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Supes on seismic testing: Do it right 

Driven by concerns expressed by one of their own, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted to show its support for long-awaited seismic studies to be conducted by Pacific Gas and Electric.

But that support comes with conditions.

County supervisors voted unanimously to send a letter to the State Lands Commission ahead of a make-or-break hearing for PG&E in Sacramento on Aug. 14. In the letter, they said that if the utility’s survey plans are properly designed and executed, the county will benefit greatly from a better understanding of the seismic landscape just off our coast, and near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Representatives for PG&E are set to go before the Lands Commission next week to obtain permits needed to complete this phase of their studies.

PG&E Director of Nuclear Projects Jearl Strickland told the supervisors that the company hopes to start surveys off the Central Coast in October, employing a National Science Foundation-owned vessel to troll the waters in a grid formation as far as six miles out to sea. The boat will tow an array of acoustic receivers to pick up and record reflections of sound blasted from a massive bolt air gun.

But the need to send the letter came after Supervisor Bruce Gibson—who holds a doctorate in geophysics, and sits on a third-party Independent Peer Review Panel to oversee PG&E’s project—raised concerns over the methodology of the study, and of impacts to fisheries and marine mammals outlined in a recent environmental impact report.

“It’s clear to me that we need to do these surveys,” Gibson said. “But it’s also clear to me we only have one shot at this, and we need to do it right.”

Stuart Nishenko, the utility’s senior seismologist, described the underwater air blasts as “a little louder than a rock concert,” and pledged that there will be “extensive amounts of monitoring” during the surveys to avoid clusters of marine life.

PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones later told New Times: “We’ve got the right science plan, the right equipment, the right vessel in place, and we’re looking to minimize any impacts there might be on marine mammals and fisheries.”

The supervisors also warned that the surveys would have significant economic impacts on ocean-dependent interests, such as the commercial fishing industry, namely in Morro Bay, Port San Luis, and onshore businesses dependent on that industry. They said those interests should be “fully and fairly compensated.”

Tom Hafer, who told supervisors he’s been a commercial fisherman in Morro Bay since 1973, said the proposed timeframe for the studies would close off prime fishing waters during a peak season, and so far PG&E hasn’t made a fair offer.

“This is going to kill Morro Bay and Avila,” Hafer said. “And PG&E’s not stepping up to the plate.”

Strickland later told New Times that PG&E is in the midst of talks with local fishing associations to come up with a monetary compensation amount, but they hadn’t reached an agreement as of press time. He said the figure of $1.2 million has been floated, based on the maximum commercial catch value for a four-month period in the last decade. He pointed out that the physical testing is expected to last 33 days.

“We want to be fair,” Strickland said.

Should the State Lands Commission grant the permit, PG&E still needs the final sign-off by the California Coastal Commission.

PG&E has also applied with the California Public Utilities Commission to have ratepayers pick up the $64 million tab for the entire seismic project.

As it stands now, PG&E expects the offshore surveys to be complete by mid-December.

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