El Diablo on California’s Central Coast

In the early spring of this year I was apprised of a proposed seismic survey action on the California Central Coast. The project taken on by PG&E is to map the geology, fault lines, and earthquake potential of the areas adjacent to and beneath the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.

Unfortunately at the time we were engaged in reviewing Draft Environmental Impact Statements (DEIS) for the Atlantic Coast seismic surveys and for the Atlantic Fleet Training Range and the Hawaii-Southern California Testing and Training Range. So by the time the PG&E DEIS for the project came across my desk the comment period had closed and I didn’t focus any concerted efforts reviewing it.

I was also honestly a bit relieved to not have been thrown into the ring on the Central Coast. This issue is incredibly contentious; with a nuclear power plant, fears of Fukushima-scale tsunami/earthquakes, as well as the environmental and economic health of the area at stake, there are many perspectives on the value, importance, and impacts of the project.

The Central Coast battle lines had already been drawn during the recent, and very contentious “Marine Protected Areas” scoping process, so between the commercial and recreational fishermen, the mothers, the surfers, the enviros, the “anti-government” wing-nuts, and a few *agents provocateurs*thrown in by the fossil fuel industry, they’ve had a great practice run for this new ‘discussion’ to be really messy.

Nonetheless the project does involve ocean noise pollution – OCR’s single
banner issue; it is right down the coast from our operations, and there are a number of people in our community who are asking us about the project, so wade in I will…

Being circumspect I will say that the entire project needs to be viewed under the rubric of “the balance of harms.” I believe that we humans can be pretty lousy neighbors when it comes to wildlife – marine and otherwise. We’ve already stepped into this up to our knees by building this power plant in the first place.

While I have not excavated the EIS as deeply as I would have had we decided to submit comments, I did review the thorough propagation modeling by Greenridge Sciences, and the fish and fisheries impact modeling by Tenera Environmental. The cetacean modeling and discussion was comprehensive but not as area-specific as I would like, and thus inconclusive.

It is clear that the project will be disruptive; that marine mammal feeding, foraging and social behaviors will be compromised; that fisheries and fish will be impacted, and that invertebrates may be harmed. It is likely that stress levels in all animals will be pushed up – with unknown intermediate and long term consequences. There will be short and intermediate term physiological and psychological impacts on many animals.

I don’t believe that doing the surveys concurrent to the annual Grey Whale migration makes sense – but other biological factors were entered into the model (e.g. fish breeding, egg and larval dispersal, etc.) that justified the timing decision.

None of this is good, but it will not cause the marine equivalent to a “scorched earth carpet bombing” that some of the opponents are advancing − something that could possibly occur should a yet-to-be identified fault line rip loose under the power plant.

The level of biological insult from the surveys will probably recover – particularly if the Central Coast Marine Protected Areas put in place earlier this year are honored.

One positive outcome of the contentious battles around this project is that the surveys were delayed and pushed across two years, so that the second year surveys can be tailored using biological observations from the first year surveys to decrease impacts; a mild consolation in light of the entire distasteful aspects of the project.

If there is an over-riding good in all of this, it is that we are learning how expensive nuclear power is. This should give us all incentives to conserve energy, and find less costly sources of renewable power.

3 comments for “El Diablo on California’s Central Coast

  1. September 26, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Well danced, Michael; all true. I’ve also been averting my gaze a bit from this one. Balance of harms–degrees of madness–threads of heart. Thanks for keeping it all in your sights….

  2. joey racano
    October 14, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Spoken like a biostitute who makes a living studying things with science that really only require common sense. The shaded wisdom of dropping a nuclear bomb every 13 seconds into the water where whales live doesn’t take a lot of reflection to arrive at. Perhaps your sheepskin skin should have come wrapped in a course in compassion and responsibility? Also, please unpurse your sepia-stained lips when speaking of nuclear safety. How does seismic testing using 260 db air canon blasts equate to safety when no upgrades are scheduled for the nuke plant? What about the En Echelon faults discovered by Jim Brune? Do you require more than that? or is this forging ahead due to oil company pressure as well as the PG and E dog and pony show? Your walking-on-eggshells approach to such an obviously destructive and unnecessary project gives me the same feeling in my stomach as a two-day old taco.

    Joey Racano, Director
    Ocean Outfall Group

    • October 15, 2012 at 10:51 am


      I understand your passion about this issue, and sympathize with your position. Airgun surveys are the height of human hubris and should not be permitted. It is a destructive shortcut to resource exploitation that our world would be much better off without – either the Nuclear plants, or the fossil fuel that these surveys are associated with. Unfortunately those who would justify these measures have the upper hand (Diablo Canyon was built despite all of the common-sense warning of the public).

      I have found in my 20+ years of conservation advocacy that those who do have the upper hand do not respond well to wagging fingers, pounding fists, and shrill ad-homonym attacks. Common sense notwithstanding, what they do respond to are well constructed arguments substantiated by scientific, peer-reviewed data. Unfortunately this exposes a number of vulnerabilities inasmuch as the research data and publication process is way behind the advances in the extraction and exploitation industry, and the precautionary principal has not yet gained footing in policy circles.

      We continue to hack away to expose the science in what we all know as “common sense.” Because I have been in the pool with these folks for years – and anticipate continuing my engagement, I find it much more productive (albeit cumbersome-slow) to continue a civil discourse with the purveyors, politicians, and regulators on these issues of concern.

      You might want to read through our brief comments and see what our recommendations (and opinions!) are on this exercise: http://tinyurl.com/98ccjk5

      Michael Stocker

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