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Upon further reflection 

State Lands Commission holds off on PG&E seismic permit

In light of public concerns and questions from San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, the California State Lands Commission disagreed with its own staff’s recommendation and held off on issuing Pacific Gas and Electric a permit to begin offshore seismic studies.

On Aug. 14, the three members of the commission failed to reach an agreement on whether to issue the permit PG&E needs before it may begin its high-energy 3D seismic surveys off the coast surrounding the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. They scheduled another hearing for Aug. 20.

PG&E must study the seismic risk before moving forward with its plans to relicense the plant.

However, sensitive to the fact that the Lands Commission is just one of the many agencies that need to sign off on the company’s project, the commissioners unanimously voted to certify the project’s Environmental Impact Report. Certifying the report allows the company to avoid delays to its mid-September meeting with the California Coastal Commission.

The proceeding lasted more than six hours, causing the commission to bump other agenda items, and stirring, at times, heated but “respectful” disagreements between commissioners, PG&E reps, and Gibson.

Commissioner Pedro Reyes, who was filling in for Director of Finance Ana Matosantos, was ready at the onset to issue the permit. Chris Garland, on the other hand, who was filling in for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, grilled PG&E and its seismologists on what he portrayed as a lack of oversight for the project.

Commissioner Alan Gordon—who admitted that he, as a college student, protested against the construction of Diablo Canyon—said he was concerned about potential environmental impacts, but noted the importance of the project.

“I do believe the people in Fukushima would look back and wish there was further research done to realize the risks surrounding that plant,” said Gordon, who was filling in for State Controller John Chiang.

Gibson, who has a professional background as a geophysicist, also sits on the third-party Independent Peer Review Panel, a five-member panel created by the Public Utilities Commission to oversee the science of PG&E’s project. He raised concerns about the vessel PG&E plans to use, and urged consideration of a larger boat to reduce the time necessary for the surveys.

The utility plans to use a National Science Foundation-owned research vessel to tow an array of steamers that will record sound reflected off the seafloor from massive air guns that blast up to 260 decibels into the water.

“Clearly, gentlemen, the stakes are high,” Gibson told the commissioners.

PG&E argued that delaying the process any further would cause it to miss a 2015 deadline placed on the company by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, though the commissioners questioned the stringency of that deadline.

Leading up to the hearing, Gibson and a number of local organizations such as the Sierra Club and the SLO Chapter of Surfrider, lobbied the commission to bring the hearing to San Luis Obispo County, so local stakeholders could attend and give their two cents. The commission rejected that plea, citing other items on the agenda and scarce resources due to budget constraints.

However, in an unusual move, the commission set up a videoconference at the Inn at Morro Bay so locals could watch the meeting and testify. The event was attended by roughly 50 people, the vast majority opposed to PG&E’s project.

Of the roughly 25 who testified before the commission, only four spoke in favor of the project. Supporters spoke to PG&E’s integrity and emphasized the need to gain a full understanding of the potential seismic dangers off the Central Coast.

“PG&E has been good stewards of the land and sea,” said Morro Bay resident Carl Dudley. “While the seismic surveys may be an inconvenience, the [project] is paramount and will contribute to the safe operation of the power plant for some time to come.”

Not everyone in Morro Bay was so gung-ho, namely the commercial fishing community, which stands to bear the economic brunt of PG&E’s surveys.

“I’ve heard a lot of slick talking, and some of what’s being said sounds like it’s coming from politicians—something stinks here,” said Giovanni DeGarimore, co-owner of Giovanni’s Fish Market in Morro Bay. “Let’s not shove this thing through.”

“While [the Environmental Impact Report] does not take into consideration those socioeconomic effects, you should, because you’re our landlord,” Morro Bay Harbor Director Eric Endersby said.

PG&E told commissioners that it has not yet come to an agreement with the fishing community for compensation, but noted that the company has set up an escrow account to handle claims from people who experience financial losses due to the project.

Following the meeting, PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones said in an e-mail that though the utility obviously wishes it was granted a permit, they were grateful that the commission at least certified the EIR and didn’t hold up the process.

“The commission’s approval of the Environmental Impact Report is an important step forward in receiving the necessary approvals to conduct this advanced seismic study,” Jones told New Times. “We look forward to meeting with the commission in the days ahead to provide any additional information they are seeking to issue a permit.”

Should all go according to PG&E’s plan, the surveys could begin as soon as Oct. 1.

The commission is scheduled to resume the permit hearing Aug. 20 at 9 a.m. Local residents can watch the proceeding live at cal-span.org.

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com

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