Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cousteau on seismic testing

I had the privilege of reading this statement at the October 30 meeting of the San Luis Obispo County Supervisors' meeting:
Statement from Jean-Michel Cousteau, President of Ocean Futures Society on the Diablo Canyon Seismic Testing: Too Much Risk
October 29, 2012
            Gray whales are whales that have changed little over the past 600,000 years yet one of the first of the great whales to face extinction.  It is a marine mammal with the longest single migration and the most urban whale, passing some of the world’s biggest cities, along some of the most polluted coastlines.  In the Pacific, the eastern population of Gray Whales represents a conservation success story; their population is back to its pre-hunting numbers of over 22,000 after almost being on the brink of extinction just 75 years ago.  Unfortunately the Atlantic population was not so lucky, and has been extinct for over 200 years.  But despite its protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Pacific Gray whale and twenty-four other whale and dolphin species who are found off the coast of California, face many human impacts, including on-going noise pollution.  These marine mammals depend on an acoustic environment, we cannot add deafening noise to their aquatic environment; it is unacceptable.

Located along California’s central coast lies the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, an electricity-generating nuclear power plant that sits along Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo county and provides energy to nearly 3 million California residents.  Built in the early 1970s along a geological fault line, the power plant has had a long history of controversy with respect to both environmental impacts and residential safety.  As recently as 2008, numerous new fault lines running both onshore and offshore to the Diablo Canyon power plant have been found.  Combined with news of the devastating 2011 Fukushima earthquake and subsequent power plant failure, concerns have increased over the safety and necessity of the Diablo Canyon power plant.

            In an attempt to mitigate concerns, owners of the Diablo Canyon power plant, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), have chosen to mount an extensive seismic testing survey in the hopes of obtaining detailed 3D images of the fault zones near the plant.  PG&E plans to submerge underwater air cannons that will detonate blasts of 250 decibels every 15 seconds for several consecutive days.  These blasts are equivalent to the detonation of an atomic bomb and will kill or otherwise impact tens of thousands of marine animals including Pacific Gray Whales.  Considering the extent to which the marine world uses sound, particularly the twenty-five species of marine mammals that reside within California’s coastal waters, the air cannon blasts will have detrimental effects to animals within 250 square nautical miles of each of the 18 air cannon sites. Whales, dolphins and porpoises that are not killed by the immediate blast will likely suffer slow deaths, as impairment to their extremely sensitive hearing will result in an inability to find food or navigate underwater.  I have spent a great deal of time studying and learning about the lives of gray whales with my Ocean Futures Society team.   Once hunted to the brink of extinction, these amazing animals have been able to recover and now thrive within California’s waters.  Ocean Futures Society in co-production with KQED spent a year filming gray whales for the PBS Special, Gray Whale Obstacle Course. This special offers insight into the lives of these beautiful animals.  However, high energy seismic testing poses a huge risk to these whales, and all others that inhabit our coastal waters. Furthermore, the proposed seismic testing risks enormous damage to marine reserves and fisheries along the California coast, which are of economic and conservation importance.

            PG&E plans to spend $64 million dollars on seismic testing as part of a plan to investigate the risks of the current fault lines located near the Diablo Canyon power plant.  However, the testing will not make the plant any safer. It will only offer more information on the fault lines. Many environmental agencies argue that adequate testing has already been done. The measurements proposed are similar to those used to search for offshore oil reserves, and there is likely pressure from big oil companies to continue onward with these plans. Yet it is time we stop looking at the ocean as an endless supply of nonrenewable resources.  Our knowledge of the long-term ecological impacts is poorly understood, and we risk losing valuable components of the ocean ecosystem.  Our oceans are our life-support system. When we protect the ocean, we protect ourselves.

The California Coastal Commission is set to vote on PG&E’s request for a permit to begin the seismic testing on Nov. 10th.  Please join in our fight to stop this dangerous plan from moving forward. 

Oceans of appreciation,

Jean-Michel Cousteau

Friday, October 12, 2012

Plastic entanglement

It's one of the bad things we see at the bluff, a seal with unbreakable plastic around its neck. This seal clearly has had plastic around his neck, but it appears to me that it is now gone. It left behind a severe scar, but he looks like he's doing well.

Another example of why we must reduce plastic use and clean up the oceans. Jean-Michel Cousteau will be speaking on the subject in Colorado next week.

PJ Webb reports that another observer who witnessed the disentanglement of Green Tie last November thinks this seal might be him. Michelle Barbieri of the Marine Mammal Center sedated him and removed a green plastic strap from around his neck last November 11. He was seen on the beach recovering well November 18. Judging from the photos taken at that time and the double scar, it may well be him. Welcome back, Green Tie!

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.

Supervisors schedule seismic testing meeting

Bob Cuddy reports in the Tribune:

Yielding to growing public pressure, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors has scheduled a public hearing Oct. 30 to discuss PG&E’s proposal to conduct seismic tests off the coast near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
“I want to make sure this is aired out pretty well,” Supervisor Frank Mecham said of the utility’s plan to conduct the high-energy surveys.
The tests are part of a $64 million study that PG&E is conducting to better understand earthquake faults around the nuclear plant.
Extremely loud blasts of sound will be emitted into the ocean every 15 seconds in three areas of the Pacific, from near Cambria to Guadalupe.
Nine to 12 days of testing will be done this year and the remainder performed next year.
Seismologists will be able to use the echoes of the sound blasts from Earth’s crust to develop three-dimensional images of earthquake faults at the depths the quakes occur.
However, almost from their inception, the tests have drawn strong opposition because many people fear they will harm marine life, the local fishing industry and the economies of Avila Beach and Morro Bay.
That opposition has been building all summer, and again on Tuesday a dozen people spoke in opposition.
Supervisor Bruce Gibson, a geologist who has been closely tracking the movement of the proposal through various regulatory agencies, noted that supervisors have no authority over the testing, which is in the jurisdiction of state agencies.
However, like Mecham, he said he wants the public’s questions answered thoroughly — “a complete discussion of all points of view.”
While the board cannot make decisions on the plan, it can make recommendations, letting the responsible agencies know how local residents feel.
Gibson said the testing is a highly complicated proposal that raises economic, environmental, safety and moral issues. He wants all of that explored in a public forum.
There has been considerable misunderstanding of what is involved, and some false information is making the rounds, Gibson said.
The hearing isn't on the agenda yet, but the board's regular meetings start at 9 a.m. at the County Government Center, 1055 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.

Read more here:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Seismic testing

Public concern is mounting over PG&E's seismic testing.

The Coastal Commission has posted background information on its site:

Comments can be sent to the next agency to act on the project, National Marine Fisheries Service, before October 15.
Comments on the application should be addressed to P. Michael Payne, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910. The mailbox address for providing email comments is NMFS is not responsible for email comments sent to addresses other than the one provided here. Comments sent via email, including all attachments, must not exceed a 10-megabyte file size.
All comments received are a part of the public record and will generally be posted to without change. All Personal Identifying Information (for example, name, address, etc.) voluntarily submitted by the commenter may be publicly accessible. Do not submit confidential business information or otherwise sensitive or protected information.
A copy of the application containing a list of the references used in this document may be obtained by writing to the above address, telephoning the contact listed here (see FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT) or visiting the internet at:
The National Science Foundation (NSF), which owns the R/V Marcus G. Langseth, has prepared a draft “Environmental Assessment Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. 4321 et seq. Marine Seismic Survey in the Pacific Ocean off Central California, 2012” (EA). NSF's EA incorporates a draft “Environmental Assessment of Marine Geophysical Surveys by the R/V Marcus G. Langseth for the Central California Seismic Imaging Project,” prepared by Padre Associates, Inc., on behalf of NSF, PG&E, and L-DEO, which is also available at the same internet address. Documents cited in this notice may be viewed, by appointment, during regular business hours, at the aforementioned address.

Points you can make in your comments:

The NMFS Environmental Assessment is inconsistent with the CA State Lands Commission EIR--- takes will be significant and unavoidable. The full report is here.

They claim they will halt blasting if marine mammals are sighted within 1.1 miles of the ship, but it's impossible for monitors to see marine mammals at night. PG&E proposes to blast every 15 seconds, 24/7.

Harbor porpoises cannot tolerate over 120 decibels; therefore unless the air gun decibel intensity is reduced, porpoises will receive Level A Harassment.
Harassment: Under the 1994 Amendments to the MMPA, harassment is statutorily defined as, any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which--
  • (Level A Harassment) has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or,
  • (Level B Harassment) has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.