Plans to conduct high-energy seismic surveys offshore of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant won approval from a key agency Monday.
The State Lands Commission approved the surveys but specified a smaller window of time for the work to be completed. The new timetable is meant to reduce the effects of the surveys on marine mammals, particularly harbor porpoises and sea otters. As a result of the change, the survey work will likely be spread out over two years.
Alan Gordon, deputy state controller who chaired the hearing in Sacramento, said the public safety benefit of doing the seismic surveys outweighed their damage to the environment.
“We need this information,” he said. “The seismic surveys will go forward.”
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PG&E will be able to begin setting up for the surveys Oct. 15, but the survey work will be restricted to a period from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31. The utility had originally planned to start work Oct. 1.
This means PG&E will be able to survey two of the three segments but might have to return and finish work on the last segment in 2013, said Jearl Strickland, PG&E director of nuclear projects.
Spreading the work over two years will also give PG&E the ability to assess the effects the surveys have on marine mammals and make adjustments to minimize the impact of next year’s work.
“This gives us the ability to get in the water the first year, but the probability is that we won’t finish this year,” Strickland said.
The commission’s ruling also authorized the county to augment an independent peer review panel with a specialized consultant to review the project. This satisfied a concern of county Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who wanted to make sure the best possible technology is used.
Gibson had hoped the review would take place before the survey work began, but the consultant will not be in place until later this year.
The consultant will review the data from the first year of work and suggest modifications if a second year is needed.“It’s not exactly the way I wanted to see the process go, but it’s reasonable under the circumstances,” Gibson said.
It could cost as much as $300,000 for the additional review by the independent panel. The state Public Utilities Commission has agreed to authorize additional funds to pay for the panel if the $200,000 the county has on hand is not sufficient, Gibson said.
The high-energy surveys are part of a $64 million study PG&E is doing to better understand the earthquake faults around the nuclear plant.
The surveys will consist of emitting extremely loud blasts of sound into the ocean every 15 seconds in three areas of the Pacific, from near Cambria to Guadalupe, over a 33-day period. 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.
The project drew impassioned opposition from about 50 environmentalists, fishermen and local residents concerned about the significant disruption and damage the surveys will cause to ocean life, as well as to the economy of Morro Bay and Port San Luis.
PG&E has agreed to spend about $6 million on monitoring and mitigation measures, such as aerial surveys to avoid marine mammals. The utility will also have a claims process to compensate fishermen and other businesses hurt by the surveying.
PG&E must also get permits from the state Coastal Commission and the National Science Foundation.