Permit for seismic testing off Diablo Canyon is denied

Environmentalists Cody Riechers, sitting left, and Connor Chicott, middle, hold up signs during a California Coastal Commission meeting in Santa Monica on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012.
Environmentalists Cody Riechers, sitting left, and Connor Chicott, middle, hold up signs during a California Coastal Commission meeting in Santa Monica on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. AP Photo

SANTA MONICA — No high energy seismic surveys will be conducted off the coast of San Luis Obispo County this year, if ever.

In a resounding success for tens of thousands of activists from across the state, the California Coastal Commission on Wednesday unanimously voted to deny Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s request to use extremely loud blasts of sound to study a network of earthquake faults surrounding Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Some 200 environmentalists, fishermen, animal rights activists and Native Americans from across the state packed a wing of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium on Wednesday. All of them were opposed to the seismic testing, and many wore T-shirts emblazoned with statements such as “Stop Ocean Blasting” and “Seismic Matters.”

It is now up to PG&E to decide how to proceed. PG&E spokesman Blair Jones said the utility will study the commission’s decision and the reasons behind the denial to decide what to do next. PG&E asked the commission to make an up-or-down decision and not spend the matter back for more study.

The commissioners repeatedly said PG&E failed to show sufficient evidence that the benefit of the studies would outweigh the harm they would do to the environment. The utility is spending $64 million on various types of onshore and offshore seismic studies.

Several commissioners said the studies will not do anything to make the plant safer or provide an ability to predict earthquakes. They also said it is unlikely that PG&E could ever be successful in getting a permit, and encouraged PG&E to use the information already available to evaluate the seismic safety of the plant.

“Approving the studies would open the door to this type of activity all along the West Coast,” said Commissioner Steven Kinsey. “It’s not a difficult decision to make today that we do not want to be opening the coast to this kind of activity.”

Commissioner Martha McClure said Diablo Canyon cannot be fixed in terms of the danger it faces from earthquakes and should not be studied to death. She said she wants the plant to be shut down.

“The studies were an attempt to push the can down the road,” she said. “I don’t buy the public safety issue at all. I want to see PG&E turn the corner and spend the $64 million on solar power.”

Staff recommended denial of the PG&E proposal mostly because the utility failed to show that the proposed project was the least environmentally damaging available and that proposed mitigation measures were sufficient, said Cassidy Teufel, a commission analyst.

The impact of the seismic blasting on the many marine mammals that live along the San Luis Obispo County coastline was the main concern, particularly the Morro Bay population of harbor porpoises. As many as 2,000 of these porpoises live in the area and as many as seven could be directly harmed by the loud blasts and the remainder will be displaced or otherwise harassed, Teufel said.

The effects of the seismic surveys on fish populations, marine protected areas, surfers, divers, fishermen and Native Americans were also noted by the staff and members of the public.

Commission staff was also critical of the $8 million in mitigation measures proposed by PG&E. Much of it consists of monitoring to make sure marine mammals do not come close to the sound-producing air guns. However, this monitoring would be ineffective at night or during high swells.

The proposal by PG&E to use air guns to emit 250-decibel blasts of sound into the ocean every 15 seconds for days on end sparked intense controversy. PG&E proposed doing one segment of the surveys this year in Estero Bay with the possibility of doing more surveys next year.

“This is the biggest issue that’s ever been along this coastline,” said Fred Collins of the Chumash Tribal Council. “This is the one.”

PG&E defended the seismic surveys, saying they would look seven miles deep into the Earth’s crust to determine if any of the offshore earthquake faults dip beneath the plant or are connected and could produce a more powerful quake than Diablo Canyon is designed to withstand.

“If you live around a nuclear plant, wouldn’t you want as much certainty as possible?” said Mark Krausse PG&E’s director of state agency relations. “We wouldn’t be doing these studies if we were 100 percent certain about everything.”

Many environmental groups lined up to oppose the seismic surveys, including the Surfrider Foundation, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They said the surveys are not necessary and that PG&E’s mitigation measures are not sufficient.

“PG&E has rushed these studies and haven’t done their homework,” said Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network. “Make PG&E justify these studies.”

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