Citizens of the Central Coast will get a chance Tuesday afternoon to tell the Board of Supervisors how they feel about seismic testing off their shore. But the hearing, expected to be lengthy, is more than a gripe session. It could lead to the board asking the Coastal Commission to put the brakes on the project.
“We are considering making an explicit recommendation to the Coastal Commission,” said Supervisor Bruce Gibson, a geophysicist who has been closely watching the progress of PG&E’s plans.
He said the nature of that recommendation would have to await the hearing, but he did not rule out saying that the utility should step back.
“When you have whales and nuclear power in the same conversation” you need to proceed with caution, Gibson said.
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Supervisor Frank Mecham agreed. There is likely to be “some direction from the board in terms of a letter” to the Coastal Commission, he said.
The giant utility plans a $64 million evaluation of earthquake faults surrounding its nuclear plant in Avila Beach, including controversial high-energy offshore seismic surveys.
PG&E will also conduct Nuclear Regulatory Commission-required inspections called a "walkdown" to identify any additional earthquake enhancements that are required as a result of lessons learned from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident in Japan, which involved a powerful earthquake and tsunami.
The county has no regulatory authority over the testing. However, as Gibson says, it has the responsibility to listen to and protect its citizens.
Gibson said the county has made clear that it wants its commercial fishing industry compensated for economic hardships created by the testing. It also wants a thorough exploration of the testing’s impacts, and an independent review.
The issue is highly complicated. Mecham says he has been going over studies by others who have conducted such tests, including oil companies, which have conducted seismic tests off Peru.
There is no shortage of expert opinion on seismic testing and its effects on marine life. However, as Gibson has noted, there is considerable misinformation being circulated as well.
Residents of this environmentally-aware county have bombarded supervisors with requests to prevent the testing ever since PG&E announced its plans. They say it would be devastating to marine life. The county website is inundated with comments from citizens, many of them containing technological reports.
Lurking behind the question of whether or not to conduct seismic tests is the larger question of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and whether it is safe, Gibson says. That question must be answered, he says, and decisions made about whether to let the plant alone, make adjustments to make it safer, or shut it down altogether.
Blair Jones of PG&E’s external communications office said the state called on the utility to conduct the research, which will provide a more detailed picture of the region’s geology, and which PG&E will share with local governments.
Jones added that the utility is in discussions with local commercial fishing interests to find a “fair and equitable compensation” for economic disruptions during the time the seismic testing takes place.
In addition, he said, PG&E will conduct its research “in a manner that respects community and environment values.” In scores of similar tests elsewhere around the world, “no (harmful) long-term impacts have been observed,” although there has been “a temporary disruption to marine mammals and fish in the area,” Jones told The Tribune.