California Coastal Commission Silences Pacific Gas & Electric’s Airguns

By Krista Schwimmer

On Wednesday, November 14, 2012, the California Coastal Commission unanimously and vehemently denied Pacific Gas & Electric Company a permit that would have allowed them to conduct a high energy seismic survey off shore of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, along the Central Coast of California. To accomplish this goal, the Research Vessel, Marcus Langseth, would have towed numerous airguns, sending out high level sound impulses, in excess of 240 decibels, every few minutes, 24 hours a day, for a minimum of 12 days. No one in the room disagreed that such a barrage of sound would have some kind of a harmful effect. The question before the Commission then was whether or not P G & E could prove the survey’s benefit outweighed its inevitable harm.

The hearing, which took place in the Santa Monica Auditorium, lasted the entire day, reflecting both the enormity of the issue and the passion it stirred in a diverse set of people unified by this one issue. The California Coastal Commission received between 150 and 170 speaker cards to testify. As the day progressed, it became evident that all but P G & E were there in protest.

The California Coastal Commission opened the hearing with background history and then, their staff findings.  The lengthy and complex backstory included the passage of Assembly Bill 1632 requiring an assessment of the potential vulnerability of the state’s two nuclear plants; the Energy Commission’s report requesting P G & E to update their plant’s seismic hazard assessment; and the California Public Utilities Commission directives to P G & E for their 2014 licensing renewal. Although the California Commission’s own staff recommended the denial of P G & E’ s request, the company was granted the hearing under a “special approval” clause called the Coastal Dependent Industrial Facility Override Policy.

Making the case for P G & E was Mark Krausse. Krausse claimed that 3D high-energy offshore studies were needed to evaluate geometry and potential intersection of offshore faults. As for the use of such powerful airguns, he sited bridge piling, with its 250 decibel sound source, as a precedent. In his closing statement, Krausse argued that the “essential issue” was “one of public safety pitted against environmental protection.” Krausse’s hopeless position before the Commission was reminiscent of the song, “Alice’s Restaurant”, when Officer Obie, with his 8×10 color glossy pictures as evidence, watches in dismay as the judge walks in with a seeing eye dog. (Though, in this case, Krausse was up against a Commission and coastal community with hawk eyes for vision!)

At this point, a group of 9 environmental notorieties – including Surfriders, Sierra Club, and NRDC – led the seismic attack. The day-long testimony consisted of intelligent, passionate, and spiritual arguments against such a form of surveying that one grandmother said, would create “an acoustic prison” for the more than 2,000, friendly, Morro Bay porpoises who reside there. There was the organized presentation of environmentalists that showed the potential injury to the marine life there, as well as the ripple effect of it on the whole Marine Protected Area network. There was the fishermen and City of Morro Bay itself that spoke of the negative economic effect in that area. There were grandmothers, physicians, lawyers, and the 12 year old Aaron from San Luis Obispo who told the Commission that “the choices that you make now define integrity for our children.” Whether it was the fact that the harbor porpoise can suffer injuries at merely 164 decibels of sound or the dismissal of the ridiculous notion that it was ok for the endangered otters there as they hold their head above water, the crowd came well-prepared. Such levels of sound, too, could actually harm swimmers and surfers, unaware of the testing.

Some of the most moving testimony was given after lunch by speakers for the Coastal Band of the Chumash Nation. Fred Collins, Tribal Administrator for the Northern Chumash, began by reflecting on the very close connection his people have always had for the animal and plant nations. His own family, he said, comes from the village where Diablo Canyon is built. He called this issue, “the biggest issue that ever has been along our coastline.” The second Chumash speaker, Mati Waiya, went more deeply into the Chumash tribe’s longtime connection to this land – 30,000 years, according to his elders. He called his tribe, “the dolphin people”, who teach their children the relationship to the dolphins and the memory that “our whales carry. As families, (the whales) travel in pods and they mourn the death of their loved ones. Just like you do.” He told the Commission that “you carry the tear of the whales in your hand,” advising them to see truth through the smoke and mirrors before them.” He ended by asking them not to “wake up this land by this testing. Because you’ll regret it. This is what our ancestors say.” He also indicated, like the speaker before him, his trust in the Coastal Commission. “No one has the permit to take lives,” he concluded.

At the end of the hearing, when it came time to vote, the audience soon learned how seriously the California Coastal Commission took this request. Not only did each Commissioner vote against it, many shared stories of his or her unique connection to the ocean and its inhabitants. Dr. William Burke spoke of how he had once wanted to be an ichthyologist; but now has 9 salt water tanks at his home, filled with what he deems are “his children.”  Commissioner Connie Stewart mentioned how she, too, once touched a whale and found it powerful.

For many compelling reasons – ranging from the scientific to the spiritual – the California Coastal Commission denied P G & E that day. In doing so, they showed that they can be powerful allies to the coastal inhabitants – whether they live in or along the water. It was, indeed, a marvelous victory for marine life and lovers.

And yet, in the shadow of this victory, lies another, pressing concern, brought up throughout the day by commissioner and citizen alike. Should Diablo Canyon Power Plant even be there anymore? Rather than renewing their license in 2014, should we instead be scurrying to find solar and other energy solutions?

Answering this question could indeed be California’s next seismic matter.

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