PG&E TEST FALLOUT: Sea Otters at Risk … and No Answers From USFWS

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]wp-content/uploads/SueArnold.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Sue Arnold is the CEO of California Gray Whale Coalition. She is a former Fairfax investigative journalist who regularly lobbies the US government in Washington DC, as well as the European Parliament and Commission on whale issues.[/author_info] [/author]

The PG&E nightmare is not over. Out there in the marine environment at least 42 sea otters are paying a heavy price. These are animals which have been trapped, caged, anesthetized then subjected to surgery that implanted a time-depth recorder and VHF radio transmitter into each animal’s abdominal cavity.

The incision had to be sutured closed without shaving the area around it so the animals don’t suffer from hypothermia. Sea otters were then dumped back at sea.

Details of the experiment demonstrate the callousness of the organizations involved. There’s no consolation in learning that the procedure has been utilized on dozens of projects.

“Captures will occur during September 2012 using scuba-based techniques from small boats, identical to the procedure used by our group on dozens of previous projects (e.g. Tinker et al. 2006). Captured sea otters will be transported to a mobile veterinary lab stationed at the Morro Bay Coast Guard office or other suitable facility (depending on the location of the targeted sea otter group). At the mobile lab they will be anesthetized by a qualified veterinarian for the placement of flipper tags, VHF transmitter, and TDRs. Health parameters, including weight, body condition, tooth wear, will be assessed at the same time, and a pre-molar tooth will be collected for cementum-based age estimation. Blood and tissue samples will be taken from each sea otter to evaluate overall health and nutritional state, immune function, pathogen exposure and presence, and exposure to petrochemicals and other contaminants.    

“In addition to venous blood samples, we will collect skin punches (obtained during flipper tag application), vibrissae (for characterizing diets via stable isotope analysis; Newsome et al. 2009), nasal swabs, and fat and liver biopsies.”

All without any formal consent to the PG&E HESS (high-energy seismic survey) by the California Coastal Commission. A brief look at the background of this experiment is useful.

As described in the USFWS September 26, 2012 proposed IHA for the project, in response to concerns about potential adverse impacts to southern sea otters:

“[PG&E] would be required to conduct monitoring of southern sea otters during the seismic surveys in order to implement the mitigation measures that require real-time monitoring and to satisfy monitoring required under the MMPA [Marine Mammal Protection Act]. Project personnel would be required to record information regarding location and behavior of all sea otters observed during operations. When conditions permitted, information regarding age (pup, independent) and tag color and position (for flipper-tagged animals) would also be required to be recorded.”

In addition, USFWS (US Fish & Wildlife Service) notes in the proposed IHA that due to the lack of scientific understanding and research regarding the response of southern sea otters to high levels of underwater sound:

“[USFWS] has recommended that PG&E and LDEO (Laurent-Doherty Earth Observatory) use the survey as an opportunity to investigate the potential effects of air guns on sea otters. PG&E and LDEO have agreed to address this request by arranging, with input from the Service, for the design and implementation of an ancillary scientific study during and after the survey and subsequent analysis. The study would be conducted by researchers with the appropriate scientific expertise and permits (USGS, Biological Resources Division, in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Game and other research partners).”

Neither PG&E nor US Fish & Wildlife Service waited for Coastal Commission consent to the permit. Divers were sent out in October to begin capturing otters for this obscene experiment. Clearly, the USFWS and other organizations/research partners involved in this exercise need to explain to the Commission and the public why the experiment went ahead without consent.

An appalling precedent has been set, allowing highly endangered animals listed under the Endangered Species Act to be used without proper consent as living experiments on underwater noise by the USFWS whose job it is to protect the species.

In one of the most highly invasive, unnecessary and downright diabolic experiments ever conceived by scientists, up to 60 sea otters were to be used as experimental models for the PG&E HESS. The purpose of the experiment? To determine whether sea otters were impacted by 250dB source level from an l8-gun array over a period of November and December. November falls in the sea otter breeding season and there’s no indication from researchers how many of the captured, anesthetized animals were pregnant or had young from which they were separated. Nor do we know how many animals may have miscarried as a result of the surgery and stress.

If ever there was a clear indication of how far the Administration and resource industry is prepared to go in its efforts to mine the west coast at the expense of marine creatures, this experiment is a prime example.

Many folk are deeply concerned over the plight of the captured and released otters. Who is monitoring the animals and what steps are being taken to remove the devices?

Under the study guidelines the following is stated:

“Beginning approximately 1 year after initial captures, attempts will be made to re-capture all study animals. Methods for recaptures are essentially identical to those of the initial captures. Sea otters will be anesthetized and archival TDR instruments retrieved for data collection. Health parameters will be re-assessed, tissue samples taken, and any missing flipper tags will be replaced.”

Given that PG&E claimed that the study would only involve a “small take” of 352 animals under Level B Harassment, the following statement in the published guidelines raise more concern:

“Any study animals (as well as non-tagged animals within the study area) that die during the course of the study will be immediately retrieved by field personnel. Data on primary and contributing causes of morality in wild sea otters, as well as information on environmental risk factors, can be obtained from thorough necropsies of dead animals (e.g., Miller et al. 2010). Any animals that disappear from the study areas will be located by airplane and, if a mortality signal is detected, personnel will be dispatched (by car, boat, or on foot) to retrieve the carcass. Carcasses will be subjected to detailed necropsies by a veterinary pathologist at MWVCRC following established protocols. In addition to determining the primary and contributing cause(s) of death, the pathologist will supervise collection of tissue samples for a variety of otter and ecosystem health studies.”

Yet the Federal Register Notice of the HESS states:

(3) Monitoring requirements and mitigation measures are expected to limit the number of incidental takes. Level A harassment (harassment that has the potential to injure southern sea otters) is not authorized.

Not only is the Fish & Wildlife Service culpable, but so too are the organizations involved in this Dr. Strangelove exercise which include collaborators from California Department of Fish & Game, Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center (MWVCRC), the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Otter Research and Conservation Department (SORAC), and the University of California at Santa Cruz and Davis (UCSC and UCD).

What kind of Ethics Committee at the Universities and other institutions allowed this experiment? What was the purpose of the experiment, which would have blasted sound levels in excess of 160dB for two months day and night at these animals?

Again, let’s look at the study guidelines according to the Federal Register Notice of September 26, 2012:

“In a study with a much larger sample size, Tinker et al. (2008) reported that central California sea otters spent approximately 40 percent of their time foraging. Because underwater behaviors constitute less than half of the total activity budget of southern sea otters along the central California coast, their exposure to underwater sounds is limited. Nevertheless, the disruption of underwater behaviors may result in the disruption of the entire activity budget of an exposed individual and, potentially, in the disturbance of associated individuals”

So according to Dr. Tinker, in fact sea otters spend 60% of their time underwater. Does this fact ensure that the animals would not be impacted by underwater noise?

The study guidelines make clear the damage that can be caused:

“Observed sea otter responses to disturbance are highly variable, probably reflecting the level of noise and activity to which they have been exposed and become acclimated over time and the particular location and social or behavioral state of that individual (G. Bentall, Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program, pers. comm.). Reactions to anthropogenic noise can be manifested as visible startle responses, flight responses (flushing into water from haulouts or “splash-down” alarm behavior in surface-resting rafts), changes in moving direction and/or speed, changes in or cessation of certain behaviors (such as grooming, socializing, or feeding), or avoidance of areas where noise sources are located.

“The biological significance of these behavioral disturbances is difficult to predict, especially if the detected disturbances appear minor. However, the consequences of behavioral modification would be expected to be biologically significant if the change affected growth, survival, or reproduction. Potentially significant behavioral modifications include:

  • Disturbance of resting sea otters
  • Marked disruption of foraging behaviors
  • Separation of mothers from pups
  • Disruption of spatial and social patterns (sexual segregation and male territoriality)

“Exposure to very strong sounds could affect southern sea otters physically in a number of ways. These include temporary threshold shift (TTS), which is short-term hearing impairment, and permanent threshold shift (PTS), which is permanent hearing loss. Non-auditory physical effects may also occur in southern sea otters exposed to strong underwater pulsed sound. Non-auditory physiological effects or injuries that may theoretically occur in mammals close to a strong sound source include stress, neurological effects, and other types of organ or tissue damage.”

Clearly, the fact that sea otters spend 60% of their time underwater in no way protects the animals from the impacts of acoustic trauma.

What about impacts on their diet? Otters eat all kinds of slimy marine life such as clams, worms, fish, mullusks, octopus, mussels, sea urchins, crabs and even snails. Each individual otter develops two-three preferences. One otter may like crabs and mullusks and another may like abalone and snails. Otters develop preferences to prevent competition for food between other otters.

Sea otters can dive up to 180 feet in search of food. Otters use their nose and whiskers to find food and to detect vibrations under the water.

Had the HESS gone ahead, would the seismic noise levels disturbed the vibrations underwater? We know there’s an abundant body of evidence demonstrating the impact of underwater noise on invertebrates. A workshop held by the BOEM (Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) in San Diego in March was focused on Effects of Noise on Fish, Fisheries, and Invertebrates in the U.S. Atlantic and Arctic from Energy Industry Sound-Generating Activities: Literature Synthesis.

A careful investigation of documents associated with the study on sea otters reveals no organization addressed the potential impact on prey.

It is also of concern to realize that comments from some sea otter conservation organizations largely failed to condemn the highly invasive experiment and the potential impacts on prey. Jim Curland, Advocacy Program Director of Friends of the Sea Otters, wrote to the California Gray Whale Coalition in response to our concern over the plight of the animals saying:

“We are very familiar and aware of the team of great researchers that are part of the proposal to monitor sea otter populations and believe this to be a very extensive monitoring project. I simply do have respect for the research team. We are also in a bit of a different position than organizations that work on cetaceans and pinnipeds because at least for cetaceans there is more concrete evidence of how noise negatively impacts them. With sea otters we don’t have that baseline. There are virtually no studies analyzing sea otter hearing ability and there are two women currently at U.C. Santa Cruz that have analyzed less than a handful of animals and their preliminary conclusions are that sea otters don’t have hearing abilities in the range of low frequency sounds that the seismic test proposes.”

The Coalition obtained scanty information on the experiment which is being conducted by two women at UC Santa Cruz who apparently have several sea otters in a tank with various levels of sound being directed at the unfortunate animals. Hardly baseline data and, again, an obscene way to treat animals who are used to diving 180 feet for their prey, not to mention basking in kelp beds.

While the Otter Project sent in strong objections to the experiment, in its 12-page comment to USFWS, the only comment relating to the cruelty involved in the experiment is found on page 10:

“Many many thousands of rate payer dollars are being spent to have high-tech rebreather equipped divers scoop dozens of sleeping otters up with Wilson traps, transported to a surgery suite to be anesthetized and surgically implanted with transmitter and data recorder, poked prodded and tissue samples taken, and then released dazed, confused, and undoubtedly stressed. Months later the otter will be tracked, trapped, anesthetized and cut open again.”

Steve Shimek, Chief Executive and Founder, summed up this project well:

“For all these rate payer dollars, and effort, what will we gain? A paper. The paper possibly published in an obscure scientific journal, many months maybe years, after the conclusion of the project.”

Some key questions need to be asked of the USFWS and the organizations involved in this experiment:

  • What will now happen to the 42 otters that have devices implanted in their bodies?
  • Who is currently monitoring these animals? How often? By what means?
  • When will the devices be removed? How? Who will supervise?
  • Why were so many animals subjected to such an invasive experiment without a permit being  consented to by the Coastal Commission? Have any animals died?
  • What purpose would be served by ascertaining the received sound levels which may or may not cause TTS or PTS?
  • How many of the 42 animals captured were pregnant?

The California Gray Whale Coalition has sought legal advice on the sea otter experiment from the Center for Biological Diversity. It would appear that the USFWS has acted ultra vires (beyond its powers) and violated its mandatory responsibility to protect a listed endangered species, but no legal challenge will reverse the damage, pain and suffering that 42 sea otters have suffered.

And just to put more dark icing on the obscene cake, rumor has it that the Navy is planning on moving the entire southern sea otter population further north. There can be no rest for the concerned public. Sea otters deserve the highest protection available and their best allies are the Central Coast communities that so valiantly fought and won the battle to protect this precious marine environment.

The community must demand answers from USFWS.

The ROCK Interview: ADAM HILL (Complete)

District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill

A resident of San Luis Obispo County since 1995, Adam Hill was elected 3rd District Supervisor in 2008, representing Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Avila and San Luis Obispo on the County Board of Supervisors. A proud Democrat, he was reelected to a second term by a wide margin in a rough-and-tumble race this year. Unlike most politicians, Mr. Hill doesn’t believe in playing it safe. He is intelligent, outspoken and controversial. Born and raised in New Jersey to working class parents, he fell in love with books early, becoming a voracious reader by age eight. The main role model of his youth was his Grandfather, an orthodox Jew who came from Russia through Ellis Island and devoted his life to the service of God and people in need. Mr. Hill worked for New Jersey Senator and former presidential candidate Bill Bradley, a hero and political role model. Eventually, he fell out of love with politics and went to graduate school for “books and writing.” He came out to the Central Coast in 1995 to teach in the English Department at Cal Poly and “thoroughly enjoyed 13 years there.” He wrote freelance for years, for publications ranging from Esquire to the LA Times on books, music and “weirdo art scenes.” He is a lover of dogs and has two Australian Shepherds, Alice and Nora. He is also a lover of music, especially jazz. Mr. Hill serves in several county leadership roles. With Supervisor Frank Mecham, he co-chairs the County’s Economic Development Project. He also served as the founding chair of the Homeless Services Oversight Council, and the chair of the capital campaign for the new homeless services center. Additionally, he is a board member on the Economic Vitality Corporation, the Council of Governments, the Regional Transit Authority, the Integrated Waste Management Authority and the Air Pollution Control District. He also serves on a special collaboration committee with the SLO Chamber of Commerce to strengthen and coordinate entrepreneurial activities with Cal Poly and the community. He has spoken or written on a number of important county issues, including green energy, climate change policies, compensation reform, gang intervention and crime reduction. Here is part 2 of our two-part interview with Adam Hill, followed by part 1:

The ROCK: Recently, plans to construct the proposed homeless service center on South Higuera Street were halted amid concerns that there hasn’t been enough input from area businesses and the community. Some have suggested that a downsized center and/or a separate detox facility would be more appropriate. Others are deeply hesitant about having a new homeless shelter in San Luis Obispo. As a member of the executive board of the Homeless Services Center (HSC), how would you like to see it play out, and what do you feel is the best way to generate more outreach to both businesses and residents in the community?

MR. HILL: We are looking into all things, beginning first with some solid policy documents that will allow participation from as many in the community as possible. Yes, we will need to go back for a more economical design, and yes, we are always talking about how to add key services such as a detox. All of this effort will take more time than we had originally anticipated, but it will help us be more successful in the end. We had such a reasonably smooth time getting the property entitled that I think we were overly optimistic about what comes next. But we’ll get there.

With homelessness a persistent issue in our economically stressed times, just how serious is homelessness in SLO County right now, how serious will it be in the future, as far as you can tell, and what do you see from a policy and budgetary perspective as the best way to contain it, if not end it?

Homelessness is certainly near crisis proportions in our community, as it is in most communities in our state. Because resources are so scarce, we’re looking to put things back to their original intent—emergency shelter and transitional help. We need to focus strongly and even solely on outcomes—getting people necessary services and getting them into housing. It will mean some tough choices ahead, and probably some very complicated but useful debates.

In January next year, Debbie Arnold will replace Jim Patterson on the Board. It’s been predicted by some that the current 3-2 majority once in favor of resolving environmental concerns will flip to a 3-2 majority that’s not as receptive to remedying those concerns. Are you confident that you will be successful in pushing for environmental reforms that the county needs? What would you define as the “best of all possible compromises”?

It’s really hard to predict how things will be with Debbie aboard. I have had no interaction with her, and certainly her Tea Party and COLAB affiliations concern me. That said, I will be welcoming and supportive and will hope she finds the necessary independence that the job requires if you are to do it well. As for compromises, it has gotten harder as the polarization in our county has gotten more rigid. Remember, we can only craft compromises in public, and if 30 people show up and demand a certain point of view and they happen to be affiliated with three of the Supes, compromise gets pretty difficult.

I have spent four years willing to lose friends for the sake of the common good and to solve problems. One has to sometimes resist the loudest voices, the voices of those who show up at the meeting, when they do not represent what is truly best for the community. If you haven’t lost good friends and supporters while in office, you probably haven’t done your job very well.

As a vocal Democrat, you early on sharply criticized some conservatives for embracing what you call “disturbing and demeaning imagery” about President Barack Obama and his racial background. This year, Mike Hayhurst, a rodeo clown performing at the Creston Classic Rodeo show, made a joke that many saw as racist toward First Lady Michelle Obama. Do you feel that racism, in some form, is still an active part of political currency in this county?

There is no doubt that racism still exists in some obvious and less obvious ways in the country and in our county. I think a lot of it is unconscious, often expressed out of cultural/historical ignorance, and often expressed out of innate discomfort with difference. Nobody seems very willing to talk honestly about race except when flagrant examples of racism occur, and that’s a major obstacle to true understanding. But if you’re asking if I think there is still a lot of racial anxiety out there, particularly among Republicans? Yes, of course. I don’t say this to demonize Republicans, I say this because it is true and it is evident in obvious and coded ways. It’s very very complicated and one has to want to know more and discuss the issue if one wants to have an informed view.

There have been some important writings on the issue; I’d recommend Te-Nahisi Coates’ essay : http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/ as well as books by Tim Wise, Michelle Alexander and Frederick Harris.

What do you do for relaxation when you’re not engaged on the various boards and committees you sit? Do you have a hobby? Do you travel? Where do you vacation? Do you read? What is the last book you read or are reading right now? What refreshes you?

I am an obsessive reader, and usually have five-six books going at once. I can’t help myself and probably read about 100 books a year. Right now I am reading: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt, Three Strong Women by Marie Ndiaye, Plutocrats by Chrystia Freeland, Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Gluck, and Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace.

I am also obsessive about music, jazz mostly, but I love everything really. And other than books and music, I love dogs.

“Unless there are enough people serving as the reasonable citizenry, the reckless idiots will too often have too much of a voice.”

 

What do you hope to accomplish in your new term in office that you either started in your first term and want to complete this term, or that represents a new direction or different mission? Where do you intend to focus your efforts for the County and your district?

In my next term, I hope we’ll be able to move the new homeless services center into construction phase. Of course that will take quite a lot of work and quite a lot of fundraising, but this project is so important and so desperately needed.

I would like to put some energy into drug and alcohol services and related mental health issues as they are all connected with some of the toughest social challenges.

And I will continue to be a leader for our business community, especially our employers. I’m a pro-business Democrat, and I think quite a few people in the business community have discovered that my leadership can be invaluable. I have credibility with people who don’t trust certain businesses, and our county staff trusts me when I push on them.

As for my district, I am proud to have helped good people on SLO City Council and Grover Beach City Council, and happy to collaborate and support both cities. Pismo’s city government will need to change and it will. I helped get one ally elected last month and I expect to help two more get elected there in the next cycle. This has made some people unhappy, but I believe I am doing what is best for the city and the sub-region by trying to affect change. As for Avila and Edna Valley, they will continue to thrive and I am happy to help that continue.

What haven’t I asked you that you think is important, that perhaps I missed and should be included here, and that the public should be aware of?

I think it is more important than ever for people to get better informed and more involved in local issues. I know it’s time consuming, but we are at an important crossroads in our community and it is so much harder than ever to get good people to run for office, so the public really needs to step up their role as sort of the guard rails against the Tea Party, COLAB, the small-minded haters who create this pornography of commentary—whether we’re talking about Congalton or Velie or anyone else with an internet connection and a lot of spare time.

I get the anti-government vibe. I understand the value and role of skepticism and suspicion. But unless there are enough people serving as the reasonable citizenry, the reckless idiots will too often have too much of a voice. People seem to not to want to admit that government has had, and should continue to have, a very important part in improving our lives. That’s why I am doing what I am doing.

Following is part 1 of the interview:

When did you first decide to run for Supervisor? Who or what provided the biggest influence on you in making that decision, and what was that input?

It’s a little hazy now as so much has happened between 2007 and now, but there were was a lot of unhappiness with the previous BOS’ decisions on land use, and some serious dissatisfaction with the 3rd District Supervisor.

There were several people who encouraged me to run, all of them are/were very politically active women, some who would eventually turn against me too—which led to some good early lessons on the value of independence.

Looking back, what would you say have been your top accomplishments in your first four years in office? One or two highlights is fine if you don’t wish to go deeply. Wherever your passion takes you…

Honestly, I don’t spend much time looking back, but a campaign forces you to do so, thus, I would say providing leadership on a whole range of issues—economic development, financial reform, homelessness, and public safety.  I am also very pleased that we’ve been able to put into place good land use policies and good anti-pollution policies. Certainly we’re all pleased with the two solar plants and also with the fact that we’ve kept some key employers from moving out of our county.

With bipartisan support on your side, you were able to maintain a reserve fund of over $80 million and you also downsized the County’s budget by over 10% without layoffs. This happened after your first year in office (2008) when you had a $30 million gap. Is it possible that lightning could strike twice, again in 2013, with the new board and given how the economy is shaping up this year?

The financial foundation of the County is very strong and we are now better prepared to weather cyclical downturns or even a worsening of the current economic situation. Achieving the pension and pay reforms has been huge to our overall picture, and we couldn’t have done it without the cooperation of our employees. They’ve really stepped up, and we’re in good shape despite the usual challenges (the state and federal governmental dysfunction).

“Yes, I am pugnacious and yes, I have a wicked sense of humor. But when people turn to me for help they get someone who knows how to get things done…”

Which of your key positions on issues do you think galvanized your 3rd District and resulted in your reelection in June of this year by a sizable margin?

Having been in every neighborhood and nearly every street in my district (walking precincts and speaking to people at the door), I have a fairly good sense of what my constituents care about and I try to be as reflective of that as possible. People on the left (which is the majority in my district) like my leadership on poverty issues and environmental protection, and people who hew more to the right like my hands-on involvement with the business community and my willingness to take on leadership responsibilities.

You had a fairly unprecedented re-election campaign, given the lengths people went to in order to reduce your re-election chances. Some of your critics focused heavily on a telephone call you made to someone, jokingly impersonating your political opponent at the time. Later, a critic of yours even attempted to impersonate you by registering an official-sounding domain referring to your re-election campaign. When you decided to run for re-election—which you eventually won by 16 percentage points—did you expect this sort of outcry from critics? What is it about you that your critics just don’t “get”? Is it partly your sense of humor, or the “Jersey boy” in you in the way you handled it?

It’s also no secret that you have been the ongoing target of scrutiny by a controversial local tabloid website. In one piece, they claimed that you’d gone on a campaign to smear their reputation and “shut down” their site in retaliation over articles they previously wrote about you and your private life. Or, is it actually the other way around and they’re the ones trying to smear your reputation? Which is it? Or is there something else going on here behind the curtain?

I’ll be candid: my loudest adversaries are really small, vile people, people who care nothing about the truth and care even less about how their actions damage civic culture. Whether we are talking about Congalton, Velie, or two guys who run COLAB, you have people who have staked financial interests in making their followers feel outraged and bitter. It’s not what I would want to do for a living, promoting polarization and distrust, but those folks seem rather content.

But you know what? They matter very little to most of the community. They occupy their little bubble of venom, they pollute a very small sluice of the public discourse, and I have found over the past few months that if I completely ignore them, I am much happier. The three factions I mentioned above—they are going to have to recalibrate if they derive joy from making me miserable because I pay them absolutely no attention anymore. They cannot beat me in an election no matter how much they try (and try they have and still do).  But they can get a small group of angry people to send me death threats or stalk me and I suppose that is satisfying to them.

As for my “Jersey boy” attitude, yes, I am pugnacious and yes, I have a wicked sense of humor. But when people turn to me for help they get someone who knows how to get things done, who is not afraid to push and politick and make things happen. I haven’t worked as hard as I have to sit politely and vote at hearings and do little else. I did this and keep doing this to improve our community. Sometimes that requires a little bit of the ‘punch & hug’ politics that I learned in the east coast that doesn’t always play well here among the more uptight and righteous.

But I am happy with what I am able to achieve and ask anyone who has worked closely with me on an issue or a project and they will tell you that my candor is appreciated and my cut-through-the-nonsense approach gets results.

Coming Soon: Part 2

Shock Waves: Anatomy of a Finding

What the California Coastal Commission told PG&E and Supervisor Gibson about their 3D high-intensity seismic test off the Central Coast that resulted in a 10 to nothing vote against it, why California and America were watching, and why PG&E and Gibson shouldn’t even think about coming back to reapply next year — even though Gibson said he’s ‘digging in’.

For Supervisor Bruce Gibson, political life outside the bubble of San Luis Obispo County is much different than within. He found that out on November 14 in Santa Monica when the California Coastal Commission voted 10 to zero to deny PG&E a permit to conduct a 3D high-energy seismic test in Estero Bay near Diablo Canyon – the same test supported with conditions by the County Board of Supervisor 5 to nothing on October 30.

The stark contrast between the Commissioners’ robust comments against the seismic test and the Board’s comments supporting the test is clear evidence of the serious disconnect between SLO County government’s perception of reality and actual reality according the rest of the state, if not the the world.

Amazingly, a combined total of about 225 people spoke during public comment at the Coastal Commission hearing and Board of Supervisors meeting. Not one spoke in support of the test. This rejection of the test apparently fell on deaf ears because at the November 20 Board of Supervisors meeting following the Commission’s unanimous thumping, not a word about the test was mentioned by the Board in public. Gibson gave no report, and not one of the supervisors dared ask for one. In other words, there was no self-reflection on the agenda; it was business as usual in San Luis Obispo County.

The Coastal Commission’s decision was far-reaching. In the broadest perspective, it was a precedent-setting denial of what would have become a springboard to a precedent-setting opening up of the entire U.S. coastline – west, east and south — to 3D seismic testing in state waters. Opening up the U.S. coastline to high-energy seismic exploration and an elevated threat to endangered species of marine life and mammals would have sounded a global alarm to international whaling and oceanic organizations. Before the Commission acted, PG&E’s vessels were only days from blasting the bay and estuary.

Immediately after the Commission’s decision, against a backdrop of joyous cheers, public celebration, and media coverage by LA stations KABC, KCBS, KNBC, KTLA, KCAL and KNX-AM radio, as well as the LA Times and Associated Press, Gibson was interviewed with PG&E’s Blair Jones by KSBY’s Cameron Polom, and began walking back several of his previously absolute positions, at least on camera. The italics are The ROCK’s:

“The technical experts on this found that using high-energy seismic surveys could reveal, possibly, information that would be important in assessing the earthquake risk. My concern had always been, are we doing it right? Because there certainly were a whole lot of marine impacts and if we were going to even think about doing that we needed to have the sense that this was being conducted at the very highest state of the art,” said Gibson, shading his analysis with dashes of doubt, perhaps for the first time. “The Commission wasn’t convinced. They weren’t convinced of the necessity of the information.”

While PG&E’s omnipresent spokesperson Jones struck a measured tone in his remarks to KSBY, Gibson tried to reclaim lost ground, becoming the aggressor in his comments, far more than Jones, as if it was Gibson driving PG&E’s project rather than PG&E, and that has appeared to be the case on numerous occasions.

“I would say that the need to assess the earthquake risk remains,” Gibson persisted on the issue of public safety, “and so with the information that has been collected and those surveys that are not part of the Coastal Commission’s purview, we’re going to go forward and we’re going to dig in because we really need to know what the risk of earthquakes is to Diablo Canyon.”

Though they disagree on the survey vessel, both Supervisor Gibson and PG&E have vigorously pursued the high-energy test while acknowledging that the damage to marine life would be, according to the EIR, “significant and unavoidable.” Gibson has been so determined to utilize a larger oil industry vessel, rather than PG&E’s smaller former-industry vessel that was picked, that he was opposed to the test taking place this year. He was confident that independent review – selected by him – would confirm that his ship provided the “best available technology” and PG&E would return in 2013 for the test. But that strategy backfired as he was lumped in with the opposition that included flat-out opponents of the test in any form, at any time, ever. He put his boat before the test and gambled that the test would return next year with his boat, and he lost. The Commission found the impacts of the survey overwhelmingly significant – and totally avoidable.

Gibson’s opposition to the test as proposed may have confused a few commissioners; his testimony was used against him, against the test, and seemingly against all high-intensity seismic tests in the Commission’s jurisdiction. Gibson’s gamble came up snake eyes.

In recommending denial of a Coastal permit for PG&E, the staff report succinctly stated its opinion of underwater seismic testing in general and specifically as it relates to the Commission’s mission: “The key Coastal Act issue of concern is this project’s significant and unavoidable impacts to marine resources. Seismic surveys are among the very loudest anthropogenic underwater sound sources (Richardson et al. 1995). The proposed conduct of high-energy seismic survey has the potential to adversely affect marine resources and the biological productivity of coastal waters by causing the disturbance, injury and loss of marine organisms.”

This bold, forward-thinking analysis held up under pressure from PG&E and a chain of federal and state agencies, such as the lead agency, the State Lands Commission, previously approving the test.

Even though the Coastal Commission denied PG&E a permit, seismic testing and its deadly impacts continue to gain national attention. There is still a seismic test planned off the coast from the presently out-of-operation San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant in San Diego County, and next March the Coastal Commission will hear the Navy’s proposal to conduct training exercises off the coast of Southern California that will produce lethal levels of damage to marine life. High-energy seismic tests for oil and gas, conducted largely out of range of the public and media — and without Environmental Impact Reports — have been taking place off of Alaska and Washington on the west coast, in the Gulf of Mexico, off the east coast, and around the world for years.

Meanwhile, a near-continuous flow of low-profile low-energy seismic surveys (LESS) near Diablo Canyon, intentionally using outdated Negative Declaration permits not reviewed by the Coastal Commission, have already seriously impacted the fish catch off the Central Coast, and produced mammal deaths in Morro Bay that still have not been explained and may be a violation to be investigated.

With PG&E and the oil industry so heavily invested in the technology, seismic noise remains a very loud issue that shows no signs of going completely silent anytime soon.

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Following are Commissioners’ key comments explaining their positions on PG&E’s proposed high-energy seismic test. The finality in almost all of their comments is unmistakable:

•“Because the technology exists we don’t (necessarily) need to use it… There comes a time when a test is just a test and it doesn’t need to be done.” — Dayna Bochco

•“This 3D test is not going to tell you (if Diablo Canyon is safe), and if it’s not going to tell you, then why am I doing this to the ocean?” — Dayna Bochco

• “This test is not necessary for the public welfare. In essence, (for) public welfare it’s necessary we don’t do this…” —Dayna Bochco

• “I’m especially dismayed at this dismal lack of information presented for us to adequately evaluate the impacts to critical endangered animals, including sea otters, the gray whale, porpoise, to spiritual and cultural resources, such as the artifacts and tribal remains in submerged ancient Chumash tribal lands, and to what they called grandfather dolphins, and to the fishing.” — Esther Sanchez

• “Monitoring is not mitigation.” — Esther Sanchez

• “It appears that PG&E is proposing a (project) highly dangerous to life, human and animal, in order to address public safety issues, and that they are doing it in denial that there will be no impacts, therefore no real mitigation is necessary, except, of course, to stop the work after how much destruction is unknown…” — Esther Sanchez

• “It (the survey) just never made sense to me… The guy (Fred Collins) from the Chumash Indians, he had me right out of the gate. When he said you have to care about us all, care about every living thing, I’m right there.” — William Burke Jr.

• “(I kept trying to ask PG&E) about what it is exactly that this testing will contribute to the state of knowledge that we don’t already know or suspect. I have not heard an answer, I have not heard anyone say that no matter how good these 3D images are that we will be one inch closer to understanding, let alone being able to forecast whether, when and how great a magnitude an earthquake could hit in that area…” — Jana Zimmer

• “These tests are not going to do us any good in terms of protecting the public welfare, and on the other side of that, the impacts to the marine environment are really clear and I think have been understated…” — Jana Zimmer

• “I’ve just not been convinced that the benefits of this work justify the potential risks or costs to our environment and to the unknown, the unforeseen and unintended consequences that may exist. We simply don’t have the skills or the abilities to monitor the outcomes that we would be triggering by doing this. If we were to embrace this technology what we’re really doing is opening the door – and this isn’t just a Box 4 issue, this is the coast of California, or even the west coast of the U.S. And when we open that door just a crack, it opens all the way… It’s not a difficult choice today to decide we don’t want to be opening this technology up.” — Steve Kinsey

• “We don’t need to have that information at all, and the damage that was going to happen to the marine mammal population is absolutely unacceptable. I don’t buy the public safety argument at all, because if you (PG&E) did the study and you found the fault line right underneath the plant, are you closing the plant? We (the Commissioners) don’t know those answers…” — Martha McClure

• “It’s up to PG&E whether or not they want to reapply. I personally would be hard-pressed to see a way they would get over the hump (and get to the override and permitted)…” — James Wickett

• “The realization that whatever came out of these studies if they went forward wasn’t going to change anything that was really happening at that plant, really cemented in my mind that the risks that we were taking and where we were going didn’t justify the end.” — Brian Brennan

• “Even though the staff did a fabulous job with the staff report, some of you brought up things that hadn’t been considered – all of the other folks who are coastal-dependent whose incomes are based on what goes on in our oceans… Certainly, with a project like this they can’t mitigate the loss to you.” — Connie Stewart

• “I’m struck by the fact that we just put all these MPAs (Marine Protected Areas) together and everyone who spent so much time on them. We’re now getting the baseline data for the MPAs, and what would this (test) do to all these base-line studies? If we really are going to stand for something like MPAs, I think everyone here has said there will be an impact to those areas.  If we can’t even protect them a year after we get them then what are we really trying to say here?” — Connie Stewart

• “For those of you who do live in the shadow of a nuclear plant, I’m struck by how much all of you are saying that marine wildlife outweighs your fears about (seismic) uncertainty. That was really powerful. You know, I have touched a whale, too, and I know it’s a powerful thing…” — Connie Stewart

• “The issue before us is simply, has PG&E provided enough information to convince us that the study should go over, and I am hearing a resounding no, they have not provided enough information for this study to go forward.” — Mary Shellenberger

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Following are additional relevant excerpts from Commissioners’ comments prior to voting on staff’s recommendations to deny a permit to PG&E:

DAYNA BOCHCO: This seismic testing is not consistent with the Coastal Act sections 302.30, 302.31 and its significant and unavoidable impacts to marine resources… (The staff report did a very good job of giving us substantial evidence that the level of impacts that PG&E was projecting under their analysis were underestimated. I saw that in many different areas. The unpredictability of mammals coming through (the test area). In the July 2012 Northeast Pacific Seismic Study where so many more whales went by than they ever predicted and they didn’t see them until it was too late to do Level A impacts. Those kinds of things we have to come to expect. Even though they might not happen we’ve got to take them into account. The staff analysis levels were much more protective of marine life and probably more realistic… It was very clear (from the staff report) that the harbor porpoise, being such a specific special creature in this one area, and because of the unknown incidents of what has happened to it recently, shows that they could potentially reach that biological removal level, and that’s just something that if it happened, it’s done. So in balancing the risk versus the benefits, I think those are really, really big and likely risks… As far as (PG&E’s mitigation efforts), unfortunately they’re just not adequate… The weather conditions, the sea conditions were underestimated. The fact that at night you can’t see as a marine observer. The fact that a lot of these (measures) are the kind of mitigation that you do just to see just to assess what’s going to happen, and so maybe the next test you make will benefit from that, but this test won’t. These animals are going to be impacted. And again since we’re not even applying for Level A taking, it seems to me it’s still likely that Level A is going to take place, and that again is an enormous risk versus benefit… Many people in this room, myself included, were participants in the Marine Protected Area research and meetings. It was a very difficult, long drawn-out process for Californians… It would be a tragedy really to take away the ability to measure what we have set forth just so recently. I also feel obligated to the fishermen in this room and those they represent that there should be something going on where someone is analyzing the decline in the fish in this area. I saw many exhibits in the staff report showing that it is steadily going down. This idea that perhaps the low intensity seismic tests are part of that, it’s important to know that, and I think something should be done about that, but that, of course, is not a part of our application at the moment. I appreciate that PG&E feels a lot of pressure from the fact that there exists this technology that they haven’t used offshore. I appreciate that there are several agencies that seem to be pushing them in that direction, but I must say those agencies are not designed to protect the coast, and that’s what we’re here to do. And, because the technology exists we don’t (necessarily) need to use it; it’s nice to know it exists, it’s nice to know that if everything else to do is possible and doesn’t turn out with something you critically need to know then perhaps you go and you look at that particular technology…There comes a time when a test is just a test and it doesn’t need to be done. Does this high-intensity 3D test in this one area Box 4 need to be done?… (PG&E) did convince me that there is a target there seven or eight miles below the ocean (floor) that would give them some more information about the Hosgri fault and how it dips down and goes maybe under not plant, maybe not; how it connects up to the other faults, maybe not. But again when I ask the final question, the hard question of: If you find out the worst case that the Hosgri fault is going to do this, all of those things (faults connecting) happen under this 3D test, you see it, would it make a difference, would the plant be unsafe? And there answer was: It is highly unlikely. ‘We have so much data on this information we feel that we can judge it from what we have.’ And they feel that the plant is safe…This 3D test is not going to tell you, and if it’s not going to tell you, then why am I doing this to the ocean? So when you talk about the second prong of the test, which I know the staff report didn’t go to, but I will go there, and if the rest of the Commission agrees with me, I hope they go there with me. It’s that we make a finding that this test is not necessary for the public welfare. In essence, (for) public welfare it’s necessary we don’t do this, and that if during all of the studies they have with the SSHAC and with NRC, and with everyone’s who testing – Fukushima has made an impression – if they find out there is just no way in the world they can judge this plant safe without this one test, then you come back, but I wouldn’t suggest they come back next year with just a few bits more information. I really do understand what PG&E is saying in that regard… I don’t think that we can get the information that would make us all feel safe or even prove to the scientists that the plant will be safe (by) doing this (test).

ESTHER SANCHEZ: I do find that our Coastal Commission staff is particularly qualified to address underwater acoustic projects including the project before us, so I disagree with PG&E’s statement that our staff is not capable of analyzing the relevant public safety issues… PG&E seems to be expediting this application despite having a mound of studies they’ve just completed. The record is silent as to whether they have either not had the opportunity to analyze these studies or are not providing the results of those studies to our staff nor to the public. I’m especially dismayed at this dismal lack of information presented for us to adequately evaluate the impacts to critical endangered animals, including sea otters, the gray whale, porpoises, to spiritual and cultural resources, such as the artifacts and tribal remains in submerged ancient Chumash tribal lands, and to what they called ‘grandfather dolphins,’ and to the fishing industry… There were certain points made today by PG&E, the first one being with regards to how to mitigate impacts. The statement was: ‘Stopping the work mitigates the impacts’… ‘Stopping the work mitigates the impacts.’ That is without any review, without any decision as to how much damage or destruction happens before it stops; and then to say that there’s nothing they have to do to mitigate those impacts. And I do disagree that monitoring is mitigation; monitoring is not mitigation. I also disagree with the claims process that was proposed for the fishing industry. How will something like that work when you have a standing position that there either are no impacts or significant impacts? So there would not have been any kind of mitigation for the fishing industry… There was mentioned ‘shareholders’ during the presentation (but they) did not mention the tremendous monetary impacts to the ratepayers. Evidence was presented via testimony that air guns silence whales, at closer ranger hearing loss and injury. This particular area is core habitat of harbor porpoises which are acutely sensitive to manmade noise. If the animals don’t leave, the injury will increase significantly… The area is part of the MPA network and this area is particularly critical to the MPA statewide. I was also persuaded by the testimony of Dr. Bruce Gibson, Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who testified as to the lack of state-of-the-art processes including the ship being used. It appears that PG&E is proposing a (project) highly dangerous to life, human and animal, in order to address public safety issues, and that they are doing it in denial that there will be no impacts, therefore no real mitigation is necessary, except, of course, to stop the work, after how much destruction is unknown… Applying the Coastal Act’s Coastal-Dependent Industry Industrial Development Override Policy, I find the proposal does not meet any of the three tasks of that policy… There’s just not enough information provided to staff and to us, either, through the staff report or during testimony. So insufficient information, no independent review, and not legally required. There was also testimony that there were also impacts to highly endangered gray whale, that they were left out, and the Northern elephant seals.

WILLIAM BURKE JR.: It (the survey) just never made sense to me… PG&E will be back here in a year for their relicensing, and I think the chances of stopping it… if I had to bet on it, I would bet they’d get relicensed. I don’t think there’s any other place to go than the motion that’s on the floor… The guy (Fred Collins) from the Chumash Indians, he had me right out of the gate. When he said you have to care about us all, care about every living thing, I’m right there.

JANA ZIMMER: The comment had been made that the staff was pushed and rushed to try to come up with this staff recommendation, that it had to go forward now, and that – then I was told in my ex parte and other commissioners were also – that PG&E wants an up or down vote, doesn’t want to be told to come back to improve the analysis or provide additional (information), and I can understand that. With regard to the other prongs of the override, I don’t want the Commission to appear to be playing loosely with the football either and to give an applicant a false impression that if they just come back in another year with a few million dollars more worth of consulting fees and tests and so forth that everything will be fine, because my bottom line on this is that it’s going to take a lot to convince me that second test in particular, the public welfare test, can be met for this type of proposal. There can come a day that everyone agrees that the applicant has come up with the best possible survey and the best possible technology, and there can come a day when everyone can agree, I think, that the impacts are mitigated to the maximum extent feasible, even though we will continue to conclude that there will be significant impacts, but I haven’t been able to get around in my mind this public welfare test…(I kept trying to ask PG&E) about what it is exactly that this testing will contribute to the state of knowledge that we don’t already know or suspect. I have not heard an answer, I have not heard anyone say that no matter how good these images are – 3D, whatever formation it is – that we will be one inch closer to understanding, let alone being able to forecast whether, when and how great a magnitude an earthquake could hit in that area… (PG&E told me regarding retrofitting the plant), ‘That’s not where we would go with that (test) information’… The message was, ‘well, we’re not really going to do anything, and we’re not going to expect the NRC to do anything differently, because we’re going to be taking a position that the risk level is the same.’… It’s not between their (her grandchildren’s) immediate safety or the people of San Luis Obispo County right now, and the impacts to marine mammals… We’re down to this claim of these tests being capable of reducing some uncertainty about what the magnitude could be… because I think ultimately we’re going to get into that realm of earthquake prediction or earthquake forecasting which has been a complete failure throughout time… How can a (3D imaging) photograph tell me what the stress level is on a given fault? So I came to the conclusion we’re where we started and that these tests are not going to do us any good in terms of protecting the public welfare, and on the other side of that, the impacts to the marine environment are really clear and I think have been understated… Here we have the core issue being deferred to the very last agency to consider the application, and I think that’s really unfortunate. I wish that even though they had no legal obligation under CEQA to consider impacts to environmental resources that these other agencies that are so supportive of this particular test would have considered them…  I’m not going to say that I could never be convinced, but I haven’t been given any information that I would call evidence that I could rely on today to say yes, these 3D images will move us forward in making these communities safer.

STEVE KINSEY: I appreciate the spiritual acknowledgement of our connection within the web of life, all in all, and our tremendous affection as coastal residents for the ocean we live beside… I’m going to try to encourage our Commission to even think beyond the specific action we are taking today, along with our staff and PG&E. The reality for me is that I’ve just not been convinced that the benefits of this work justify the potential risks or costs to our environment and to the unknown, the unforeseen and unintended consequences that may exist. We simply don’t have the skills or the abilities to monitor the outcomes that we would be triggering by doing this. If we were to embrace this technology what we’re really doing is opening the door. And this isn’t just a Box 4 issue, this is the coast of California, or even the west coast of the U.S. – and when we open that door just a crack, it opens all the way. What we’re doing is we would be signaling that want to continue this idea that we can mask what are essentially political decisions with CYA scientific information. I really feel that we as a people, not we as a Commission, we as a people need to think again. In fact, in many respects, I think that we opened the door 50 years ago to this nuclear generation technology as a way of generating power supply. You know, if there’s anything that Californians love as much as our coast it’s consumption, and so I don’t really blame PG&E; they are a reflection of our society, and we as a society, not they as a corporation or anything else, need to take responsibility for our future, and this is the first step in that direction, by saying that we need to have every single bit of information in order to be able to say we’re relieved. If fact, if I think about it, if we were to allow these tests to go forward I don’t think the room would be less filled the year that they come back for relicensing. I think it would still be just as full and the information would be set aside… We’re going to have tough choices to make (in the future about nuclear power), but it’s not a difficult choice today to decide we don’t want to be opening this technology up. Where I want to push our Commission, and even encourage San Luis Obispo County and PG&E, is that I really don’t think it’s a matter of ‘they just haven’t got it right, they don’t have the right boat, they don’t have the right test regime, that a bunch of scientific panelists can come together and come up we a better, less impacting (method),’ I think we ought to just say, use the available information, the substantial information, that has been gained since the plant was first designed, and let’s make our decisions with what we have available to us going forward so that we’re not in this room or another room like this a year from now trying to dice and slice whether or not it’s the least impacting to the environment and it can go forward.

MARTHA McCLURE: We can’t predict. You can see (on the slide) the number of earthquakes that have happened last week, yesterday, and in the last hour that are happening all over California, and we know that that happens… (Diablo Canyon) needs to be fixed, not studied to death. Because I really think this study was an attempt to try to push the can down the road, and I’m thinking that we don’t need to have that information at all, and the damage that was going to happen to the marine mammal population is absolutely unacceptable. I don’t buy the public safety argument at all, because if you (PG&E) did the study and you found the fault line right underneath the plant, are you closing the plant? We (the Commissioners) don’t know those answers, so, for me, I want to see PG&E turn a corner, I want to see PG&E take the $64 million and start putting it toward solar power or some other kind of modern choice of (power generation) and then that can assist in the consumption of [in] California’s urge or need to have power, but at least let’s start taking it and putting it in that direction rather than pretending that these plants have a lifetime that we should continue to support… I believe that it’s time to close these plants, and it’s time to fix these plants and move towards solar power and alternative energy.

JAMES WICKETT: Although this issue might have been incredibly obvious for 99.5% of the audience here as to the right thing to do… obviously the folks from the Chumash Nation helped catalyze that and really set the tone and backed by everyone else, it’s been really uplifting in a way to be here today…  I also want to make an observation about the Commission: It’s really neat that this Coastal Commission has not been overtaken by industry. Think about that. It’s pretty amazing. We’re all here just like you’re here. We should take a moment and kind of appreciate that that’s one thing that’s really working in this state… It’s not just the first condition that wasn’t met – ‘and if you kind of do a little fix to that, we can come back and do this another time.’ For me it’s all three parts of the override that don’t make it, and I just don’t see a scenario where PG&E could get valuable data and do the override on any of the three points… (Regarding) adverse environmental effects, there’s a possibility of closing down the plant versus destroying the marine life that surrounds it. If you want to reduce environmental effects, you might even be thinking about killing two birds with one stone there. For me though, it’s up to PG&E whether or not they want to reapply, I personally would be hard-pressed to see a way they would get over the hump… To me, it’s so important that people in California start moving away from nuclear energy and away from decentralized energy sources. I don’t know where the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association was today on charging the good people of California $65 million, but I’d like to see some of those tax groups stepping up here and saying, wait a minute, we can probably buy 30,000 people solar arrays on their houses for the money we’re spending just doing this test! And the test is just a test for information! Think about when we start figuring how to get rid of the nuclear waste… I would be hard-pressed to get how an applicant could get to the override on any of the three criteria.

BRIAN BRENNAN:  While their plan has somewhat of a history, I think the realization that whatever came out of these studies if they went forward wasn’t going to change anything that was really happening at that plant really cemented in my mind that the risks that we were taking and where we were going didn’t justify the end.

CONNIE STEWART: This Coastal Act really does protect us from this kind of an impact. Overrides are very difficult to meet, and I don’t even think they got close to meeting the first one. It would be very difficult to convince me that they met the second one, or they could meet the second one, as other Commissioners have said… I thought the testimony was incredible. Even though the staff did a fabulous job with the staff report, some of you brought up things that hadn’t been considered – all of the other folks who are coastal-dependent whose incomes are based on what goes on in our oceans… Certainly, with a project like this they can’t mitigate the loss to you. I’m struck by the fact that we just put all these MPAs (Marine Protected Areas) together and everyone who spent so much time on them. We’re now getting the baseline data for the MPAs, and what would this (test) do to all these baseline studies? If we really are going to stand for something like MPAs, even though I recognize that they’re not actually booming in those areas, I think everyone here has said there will be an impact to those areas. If we can’t even protect them a year after we get them then what are we really trying to say here?… For those of you who do live in the shadow of a nuclear plant, I’m struck by how much all of you are saying that marine wildlife outweighs your fears about (seismic) uncertainty. That was really powerful. You know, I have touched a whale, too, and I know it’s a powerful thing… You (PG&E) made it easy for us by saying you want an up or down vote today, and when the Governor vetoed the bill (AB 42) that really sends a message to everybody that we have the Coastal Act, and it’s really easy to make the call on this side of the room.

MARY SHELLENBERGER: There’s lots of reasons why we shouldn’t have nuclear power plants on our coast, that’s the question we should be solving. As Coastal Commissioners that’s not within our jurisdiction. Many Commissioners have done just what I did, they stated their own personal opinions about what should be happening on the coast, and the issue before us is simply, has PG&E provided enough information to convince us that the study should go over, and I am hearing a resounding no, they have not provided enough information for this study to go forward. Having said that, we are not telling them to go back and do anything in particular. That’s PG&E’s decision, to take the decision here; and we’re not saying you can’t ever do it, we’re just saying the onus is on you to convince us, to bring enough information that we believe it should go forward.

EDITORIAL: Supervisor Gibson Must Go

The ROCK believes that District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson should resign as soon as possible.

According to local news reports, Gibson admitted to having an extramarital affair with his legislative assistant, Cherie Aispuro. This news motivated us to look at his record — given that he’s lobbied for his positions as a “moral obligation.” When a politician supports their arguments on a personal, moral plane and they do something that is widely considered to be immoral, that should give their constituents some pause. The ROCK researched Gibson’s positions, words and decisions extensively — and we believe that Gibson no longer deserves the title “Supervisor.”

Bruce Gibson supports PG&E’s high-energy seismic survey (HESS), which was unanimously rejected by the California Coastal Commission. At the October 4 Morro Bay Business Forum, Gibson opposed the proposed project — emphasis on the proposed — because the project did not adequately satisfy the conditions set by the Board of Supervisors. As stated in the Board’s August 7, 2012 letter, the conditions were “(1) all environmental impacts are fully understood and mitigated to the maximum degree possible, (2) all unavoidable economic impacts are fully and fairly compensated; and (3) the technical details of the survey have been subjected to independent third-party review by industry-qualified experts to confirm that the best available technology is applied to this crucial investigation.”

However, the conditions he pushed for are undermined by his support for the HESS. He’s gone on public record with his unequivocal endorsement of a survey that, by its very nature and process, makes any mitigation efforts ineffective and ultimately futile. He’s repeatedly pushed for the use of  what he calls a “state-of-the-art” oil-industry vessel that, he claims, would spend less time in the water, tow a larger array of sensors than the smaller R/V Marcus Langseth vessel (PG&E’s vessel of choice), which would theoretically shorten the survey time in the water and therefore incur less damage to the environment — yet the impacts would still ultimately yield the same lethal result for a few less days, given the continuous, devastating air gun blasts being utilized.

Secondly, sources close to the commercial fishing organizations negotiating with PG&E told The ROCK that Gibson, himself, was not wholly committed to reinforcing Condition No. 2 because he feels that the benefits of using HESS — to “ensure public health and safety” — outweigh the economic and environmental impacts that would likely occur as a result of the test. Compensation was not a high priority for Gibson, who has met with commercial fishermen organizations several times to discuss HESS. Gibson did not push for any guarantees that the fishermen would be compensated “fully and fairly” nor did he specifically define what would constitute “full and fair.” The ambiguity of that condition offers no guarantees that the fishermen would be compensated fully, fairly or in a timely manner — or that he would halt the test until that cornerstone condition was met.

For Condition No. 3, Gibson volunteered for the independent third-party review since he’s versed in exploration seismology. However, we don’t see his involvement as having any additional benefit to the County communities he’s supposed to be representing, other than sharpening his resume for a future campaign, and forcing the County to rely solely on his expertise; for he is anything but independent, and this misguided leadership very nearly cost Morro Bay its very existence.

Gibson has a serious problem with who he believes he’s working for. The Coastal Commission unanimously believed that HESS was not feasible; the very nature of the test was deemed environmentally and economically destructive whether or not conditions were attached. At that meeting, hundreds of people — concerned citizens, commercial and recreational fishermen associations, environmental groups, city representatives and coalitions — joined the Commission in opposing the project. Several thousand people were being represented by those who drove to Santa Monica on Wednesday, November 14, to say no to acoustic seismic testing. Moments after the meeting adjourned, against a background of celebration, Gibson chose to stand beside PG&E and their spokesman Blair Jones, instead of the people who fought tirelessly to protect their way of life against them.

Gibson maintained that he was concerned for public safety and that there was a “moral obligation” to perform HESS.

Before HESS — and up to this day — Gibson has found no moral obligation to critically assess the seismic impacts of the Los Osos wastewater project, only nearby Diablo Canyon. The gravity collection sewer system is located in a County-documented high-risk liquefaction zone, and there are currently no hard mitigation measures in place or built into the design of the system should a large-scale earthquake strike the seaside community of 15,000 residents. According to the project’s 2008 environmental impact report, liquefaction impacts would be “considerable and therefore significant” if a gravity system was used. It was Gibson who aggressively and unilaterally pushed for the removal of all feasible project alternatives and fought to eliminate open bidding, thus focusing exclusively on a seismically hazardous solution that he repeatedly and emphatically refused to assess. Ironically, Gibson wanted to pursue high-energy seismic surveys because he wanted more data about the fault lines surrounding the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, yet he pushed for a sewer solution — which costs more than twice the seismic survey itself — that had empirical evidence of nearby fault lines eventually causing “considerable and significant impacts.”

Since early 2006, The ROCK has rigorously tracked progress with the Los Osos wastewater project. We’ve criticized Gibson’s approach and his decisions, which he said were often based on his “morals.” We’ve transcribed hours of Gibson cruelly mocking and verbally abusing Los Osos residents from the dais. We’ve witnessed his contempt for those who contested his policies, his morals and his integrity. When his character was questioned, he scoffed at the naysayers and resorted to insults and pious grandstanding instead of arguing the merits of his positions. He’s refused to answer questions on the record, respond to calls and e-mails from Los Osos residents. He’s refused to comply with public records requests. He’s given deference to residents who tout his ideology. He courts the naive with his superficial charm, confidence and stoical assertiveness. He resoundingly dismisses his dissidents, especially those who maintained their civility and courtesy. Regardless, Gibson touts the process as being “transparent” — perhaps as transparent as the secrets he’s kept from his loved ones and constituents who deserve to know he’s kept a double life.

Gibson knows how extramarital affairs damage the County government’s reputation. In May 2009, former County Administrator David Edge and his second-in-command, Assistant County Administrator Gail Wilcox, were accused of  having an inappropriate relationship, which stemmed from Edge reportedly sexually harassing Wilcox. By July 29 that year, it was revealed that Wilcox and Tony Perry of the Deputy Sheriffs Association had a sexual relationship while the two were involved in collective bargaining. At the time, Gibson — who was Chairman of the Board of Supervisors at the time — steered clear of giving a personal opinion of the improprieties taking place. He tried to expedite the investigation, hoping it would go away and not define his term as Chair. The scandal made local headlines in 2009, and it continues to be cited every time a sexual faux pas involving government employees is mentioned.

But on November 16, 2012, he became synonymous with the Gail-Wilcox brand and helped cement the County government’s reputation as an anything-goes fraternity of flawed, self-righteous egoists — though we know that there are County employees who don’t pledge these same values. They are also victims because earning public trust on County initiatives is now arguably harder to achieve, if not less credible in their entirety for the unnatural weight Gibson carries on the Board.

Gibson violated the public trust in very significant ways. His affair is emblematic of that deception. The violation of public trust is no longer debatable. Asserting that Gibson violated the public trust can no longer be considered a vindictive exaggeration or a flippant dismissal of his record — though his record is contradictory and, in hindsight, anything but exemplary. He has become a polarizing force and sacrificed the well-being of many he calls his constituents to further his deeply flawed moral agenda. He’s hurt the people he claims to represent, not to mention his family — in other words, his most loyal constituents. By remaining in office, he will show the County that power is more important than policy and morality, that ambition trumps reason and respect, that supreme arrogance is rewarded. Resigning his seat immediately would help restore the County’s core integrity and usher in a new, long-overdue era of self-accountability.

We urge Bruce Gibson to resign for the greater good.

Coastal Commission Denies PG&E Seismic Test Permit; Prospects Dim for Future Testing

In a stunning victory for opponents of PG&E’s 3D high-energy seismic test in Estero Bay, and a stiff rebuke to PG&E, State Sen. Sam Blakeslee and SLO County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, the California Coastal Commission at a hearing in Santa Monica today unanimously denied PG&E a permit to conduct its proposed survey this year.

The Commission also sent a strong signal to PG&E that the utility could return to seek a permit next year if it so chooses, but at the same suggested that PG&E would likely encounter the same result – a no vote.

About 175 speaker slips were submitted in opposition to the test. Not one member of the public spoke in support of the test.

Sizing up the broad opposition that filled the hearing room, and acknowledging defeat in advance of Commission final deliberations, PG&E spokesman Marc Krausse delivered a downbeat, under-a-minute rebuttal to staff and public comment by asking Commissioners for a straight “up or down vote,” rather than conditioning the project for future consideration.

The Commissioners accommodated PG&E with a unanimous denial.

Click here to read the original staff report.

C.O.A.S.T Alliance’s S.O.S! Music Festival Celebrates Hint of Seismic Victory in the Wind

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Though the battle against PG&E’s high-energy seismic test appears winnable this fall, the war for the future of seismic testing in Estero Bay may be far from over, requiring constant vigilance, and that was the message delivered by speakers and performers at the sun-drenched S.O.S! Save Our Seas Music Festival in Morro Bay’s Tidelands Park on Sunday, November 11.

Presented by the C.O.A.S.T Alliance (Citizens Opposing Acoustic Seismic Testing), S.O.S! attracted more than 500 C.O.A.S.T supporters and music lovers for a day of entertainment and education by the bay. Highlighting the entertainment was popular local horn-and-percussion-driven Latin-flavored rock-dance machine, the Zongo All-Stars, who brought  the crowd to their feet and kept them there for much of the afternoon. In addition to the kinetic Zongos, S.O.S! featured crowd-pleasing performances by Jill Knight, Molly McCabe, Aaron Ochs, Dr. Danger and Matthias & The Cry.

Chumash leader Fred Collins set the tone for the event by opening the festival with a moving traditional invocation. He spoke eloquently on an open-air stage backed with Josh Talbott’s giant “For the Love of the Sea” mural, a symbol of C.O.A.S.T’s connection with the art of nature. The event was timed to take place three days before the C.O.A.S.T bus transported members and interested parties from SLO to Santa Monica on Nov. 14 for the decisive permit hearing on the PG&E test by the California Coastal Commission.

Said Mandy Davis, spokesperson for C.O.A.S.T: “I wasn’t surprised by the numbers of folks that showed up. This issue has spoken to so many people. It exemplifies the corporate greed and lack of consideration for the earth that we are finally standing up to and rejecting in all its forms, and that includes protecting our precious coastal marine environment from destruction by PG&E.”

Miss Davis wrapped up the event at sunset by telling the crowd, “We have a choice! We have a voice!”

“From the minute the festival started, the energy was amazing,” she told The ROCK. “You could feel the unified intention and this intention carried the day. Everything seemed to flow effortlessly and everyone spoke and played for the oceans with such passion.”

The Festival was staged largely through the organizational efforts of Katie Franklin, and brought together volunteers and contributors to provide sound, staging, power and provisions for the free event. In addition to the musicians and C.O.A.S.T events committee, event sponsors included Bill Gaines Audio, Matt Clark Tile & Stone, Brian Hendricks of Estero Bay Graphics, Information Press, ECOSLO, Hope Dance, Sunshine Health Foods, Zero Waste, The Copy Spot and Bill Fritch. Linda Sorensen assisted Katie Franklin with event logistics and provided the stage and green room teams. C.O.A.S.T member organizations the Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce, the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization and the City of Morro Bay also played key roles in boosting the Festival. C.O.A.S.T, the Marine Mammal Center, Mothers for Peace, Animal Emancipation/Nonviolence United and ECOSLO manned information booths.

C.O.A.S.T member organizations include: Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, Port San Luis Commercial Fishermen’s Association, Morro Bay City Council, Save The Whales, The California Gray Whale Coalition, Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo (ECOSLO), SLO Green Party, Landwatch of San Luis Obispo County, Morro Bay Liveaboard Association, California Earth Corps, Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Save Our Seas, Cambria Fishing Club, Big Sur Advocates for a Green Environment, Safe Beach Now, Hands Across The Water, Three Mile Island Alert, Healing Ourselves and Mother Earth (H.O.M.E.), Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce, Western States Legal Foundation, Monterey County Green Party, EON, and the Kingdom of Atooi.

Photo of Josh Talbott at work on his mural by Katie Finley of Dunes Street Photography

“For the Love of the Sea” – Josh Talbott’s Awe-Inspiring Mural

Mural artist Josh Talbott had set up his “little portable display of art” in front of Good Clean Fun in Cayucos for the past year. While he was painting a mural for the Visitor’s Alliance there, he asked a friend about a curious boat he’d spotted. His friend replied that it was “bad news… the seismic testing boat,” and added, “I could just see you doing a mural of a beached whale and that boat in the background.”

Josh did a little research and was alarmed. When he found out that the same boat had previously struck and killed a blue whale “that was the beginning of the process.” He had made up his mind to create a mural. “The following week was the first meeting of C.O.A.S.T, and I learned that quite a lot of the community was alarmed.

“This issue became so important to me that I tried to bring to bear every lesson of my life to create a wholly informative and accurate work,” he said, feeling the weight of his inner-driven mission.

While Josh searched for the right stylistic approach that expressed the depth and significance he sought, the C.O.A.S.T Alliance continued to grow and gain steam.

Josh received some contributions from local businesses, neighbors and friends with whom he had discussed the mural idea. Inspired by C.O.A.S.T and community support, he framed out and primed six 4-ft. x 8-ft. panels. At first, he said, “they sat in my yard under a tarp like a giant question mark.”

As he set about the artist’s task of removing the question mark regarding the ideal subject matter, one intriguing observation grew in him. “It struck me how clearly some of the people who had come together on this issue might not other otherwise share company under other circumstances and yet there was some common ground. The common ground was love of the sea,” he realized.

“’For Love of the Sea’ was the mural’s point. What’s more beautiful than the sea? The following day, I managed to bolt the panels together and stand them up in my front yard and the collage began.”

When all the panels were bolted together, there rose a 12-ft. x 16-ft. canvas as big as the side of a building.

“Pages from books about the sea and surf magazines blew around in the yard until they made it through a bath of acrylic and onto the billboard that was now slowing traffic on my street,” he said.

Along the way Josh picked up supporters. Earlier on he had met Giovanni DeGarimore, owner of Giovanni’s Restaurant and Fish Market and STAX Bistro & Wine Bar, whose businesses would be directly impacted by the seismic test and who has spoken out publicly against it. His businesses, among the most popular on the Embarcadeo, open out to sidewalks with walking traffic, “a perfect venue for the painting of the mural,” Josh said. Giovanni welcomed him.

“I have spent quite a lot of time painting in public. It engages people in a different way than to just have a work of art on display. The process can be rather alluring. What better way to bring people to the issue than to encourage them to come ask you about it? Overall, it seems the community here is in support of my project and the greater message of it, which is a call for critical thinking and engaging with community.”

Josh aims to complete the mural this week and hopes “it will find a home locally when it is auctioned off next month.”

“My job, as I understand it,” he said, “is to present people with a sense of wonder. It gives them an opportunity to discover. A beautiful work of art is a spectacle unto itself and draws people in. What greater tool to bring people to the issue?”

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THE BIG NOISE

Marine life, underwater acoustic trauma, and PG&E’s high-energy seismic survey

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[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]wp-content/uploads/SueArnold.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Sue Arnold is the CEO of California Gray Whale Coalition. She is a former Fairfax investigative journalist who regularly lobbies the US government in Washington DC, as well as the European Parliament and Commission on whale issues.[/author_info] [/author]

One of the most important outcomes of the PG&E HESS – whichever way it goes – is the raising of awareness on the issue of underwater noise and acoustic trauma. Considering the precedent which would be set by allowing 260dB to be blasted into the seabed, impacting a vital environmental and economically important marine ecosystem, noise issues have become front and center.

Commercial and recreational fishers, the tourist industry, whale-watching organizations, surfers, divers, and other operations which rely on the central coast’s marine life are under threat.

Thousands of animals will be impacted including whales, dolphins, harbor porpoises, sea otters, elephant seals, and many commercial fish species.

Any precedent set by the California Coastal Commission in approving a permit for PG&E would give the go-ahead for other highly destructive seismic operations at a time when noise in the marine environment has become the main focus for many scientists and researchers.

Noise has a devastating impact on the marine environment. Given recent research on the devastating impacts of underwater noise on fish, coral, larvae, eggs, and aquatic life, noise is up there with climate change and ocean acidification. As the oil and gas industry seek deposits to allow the continuing mad race to consumption – the main driver of the US economy – the west coast has been identified as holding more oil deposits than Saudi Arabia, according to Richard Charter, a Senior Fellow with the Ocean Foundation.

Indeed, when the California Gray Whale Coalition consulted some of its deep throat informants in the oil industry, the first response to the information that the source blast was 260dB was:

“Ah, they’re looking for oil deposits.”

The most important measurement in assessing potential damage is the received level of decibels. The received level changes as the geoacoustic parameters change (tides, wind, sea surface temperatures, salinity, ducting, thermoclines).

Acoustic signals can travel long distances depending on the state of the tides, wind, seabed and other parameters. Christopher Clark, Director of Bioacoustic Research Program, Cornell University, says one of the best examples of the distance underwater noise can travel is the recent Shell seismic survey on the west coast of Ireland.

“We could hear that noise 1500 miles away. The noise could be heard in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.”

Clark says the cumulative impact of noise in the urbanized ocean environment seriously compromises whales. He uses this example:

“Imagine a space ship is over your village and it’s sending explosions down to every 10 seconds, driving everybody crazy. The choice is you either leave or die.  

“The acoustic world is 10% of what it should be. The whales social network is destroyed, their world seriously compromised, their immune and reproductive systems impacted by stress created by noise. Animals which rely on sound lose the opportunity to engage in basic life functions and social networks.

“When you tear at those networks constantly, what does it mean if 50% or more of their acoustic world is compromised?”

The use of sound for communication and detection in the marine environment is important for survival for marine animals. Marine animals depend on their hearing sensitivity to retain cohesion in groups, for echolocation to locate and capture food, for detection of predators, for sensing their physical and biological environment and for avoiding dangerous situations (including anthropogenic threats).

Impacts of acoustic trauma include:

  • Organ damage; physiological damage which may lead to death
  • Permanent Threshold Shift (PTS): a permanent shift in hearing sensitivity
  • Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS): a temporary effect upon hearing ( recoverable)
  • Behavioral responses which may span short-term startle responses to long-term avoidance of areas by animals or a change to movement pathways or migration routes.
  • Masking signals.

Some of the impacts are well summed up by Canadian bioacoustician Dr. Lindy Weilgart (1). Her list of potential impacts include:

  • Detectable Effects
  • Respiration rate
  • Swim speed
  • Vocalizations
  • Dive times
  • Depth times
  • Dive depth
  • Residence time
  • Distribution
  • Movement relative to sound source
  • Non-detectable Effects
  • Birth rate
  • Miscarriage rate
  • Pregnancy rate
  • Birth defects
  • Mating rate
  • Rate of finding mates
  • Lactation rate
  • Changes in mating dynamics
  • Death rate
  • Injury, disease, morbidity
  • Vulnerability to hazards, shipping, fishing nets
  • Vulnerability to predation
  • Growth rate
  • Feeding rate and changes in appetite
  • Change in echolocation ability

Great variation in hearing sensitivity among animals, due to evolutionary diversification of anatomical structures involved in hearing and selection pressures, govern the way different animals utilize sound. Every animal is unique.
____________________
1 Potential impacts of noise pollution on cetaceans as listed by Dr. Lindy Weilgart, Bioacoustician, and Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia.

It’s important to consider the effects of cumulative exposures on mortality, physiology and behavior. Consideration of the effects of exposure to multiple impacts and the time between signals (one every few seconds, for example) need to be made. Investigation of a larger temporal length of exposure to repeated signals (repeated exposures several hours, days, weeks, months later) needs to be undertaken.

Man-made underwater noise covers a large range of frequencies, and the way in which a species is impacted by the sound will depend on the frequency range it can hear, the level of sound (or energy) and its frequency spectrum (Nedwell et al. 2004).

It is clear from the smorgasbord of current research on noise impacts in the ocean that the PG&E HESS presents an unacceptable risk to the marine environment.

The PG&E HESS is remarkable for its lack of adequate mitigation measures. With no real-time sensors there’s no way of determining the received levels which marine animals are exposed to. At least three days could pass before this information is available under the proposed system. As received levels of noise can change on an hourly basis depending on the tides, wind, seawater temperature and so many factors, the damage caused by received levels could be very difficult to determine with a three-day waiting period.

Worse still is the problem of who would carry out necropsies, when and where and how long would it take for the results to be made available? As there are only audiograms for 11 species of cetaceans, the probability of a decision-indicating acoustic trauma is the cause of death is remote. Most cetaceans sink to the seafloor when they die and it may be days and weeks or never before any corpse comes ashore.

Audiograms for other marine life are not yet available. Given the delays involved in determining the cause of death, the seismic operation is unlikely to be stopped as powering down seismic arrays is an expensive operation.

Listed below are some of the basic information which has been ignored by the PG&E HESS. National Marine & Fisheries have also failed to take into account these essential parameters.

 ESSENTIAL NOISE CHARACTERISTIC INFORMATION

Impacts of noise sources need to take into account noise characteristics including sound level, noise duration, frequency, sound propagation characteristics of the area; the sensitivity of species of concern; physical robustness; size and age of species; life history and relative population sensitivity; timing of different stages of life history; animal distribution and abundance; migration patterns and whether the species can or are likely to move away from the noise if distressed by it (2). And whether a new area is capable of supporting their survival needs given competition and disease risks.

IMPACTS OF UNDERWATER NOISE – MODELING FLAWS

In order to assess the impacts of underwater noise the following information is essential:

  • key marine species likely to be present in the region and their sensitive periods be identified.
  • the noise signature of the construction technologies described.
  • ambient sea noise measured
  • sound propagation models run to predict transmission of key underwater noise sources (3)
  • cumulative impact of combined noise and impacts of continuing noise over many years
  • shipping noise

_______________________
2 Environment Impacts of Underwater Noise Associated With Harbor Works Port Hedland. C P Kent, R. McCauley, A Duncan for SKM/BHP Billiton August 2009
3 Ibid

Susanna Blackwell is a bioacoustics expert who has worked on noise data in the Arctic environment.
She says that there currently is no modelling which can demonstrate the cumulative impacts of a seismic study:

“Modeling enables scientists and acousticians to look at the worse case scenario in terms of the sound speed profile. Modeling does not assess the effects on animals. Models are purely to determine sound level and sound source verification. Models do not take into account the levels of noise which observer planes, ships, multibeam scanners or sidescanners involved in any seismic project create. Modeling can be inaccurate and 0.5 dB can make a 20 km difference.” 

“Sound source verification can take up to three days. In some cases it can take four hours but unless the verification of received levels is done in real time, it’s almost pointless to ask for the levels.”

Brandon Southall is also a recognized expert on acoustic trauma in the marine environment. He has expressed concern at the lack of real-time sensors and the lack of triggers which would indicate damage is occurring.

John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research in Washington has indicated his concern over the project.

“I do not think that looking for strandings is a very effective way to examine mortality since we have shown in some previous work that only a small proportion of cetaceans that die show up as strandings. I do think there is greater potential for displacement and disruption of feeding than acknowledged and certainly our understanding of the impact of these types of surveys is very poor.

“I think they have not made any attempt to even advance to knowledge of the impact of these types of surveys by conducting a more thorough study related to this survey.

“They have made no attempt to even attempt to photo-ID or document the individual whales exposed to the airgun survey so we can at least attempt to examine the long-term consequences of exposure to this sound (something that has not been done previously and is clearly needed). We have large long-term catalogs of the individual IDs for the majority of the humpback and blue whales that feed off California and a portion of the fin whales.”

PG&E HESS – A VIOLATION OF INTERNATIONAL LAW?

The Convention on Biological Diversity Secretariat’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific Technical and Technological Advice, Sixteenth Meeting, April 30-May 5, 2012, considered a paper on impacts of underwater noise entitled: “Scientific Synthesis of Underwater Noise on Marine and Coastal Biodiversity and Habitats.”

The United States is a signatory to this Convention and obliged under international law to abide by the provisions of the treaty. Any permission by the Federal and State governments or relevant agencies to the PG&E HESS would arguably be a violation by the US of the Convention.


“The Impacts of Underwater Noise on Marine Biodiversity”

5.  A variety of marine animals are known to be affected by anthropogenic noise. Negative impacts for at least 55 marine species (cetaceans, teleost fish, marine turtles and invertebrates) have been reported in scientific studies to date. (Please note sentences in bold are bolded by the Secretariat)

6. A wide range of effects of increased levels of sound on marine fauna have been documented both in laboratory and field conditions. The effects can range from mild behavioral responses to complete avoidance of the affected area, masking of important acoustic signals or cues , and in some cases serious physical injury or death. Low levels of sound can be inconsequential for many animals. However, as sound levels increase the elevated background noise can disrupt normal behavior patterns leading to less efficient feeding for example. Masking of important acoustic signals or cues can reduce communication between con-specifics and may interfere with larval orientation which could have implications for recruitment. Some marine mammals have tried to compensate for the elevated background noise levels by making changes in their vocalizations.

Intense levels of sound exposure have caused physical damage to tissues and organs of marine animals, and can lead to mortality, with lethal injuries of cetaceans documented in stranded individuals caught up in atypical stranding events. Lower sound levels have been shown to cause permanent or temporary loss of hearing in marine mammals and fish. Behavioral responses such a strong avoidance of the sound source can lead to habitat displacement.

7. There are increasing concerns about the long-term and cumulative effects of noise on marine biodiversity. The long-term consequences of chronic noise pollution for individuals and populations are still mainly unknown. Potential long-term impacts of reduced fitness and increased stress leading to health issues have been suggested. There is also growing concern of the cumulative effects of anthropogenic sound and other stressors and how this can affect populations and communities. The additional threat of living in a noisy environment may push already highly stressed animals into population decline with subsequent effects on marine communities and biodiversity.

8. Research is required to better understand the impacts of anthropogenic sound on marine biodiversity. The lack of scientific knowledge regarding the issue is also one of the most important limitations for effective management at the present time. There are high levels of uncertainty for noise effects on all marine taxa. Detailed research programs of noise effects on species, populations, habitats and ecosystems, plus also cumulative effects with others stressors, need to be put in place or consolidated where they exist. However, the extensive knowledge gaps also mean that prioritization will be required. Recommended priorities for research include species that are already highly threatened, endangered or particularly vulnerable through a combination of multiple stressors and intrinsic characteristics, but also representative groups of understudied taxa. Current knowledge for some faunal groups such as teleost fish, elasmobranch fish, marine turtles, seabirds and invertebrates is particularly lacking. Other priorities for acoustic related research are the identification and protection of critical habitats that endangered or threatened marine species depend on for important activities such as foraging or spawning.

9. There is a need to scale up the level of research and management efforts, to significantly promote greater awareness of the issue and to take measures minimize our noise impacts on marine biodiversity.

10. Effective management of anthropogenic noise in the marine environment should be regarded as a high priority for action at the national and regional level through the use of up-to-date mitigation measures based on the latest scientific understanding of the issue for marine species and habitats. Mitigation and management of anthropogenic noise through the use of spatio-temporal restrictions (STR) of activities has been recommended as the most practical and straightforward approach to reduce effects on marine animals.

It is very clear from the information and research available that the PG&E HESS is scientifically unacceptable and the potential damage so significant that any proper assessment could take years to ascertain.

Finally, when two Coalition representatives decided to doorstop the President of PG&E in downtown San Francisco, we were told to sit patiently and wait for a decision.

Two security people rolled up to ensure we were sent on our way.

That sums up the attitude of this influential company.

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The California Gray Whale Coalition was set up five years ago with one sole purpose: to re-instate the Gray Whales under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. The Coalition represents economic and environmental organizations as it recognizes the importance of the whales to the economies of Washington, Oregon and California. With more than 140 member organizations ranging from Mexico to Alaska, the Coalition is now the largest whale conservation coalition on the west coast of North America. Coalition members are active at the political level lobbying in the California Assembly and Senate and also the House and Senate in Washington, DC. For more information on the California Gray Whale and underwater noise issues in particular, please contact info@californiagraywhalecoalition.org.

All photos courtesy of the California Gray Whale Coalition

Razor Online: Los Osos Sewer Group Loses Costly Appeal

On October 25, Los Osos’ Citizens for Clean Water (the organization formerly known as the Prohibition Zone Legal Defense Fund) filed for voluntary dismissal of their seemingly never-ending appeal against the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (CCRWQCB). It’s unclear why CCW filed for voluntary dismissal, but it’s clear that Los Osos sewer construction is underway. Because the group is no longer a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and doesn’t appear to be operating under any other group’s 501(c)(3), they will have to pay the water board’s legal expenses.

Second District, Division Six of the California Courts of Appeal judge Kenneth Yegan delivered the appeal opinion on October 25, which echoed almost word-for-word the sentiments expressed by San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge Charles S. Crandall nearly two years earlier. To sum up Yegan’s 17-page opinion succinctly, Citizens for Clean Water’s arguments were unanimously dismissed as having no merit. It’s unclear what the basis of the appeal actually was because the appeal document is not public record. One could speculate that CCW’s attorney Shaunna Sullivan wanted to move the case out of the area in hopes that the appellate judges would be further removed from local politics and biases. But it appears that the appellate judges came to the same conclusions without much variation.

The Razor Online

Read more of the article on Razor Online

Emerging Dangers: PG&E’s High-Energy Seismic Test Threatens Morro Bay National Estuary, Live-Aboards, Swimmers, Divers and Surfers

Two unaddressed and consequential impacts of PG&E’s proposed 3D high-energy seismic test in Estero Bay – impacts not covered in PG&E’s Environmental Impact Report for the project — have recently surfaced and are sure to have future ramifications for the controversial test, which is now facing a denial of permit by the California Coastal Commission on Nov. 14 that could bump the test into 2013. One of those impacts potentially could signal the test’s demise.

A fuller understanding of the effects of high-intensity seismic testing on the Morro Bay National Estuary have been raised by Mandy Davis, a respected Morro Bay naturalist and spokesperson for the C.O.A.S.T Alliance of organizations and individuals opposed to acoustic seismic testing, in her Nov. 5 letter to the Coastal Commission asking for an unconditional cessation of seismic testing.

“The negative impacts to a protected bio-system, and to a tourism and fishing-based economy could alone be the grounds for a complete denial of the PG&E HESS (high-energy seismic test) project now before you,” Miss Davis wrote the Commission about the Estuary and Marine Protected Area (MPA).

“The PG&E permit will violate a ‘no-take’ zone, harass and potentially kill numerous protected and sensitive species, drive migratory birds from the estuary and away from crucial feeding and resting areas, negatively impact the harbor residents, have far-reaching cumulative impacts to the recreational and commercial fish stocks, and have negative impacts on our tourism-based economy,” Miss Davis wrote.

In her letter Miss Davis calls for the Commission to “not let this ill-conceived and unnecessary project harm what many people know to be the jewel of the Central Coast, The Morro Bay National Estuary and MPA.”

“The Morro Bay National Estuary is one of the few remaining healthy estuaries on the west coast and one of the remaining 10% of viable wetland areas in the state of California,” she wrote. “This incredibly rich place is now in jeopardy of being impacted by acoustic blasts of 250 dbs just outside the entrance to the Morro Bay Harbor. According to all acoustic maps generated in the permitting process by PG&E, the decibel levels reaching into the expanse of the Morro Bay Estuary will reach 160dbs… a level of sound that can destroy fish eggs, injure invertebrates, deafen fish, damage sharks and bat rays, disrupt feeding and gritting behaviors of Brant Geese and waterfowl, potentially injure all diving birds and surface foragers, and force all marine mammals out of the water to avoid the constant barrage of noise and its negative impacts to their sensitive hearing structures and their unborn babies.

“The fact that the Morro Bay Estuary and the impacts of high-level decibels on its inhabitants, including human live-aboard residents is not even mentioned by any of the permitting agencies is a huge and frankly unacceptable oversight,” she wrote. “The permit’s EIR does not address any of the protected and sensitive species visiting and resident in the Estuary, the DFG (Department of Fish & Game) does not list the Morro Bay MPA in its considerations, and the CCC staff has failed to recognize sound impacts to a variety of protected marine mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians that live in this rich ‘no-take’ zone. The cumulative impacts to our local fisheries and coastal ecosystem as a result of jeopardizing the larval forms and fry growing and transitioning in the eelgrass nurseries has, as of yet, been completely ignored as well.

“The affects of high-intensity acoustic testing outside the harbor mouth will quite literally make the harbor and estuary a dangerous and potentially lethal trap… an acoustic prison with little to no opportunity for escape. As you will see on the maps provided, the Morro Bay Harbor is long and relatively narrow with an entrance that is narrow and surrounded by volcanic dacite revetment and jetties… As the maps show, the decibel levels will remain 160dbs all the way back into Shark Inlet and into the reaches of the creeks that empty into the delta.

“The estuary, once the testing has begun, will be a place of no escape. Attempt to exit from the estuary will bring the animals just that much closer to the sound source and will put their lives in just that much more jeopardy. Swimming out the harbor entrance will increase the sound levels that they will be exposed to,” Miss Davis wrote, “not a wonderful choice or one that any creature would chose to do.”

Bringing attention to another publicly unaddressed concern that has grown since the State Lands Commission issued PG&E a permit in August, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, in their Nov. 1 letter, asked the Coastal Commission for more information on the potential impacts of high-decibel testing on beachgoers, swimmers, divers and surfers.

“The environmental impacts of the proposed survey are not yet completely understood and therefore cannot be mitigated to the greatest extent feasible,” the Board’s letter states. “There is broad concern about the effect that high levels of underwater noise may have on divers, swimmers, surfers, and other humans who may be in the ocean when the proposed testing takes place. If it proves necessary to close areas of the ocean to these activities then a closure protocol must be developed and mitigation for the lost recreational resource must be addressed.”

Closure of miles of beaches and coastline from Los Osos to Morro Bay to Cayucos, and monitoring that length of oceanfront, would pose a difficult and sizable task. It also might not sit well with coastal towns and cities, residents, beachgoers, surfers and tourists caught in the test.

Only one sentence in the Board’s letter is directed at the risks to non-humans: “The board also believes there should be further substantiation of the expected impacts to marine life.”

UPDATE: SLO County BOS Supports Year Delay in PG&E’s 3D Seismic Test

District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson

UPDATE: [11-6-12] SLO COUNTY SUPERVISORS SUPPORT DELAY TO REDESIGN PG&E’S HIGH-ENERGY TEST. In a November 1 letter to the California Coastal Commission, the SLO County Board of Supervisors recommended that the Commission deny PG&E a permit to conduct a 3D high-energy seismic survey off the Central Coast this year.

“After reviewing our previous recommendations and hearing over four hours of public testimony,” the letter said, “we are of the unanimous opinion that your Commission should not approve the application for the project as currently proposed.”

The Nov. 1 letter cites the same reasons for opposing the test now as provided in the Board’s August 7 letter to the State Lands Commission and concludes: “None of the three conditions listed have been met.” Those three conditions were: “All environment impacts are fully understood and mitigated to the maximum degree possible; all unavoidable economic impacts are fully and fairly implemented; and the technical details of the survey design have been subjected to independent third-party review by industry-qualified experts to confirm that the best available technology is applied…”

While the letter claimed to factor “over four hours of public testimony” into the Board’s decision-making process, practically all of that testimony was opposed to the test in any form, not for it, even with conditions. The letter reiterated unanimous Board support for the high-energy test: “We acknowledge that a three-dimensional high-energy survey could provide essential information…”

Conspicuously absent from the Board’s letter was any request for more information about less-invasive alternative technologies to 3D high energy, or any details as to how “full and fair” compensation to the fishermen would be determined and by who, or how the independence and impartiality of the Independent Review Panel would be assured. [END 11-6-12 UPDATE]
UPDATE: [10-9-12] BOARD OF SUPERVISORS AGENDIZES SEISMIC TEST ISSUE FOR OCT. 30th RECOMMENDATION TO COASTAL COMMISSION. The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors moved on Oct. 9 to add PG&E’s planned offshore seismic test to its Oct. 30 action agenda, when testimony will again be heard from PG&E as well as from opponents to the test. Said Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who has aggressively promoted the overall test: “Our action on the 30th will be as a matter of making a recommendation. This board does not have regulatory authority over the actions regarding the operation of Diablo Canyon and, for the most part, not on the actions of this seismic testing. It lies outside our jurisdiction… (Regarding a member of the public’s) continued suggestion that we have somehow failed to exercise the small amount of land use authority we have, there is no way in which we could condition the seismic testing based on the very small bit of land use onshore in the County that’s currently proposed in (PG&E’s) Coastal Commission proposal. In any case that’s all appealable to the Coastal Commission and the Coastal Commission will be taking it up in its meeting in mid November.”

Supervisor Gibson suggested to the Board that the Oct. 30 meeting “might be to refine and confirm, or modify or otherwise state our current position as explicitly as possible, regards our recommendation as to what the Coastal Commission can do. As while we don’t have a specific regulatory authority, I think we absolutely do have a moral responsibility to represent the big issues that surround us and the interests of our community.” (END OCT. 9 UPDATE)

ORIGINAL ARTICLE [10-9-12]: SUPERVISOR GIBSON OPPOSES PG&E’S SEISMIC TEST — WITHOUT INDIE REVIEW AND ‘BEST TECH’

San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bruce Gibson, one of the driving forces behind  PG&E’s Central Coast 3D high-energy seismic survey planned to start in November off the Central Coast, is now opposing the revised test as presented by PG&E to the California Coastal Commission. Speaking at a business forum in Morro Bay on October 4, Supervisor Gibson stated he would not support the test.

Clarifying “the board’s and his position regarding the seismic test” in a email to a Morro Bay resident, the Supervisor’s legislative assistant, Cherie Aispuro, wrote: “Supervisor Gibson’s comments of Oct. 4th were that since no independent review has since been conducted that he personally interprets the Boards stated position as one of opposition to the proposal that is currently before the Coastal Commission. He also noted that there is not at this time an explicit Board approved statement regarding the specific Coastal Commission item, but believes his interpretation is reasonable. Any decision on whether to pursue further consideration of this matter would have to be made by the Board as a whole.”

The County Board of Supervisors is on record supporting the seismic test. In its August 7, 2012 letter to the State Lands Commission, the Board stated that if high-energy seismic surveys are conducted, according to Ms. Aispuro’s email, they “must” have the “least possible environmental impacts,” use the  “best possible science,”  and PG&E must compensate all affected businesses “fully and fairly.”

Supervisor Gibson and the Board, led in this matter by the Supervisor, a former seismologist, believes that “independent review of the survey design is required before work begins…” The Board  forwarded the same position statement to the Coastal Commission in a Sept. 17, 2012 letter. Independent review is apparently not as yet in place and, like the fishermens compensation issue, resolution lags far behind PG&E’s timeline to start the test.

Supervisor Gibson has continued to request a different ship to conduct the survey, rather than the vessel contracted by PG&E. He is optimistic that his choice of ship would prevail through independent review and believes it would better represent the Board’s definition of “best possible science.”

Days after three Department of Fish & Game Commissioners recommended on September 24 that their department director not issue a scientific collection permit for the test, and just over a week before the California Coastal Commission was scheduled to meet on issuing the project a Coastal permit, PG&E revised its proposal to the Coastal Commission, scaling back its controversial $64 million survey to seismic testing only in Zone 4 in Estero Bay, off the coast of Cayucos, Morro Bay and Los Osos.

Major environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and newly formed C.O.A.S.T alliance, are opposed to the test on environmental and economic grounds, which Gibson is not, and their positions have not changed with PG&E’s fall-back to Zone 4.