Decision on seismic surveys near Diablo Canyon is postponed

The California State Lands Commission failed to make a final decision Tuesday on whether to allow high-energy seismic surveys offshore of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

The agency voted to approve the environmental analysis of the project but postponed the hearing to Monday at an undecided location. The commission discussed the issue for nearly five hours in Sacramento, but commissioners still have questions about how PG&E will mitigate the environmental impacts of the surveying, as well as whether the survey work could be extended to next year.

“There are very conflicting views of what we should do,” said Alan Gordon, deputy state controller who was sitting in for State Controller John Chiang.

PG&E, which owns Diablo Canyon, wants to map earthquake faults near the plant to better understand the seismic threats they pose.

Certifying the project’s environmental impact report allows a list of other state agencies to move ahead with granting their separate permits for the project, Gordon said. The Lands Commission is the lead agency, but the Department of Fish and Game and the Coastal Commission and other agencies must also approve the survey work.

Curtis Fossum, commission executive officer, said this is the first time in decades the commission has voted for such a postponement. Pedro Reyes, state deputy director of finance, agreed to the delay but said he was ready to make a decision.

“We could sit here and look at this for infinity,” he said. “I think we need to move forward.”

PG&E wants to have the project approved in time to begin surveying by Oct. 1. The work would consist of emitting a series of very loud sound blasts into the ocean off San Luis Obispo County over 33 days.

The three commissioners said they were concerned about the harm the loud sound blasts could do to ocean life, such as marine mammals and fish. They also said they shared concerns outlined by San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson about whether the research vessel and equipment PG&E wants to use is state of the art.

PG&E wants to use an academic research vessel towing an array of four streamers equipped with underwater microphones. This configuration will allow the ship to survey shallow waters just offshore of the plant. Gibson wants an independent third party to review whether the work could be done quicker using a larger vessel towing an array of 10 streamers.

“The assertions made by PG&E simply have not been demonstrated,” Gibson said.

PG&E seismologists told the commission that conducting such a review would cause the survey work to be postponed until next year, and the utility would miss a deadline set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a seismic hazard assessment to be submitted by March 2015.

The commission took the unusual step of having a video feed of the meeting at the Inn at Morro Bay, which allowed county residents to participate in the meeting without traveling to Sacramento.

Four members of the public urged the commission to approve the surveys as a way to improve safety at Diablo Canyon. However, more than 20 other people spoke in opposition to the surveys.

Some urged the commission to deny the surveys because of the damage they would do to ocean life. Others urged the commission to delay its decision in order to do more study of the effects of the survey.

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