepancy needs to be addressed before an IHA is considered.

The wide range of marine mammals being affected is unacceptable and far outside the concept of ‘incidental harassment’ as defined: small numbers that will have a negligible impact on the species or stocks. The impact on the food species for these large marine mammals should also not be overlooked. If their food is destroyed by the seismic blasts, which may well happen, the area will become useless to them and they will be forced to find other feeding areas.

The report identifies substantial ‘impacts’ to marine mammals and commercial fishing, as well as air pollution. The table on page 4.4-79 of the EIR specifies Level A Take of marine mammals, all of which are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Many are also protected under the Endangered Species Act. The fish, fish eggs and fish larvae that will be destroyed are the food these animals require. When that is gone, the mammals will leave.

Northern elephant seals are dismissed in a couple of paragraphs. "The northern elephant seal is present year-round off of central California; however, because they spend very little time at the surface and forage mostly offshore, at-sea sightings are rare." (p. 87) No further concern is expressed. In fact, elephant seals spend most of their time deep in the ocean, where the killing blasts will be directed. The time period, from November 15 through December 31, when PG&E has been approved to blast, adult males are returning to the Central Coast from Alaska for the breeding season.

The level of sound blasts from the air guns isn’t just loud, it’s deafening, 250 decibels. David Sneed, environment reporter for the San Luis Obispo Tribune, described it as "There is no everyday equivalent for that level of sound. Most decibel charts list the loudest sound as a military jet aircraft taking off at 140 decibels."

The suggestion is often made that the animals can simply be chased out of the area. Blair Jones of PG&E claims that "As they (the boats) come into an area, they'll start emitting low-pulse sounds to warn marine life in the area. Those sounds will slowly ramp up until we get to the level that's needed to perform the survey."

The notion that marine mammals can be harmlessly chased out of the immediate area is misleading. It’s a direct violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, for good reason, Level B harassment. An IHA cannot change that. This is these animals’ habitat. They live there because their food is there and they navigate to their breeding grounds via these areas. Where are they supposed to go? Someplace where there is no food, or be sent off their migration routes to find other ways to their homes?

Northern Elephant Seals will be actively migrating through the area during November and December. Juveniles will be making their way to the beaches for a needed rest. Blasted away from their rookeries, will they find other beaches? Or will they swim off and die? Adult males will be returning in late November and December. They swim deep and are seldom seen at the surface. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It means they are right in the air gun target zone. They need to get on the beach to prepare for the mating season. What happens when they can’t get to the beach, or their internal organs are liquefied? Will they cancel breeding season? Not knowing the answers to these questions makes issuing an IHA impossible.

PG&E spokesmen stated at the State Lands Commission hearing that operations would be shut down if any marine mammal was within 1.1 miles. With hundreds of thousands of marine mammals living off our coast, that boat will always be within that radius of whales, seals, sea lions and otters. They cannot possibly assure that the blasting will not be within that range, considering the deep-diving mammals that live and migrate through the area, even in the daytime. At night, it’s even less possible to see them and stop operations.

Pacific Gas & Electric has been given permission to blast the coast with 250-decibel air guns, 24/7, for 33 days and nights. The justification for this elaborate, expensive and destructive project is: “PG&E’s Geosciences staff believes that data gathered from the additional studies that comprise the Project would improve characterizations of these fault zones and allow PG&E to refine estimates of the frequency and intensity of ground motion that is likely to occur in the area surrounding and including the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. This information may also improve assessments of the potential seismic hazard at the DCPP.”

The original proposal was for a longer period of blasting but was not assured of providing data that would provide significant information. The reduced time period and area covered is even less likely to produce useful information.

The data PG&E hopes (but can’t be certain) this project will produce will not make Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant any safer. No modifications are contemplated, no changes will be made. The data will be used to create an improved, 3-D computer model. PG&E reps are enthusiastic over how they would be able to rotate and slice this CAT-scan-like image, so superior to the conventional 2-D X-ray images they find so limiting. I don’t underestimate the value of computer modeling in predicting future catastrophe, but weighing the certain damage against the dubious advantages of this technology makes Incidental Take unacceptable and unjustified in connection with this project.

Thank you.

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