SANTA MONICA -- The California Coastal Commission on Wednesday rejected Pacific Gas & Electric's request for offshore seismic testing near Diablo Canyon Power Plant, the state's only operating nuclear facility.
The vote was a major victory for environmentalists, with many openly hoping to leverage the issue to hasten Diablo Canyon's demise. The powerful commission oversees the state's 1,100-mile coastline, and the board and staff agreed the proposal -- which already won approval from the State Lands Commission -- didn't meet stringent coastal rules.
"It's a high bar, and we don't feel like the questions of alternatives and analysis to minimize and perhaps avoid the impacts here have been (answered)," executive director Charles Lester said.
The offshore area near Diablo Canyon includes known fault lines, including some newly discovered. The testing is aimed at learning more about how those lines interact, which would give scientists a better idea of the seismic risks.
The project is opposed not only by environmental groups but by commercial fishermen worried the testing would impact their industry. Several opponents also said the project would undermine the recent establishment of a statewide Network of Marine Protected Areas, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council also raised concerns.
"We are trying to mitigate things to the furthest extent possible," said Mark Krause, director of state agency
The testing involves the use of air guns to send acoustic pulses across the ocean floor. The plan is PG&E's response to recent state legislation by Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, ordering the utility to better asses seismic risks at the San Luis Obispo County facility, which was built to withstand an earthquake of up to 7.5 on the Richter scale.
Those pulses resonate at 250 decibels at the source and up to 180 decibels within nearby Marine Protected Areas. Since first proposed, PG&E has scaled back the scope of the project.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which spearheaded an ultimately unsuccessful suit to force U.S. Navy sonar testing to comply with environmental laws, opposed the testing as did the Surfrider Foundation and Monterey-based The Otter Project.
ABOUT THE NOISE
PG&E officials downplayed the noise impact, comparing it to a cruise ship passing through the area. While the muzzle noise from a shotgun blast is 140 decibels, Krause said the noise levels are not unprecedented.
"It is seen all the time in bridge construction projects. A bridge piling is a 250-decibel sound source," Krause said.
Michael Jasny of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the project is significant because marine life relies on sound not sight. The testing can silence whales, disrupt foraging and force mammals from the testing area.
"It is sound that marine mammals and many species of fish use to communicate, to mate, to find food, to do many things that they need to do in the wild," Jasny said. "It is difficult to imagine a worse location environmentally than this particular area."
PG&E does not dispute the project impacts the marine environment, but Krause suggested the question is whether long-term benefits outweigh short-term effects.
"Reducing the seismic risk to Diablo Canyon, does that outweigh the environmental harm that we're talking about?" Krause said.
WHAT'S AT STAKE
A Diablo Canyon nuclear meltdown would have profound marine consequences, and the 2011 meltdown of the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi reactor looms behind the debate.
Diablo is also a critical piece of the state's power grid. In 2010, 14 percent of California's energy came from nuclear sources, though the state's other licensed nuclear power plant, Southern California Edison-operated San Onofre, is currently offline with no timetable for its return.
Blakeslee, himself a seismic expert, has long urged PG&E to take a closer look at the seismic risks at Diablo Canyon. As part of the renewal process for a 20-year license for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, PG&E asked the agency to delay a ruling until seismic studies are completed.
"I am concerned that the study outlined by PG&E, as currently drafted, may not be the proper design," Blakeslee said Wednesday, adding that he wants testing to proceed with modern equipment that reduces the number of air guns and the environmental impact while improving the data collected. "Simply sticking our head in the sand is not an option."
Hundreds signed up to speak against the proposal, and the testimony was both heartfelt and off-kilter. A woman said she was a voice for "non-humans," while another said she met a whale in August that changed her life. One man purported to act as a translator for someone else wearing a giant bear costume, with the bear communicating through sign language.
"Don't sell yourself to the devil!" hollered another man, beginning a rant about living off the grid before his time expired and his microphone cut off.
"I'm surprised Erin Brockovich is not here because we have so (many people) opposing the project," another woman said.
"We haven't gotten to everyone yet," Chair Mary Shallenberger retorted dryly.
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