PG&E allowed fee hike to pay for Diablo survey costs

PG&E has received another key approval for its controversial plans to conduct high-energy seismic surveys offshore of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

The state Public Utilities Commission on Thursday approved PG&E’s request to pass along the $64 million cost of the surveys from its customers. The utility has already received approval for the surveys from the state’s lead permitting agency, the State Lands Commission.

In its approval, the Public Utilities Commission cited the improved public safety that should result from the surveys.

“Enhanced knowledge of the seismic hazard near Diablo Canyon provides a clear benefit to PG&E’s customers as it enables PG&E to continue safe operation,” Administrative Law Judge Robert Barnett wrote in the ruling.

The surveys call for a research vessel to emit a series of very loud sound blasts into a large swath of ocean along much of the county’s coastline as a means of mapping earthquake faults near the nuclear plant.

The surveys are scheduled to begin in early November and will continue into December with the possibility of additional surveys in late 2013. Once under way, the surveys will continue around the clock, with a blast of sound emitted every 15 to 20 seconds.

The plans have drawn sharp opposition from environmentalists and fishermen who are concerned that the loud sounds will harm marine mammals and fish stocks. In August, spectacular scenes of humpback whales feeding for a week in Port San Luis also served to heighten public concern.

“The fishermen and local businesses in our community, which depend on marine life, fear for their livelihoods if these tests proceed as planned,” said Andrew Christie, director of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, in a letter to the commission asking that a hearing be held locally in order to give those most affected a chance for input.

State and federal environmental reviews of the survey work have concluded that the effect of the sound blasts on the ocean environment will be insignificant and temporary. State regulators, however, are requiring PG&E to develop protocols to minimize the environmental effects of the work, and the utility is working with federal wildlife agencies to monitor marine mammal populations before, during and after the surveys.

The survey work requires the approval of 10 federal, state and local agencies, many of which are still outstanding. The next important regulatory hurdle is the state Coastal Commission. It will hear the project during its next meeting, which begins Oct. 10 in San Diego County.

Jearl Strickland, PG&E’s director of nuclear projects, said he expects the surveys to start as scheduled in November, but lining up all the regulatory approvals is liable to “come down to the wire.”