PG&E’s fault line research could blast marine mammals with sound
Marine mammals including whales, dolphins, seals and sea otters that live and migrate along the Central California coast could be in for some mind-rattling commotion come November if Pacific Gas & Electric Co. receives clearance next month for a controversial research project. California’s largest electric company is seeking permits to conduct high-energy and possibly harmful seismic testing in the waters just offshore of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in San Luis Obispo County.
The government-mandated project would be conducted by a ship towing underwater air cannons that emit powerful sound waves down into the seafloor, allowing scientists to record three-dimensional maps of fault lines below.
The initiative is part of PG&E’s ongoing Seismic Safety Program that continually assesses the design of the nuclear facility, which PG&E owns, and its susceptibility to seismic activity, says PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones.
A multitude of environmental groups and concerned citizens are protesting PG&E’s plan. Among their concerns are the project’s proximity to the Point Buchon State Marine Reserve, located near the power plant, and the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, as well as the harm seismic testing could cause outside of the protected areas.
The project, which has been active for a number of years but has used only low-power sound guns, aims to gather more information about a fault line discovered in 2008 that runs close to the power plant.
Following the earthquake last year in Japan that caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, the effort to begin tests has intensified.
“PG&E is committed to conducting all their seismic research safely and in a manner that reflects community and environmental values,” says Jones.
While federal agencies have determined that the environmental impact of the offshore study may result in a “temporary disturbance” of marine mammals and that they may be forced by the sound to move away from the survey area, Jones says the research they have received from the state’s Environmental Action Report and the federal Environmental Assessment have not shown any long-term harmful effects.
They will also operate under the supervision of “trained protected species observers” and take extreme precautions during testing, Jones adds.
However, critics are concerned that the project could cause devastating disturbances to marine mammals indirectly, both through damage to the ecosystem and through potential side effects from the sound guns, which will emit up to 250 decibels every 13 seconds for 24 hours a day during the 12-day operation.
Because marine mammals use sound as their primary mechanism for finding food and communicating, seismic testing has the potential to cause serious harm, says Santa Cruz Sierra Club Chair Patricia Matejcek.
She says that under certain circumstances, the interference could lead to marine mammal deaths.
“If you blow out their ears, you effectively have killed them,” Matejcek says. “It basically is lethal.”
Matejcek also notes that the death of large quantities of fish would affect marine mammals by disturbing the food chain.
“They want to blow apart a huge section of the food web along this migratory pathway,” Matejcek says of PG&E’s plan.
Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, the California policy manager for Surfrider Foundation’s San Luis Obispo chapter, says PG&E’s seismic testing project appears to be one of the most damaging projects she has seen in her 17 years as an activist.
“The claim is that it can help to predict the safety of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, and who can argue with that?” she says. ”But as we dug into this, we realized some scary things.”
She points to the state’s Environmental Impact Report for the project, which says the impact on marine life will be “significant and unavoidable.”
The permit required for PG&E’s project authorizes them to potentially “harass” a large quantity of marine mammals and fish during testing, she says. To conduct the research, PG&E applies for an “Incidental Harassment” permit, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which authorizes them to make potentially annoying but non harmful impacts on marine mammals.
The number of animals that would be affected by the seismic testing is referred to as “takings,” says Sam Johnson, a geologist and geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey. When a marine mammal is only moderately and non-harmfully impacted by a project, it is called Level B harassment.
According to the Central Coastal California Seismic Imaging Project Environmental Assessment, submitted by PG&E to the National Science Foundation, the estimated “takings” for PG&E’s project include 13 humpback whales, 97 California gray whales, seven killer whales, 15 blue whales, which are endangered, 1,652 Bottlenose dolphins, 1,062 California sea lions, 1,485 southern sea otters, and “next generation sea life” including approximately four million larvae of all types.
Johnson says there has been a lot of confusion on the meaning of “takings.” Many have misconstrued the term to mean deaths, which he says would never be authorized.
“’Takings’ means marine mammals that might be anywhere from annoyed to adversely impacted in a more serious way,” he says. “Level B harassment disturbs or somehow changes the regular routine of a marine mammal.”
Sekich-Quinn says that what PG&E calls “harassment” can, in some cases, lead to psychological and behavioral changes that cause death. For example, she says a whale calf could become separated from its mother due to the sound blasts.
“When that happens, all bets are off,” Sekich-Quinn says. “Calves can’t survive by themselves.” Whales and dolphins may also be unable to communicate using echo location and not having the ability to warn each other about dangers, she says.
Sekich-Quinn also cites an incident in Peru earlier this year in which hundreds of dolphin carcasses washed ashore with injuries that scientists believe were likely caused by offshore seismic testing.
According to an article published May 28 in the the New York Times, marine veterinarians said autopsies revealed that the dolphins had bleeding and fractures in their middle ears, had gas in their solid internal organs and severe acute pulmonary emphysema. Sekich-Quinn also says seismic testing near whales can cause them to faint, and then sink and die.
Christine Patrick, of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association (NOAA), says they will provide PG&E with a permit for Level B harassment and that their research shows no harm will come to the animals under the project’s precautions.
PG&E’s precautions are based on a Marine Wildlife Contingency Plan, which includes having government agency personnel present on the ship, conducting a test to check how far the sound blasts travel underwater and a 1.2-mile safety perimeter around the ship during testing, Jones says. The perimeter will be monitored from the ship and a helicopter, so if any marine mammals swim close to their boundary, there will be a complete shutdown.
Patrick says that if harm beyond Level B occurred, such as the death of a marine mammal from seismic testing, PG&E would be subject to an investigation and prosecution under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The Office of Marine Sanctuaries has worked with the National Science Foundation to restructure the original seismic survey plan by moving it further to the south to minimize harmful effects within marine mammal sanctuaries, according to Scott Kathey, the regulatory/emergency response coordinator with the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.
Jones says the plan was adjusted so that sound blasts will not travel into either the Point Buchon protected area or the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.
However, Matejcek points out that the same sea mammals that frequent the Bay could be migrating down through the testing zones.
“These whales move up and down the coast,” she says. “They have huge feeding patterns.”
Gray whales begin migration in October and into November, Sekich-Quinn says, which could put them in harm’s way. “The whales you see in Santa Cruz could be migrating down toward where they’re testing,” Sekich-Quinn says. “They’d leave nice, peaceful Santa Cruz and cruise right into danger.”
If PG&E receives all permits from state and federal authorities, they will begin testing at the end of November. The test areas were reduced from four “box” zones to three, and PG&E agreed to limit testing to just one of the zones this year. The testing would take place over the course of 12 days in November and December, and the project would resume in November of 2013 to finish the remaining two boxes. PG&E still requires permitting from a number of agencies and will not be able to confirm their clearance until November, Kathey says. If any one agency denies them the permit, it could potentially shut the project down.