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Given 'take'?

Reports on marine take, survey vessel raise questions in PG&E seismic imaging project

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Much has been said about Pacific Gas & Electric’s plan to conduct high-energy, three-dimensional seismic studies off the Central Coast that ratepayers will pay some $64 million for.

Opponents have vilified the project as harmful to the environment, marine life, and local economy. PG&E reps, on the other hand, assure that they’re doing everything in their power to minimize those effects, which they say aren’t as bad as some stakeholders have made them out to be. And, PG&E argues, the studies will contribute to the overall safety of every person in the vicinity of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

However, a draft environmental assessment submitted to the National Science Foundation (NSF) by Goleta-based consultant group Padre Associates, Inc. on behalf of PG&E exposes a perplexing list of marine wildlife expected to be “harassed” in some fashion by the project.

That list has raised some alarms.

According to the assessment, the surveys will result in a substantial “take” of local marine life. But this isn’t the kind of take you would expect in commercial fishing. Instead, the report lists harm to marine life as “take by harassment”—the definition of which is about as elusive as the ghost of a wet bar of soap.

An NSF spokesperson referred New Times inquiries about the report to PG&E. The main consultant for Padre Associates didn’t return repeated requests for comment.

Nobody seems to be able to explain exactly what “take by harassment” means, or whether it will result in long-term effects for local fisheries and marine mammal populations. However, as best as New Times can ascertain, “take by harassment” can range anywhere from making a sea lion flinch to blowing its brains out with the air blasts that the assessment says are capable of reaching up to approximately 250 decibels.

To put that figure in contrast, a 12-gauge shotgun blast is approximately 165 decibels.

The report has yet to be certified by the National Science Foundation, which is expected to happen in October, according to NSF Spokesperson Maria Zacharias.

The report lists an alarming number of marine mammals that will be harassed. Some highlights: PG&E is requesting to “take” 78 California gray whales, 11 humpback whales, 12 blue whales, 1,468 short-beaked dolphins, 66 long-beaked common dolphins, 152 Pacific white-sided dolphins, 91 Northern right whale dolphins, 1,321 bottlenose dolphins, 849 California sea lions, 1,188 Southern sea otters, and 3,736 Morro Bay harbor porpoises, among others.

PG&E Spokesman Blair Jones told New Times those figures are a liberal assessment of how many animals will in some way be moderately affected by the air blasts. Jones reiterated that the utility is taking every measure possible to avoid harming wildlife and will have independent observers aboard the vessel to scan the area for wildlife.

Jones clarified that the Incidental Harassment Authorization permit it has applied for only allows for Level B—or the lowest level of harassment that only results in behavioral reactions—take, and that if even one marine mammal is harmed, operations would be halted.

Operations would then be reviewed by the National Marine fisheries Service, he said.

But those numbers—and apparently other data in the assessment—led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to send a letter to the NSF encouraging further National Environmental Protection Act review before certifying the report.

“We believe this project and our regulatory review would benefit from a more thorough NEPA analysis and we want to work closely with NSF to help improve the EA to better address potential impacts to living marine resources and marine habitats,” the Aug. 10 letter reads.

A NOAA spokesperson didn’t respond to an inquiry on whether the NSF has replied, as of press time.

Little is known about this type of testing’s long-term effects on marine mammals’ populations, but an alarming case in Peru in Spring 2012 has led to speculation. According to national news reports, approximately 900 dead bottlenose dolphins washed ashore following similar testing.

The project entails blasting air guns, fixed to the back of a research vessel, into the water. The blasts are reflected off the sea floor and picked up and recorded by an array of panels. The vessel, the Marcus Langseth, a joint academic-commercial ship owned by the National Science Foundation and to be contracted out to PG&E, will follow a grid-like formation over an area of 530 square-nautical miles from Guadalupe to Cambria in an effort to provide the best map, if you will, of just what the Earth’s crust looks like—and what kind of earthquake it’s capable of producing—around Diablo Canyon.

It’s the same type of testing used to explore for offshore oil deposits.

According to the NSF’s Zacharias, the foundation has yet to solidify its contract with PG&E.

However, both State Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo)—whose legislation mandated the studies—and county supervisor Bruce Gibson—who sits on the project’s Independent Peer Review Panel to oversee its operation—have been outspoken over their concerns about the Langseth not being “up to industry standards.”

The vessel came into service in 2008, but has only been operating in its current joint role as an academic-commercial seismic vessel for a little more than a year, following several years of dry-dock and various improvement upgrades. According to records of its stakeholder committee, it’s encountered mechanical and environmental problems in the past, and questions over whether it is fitted with the most up-to-date equipment have come up.

The 2008 minutes of a Marcus Langseth Oversight Committee meeting features a laundry list of various mechanical improvements it needs to get in “working condition.”

According to minutes from 2010, the Langseth’s operator reported marine mammals and smaller fishing vessels “snagging” the towed arrays during a 2009 cruise. In a separate cruise that year, the Langseth was forced to de-obligate a $1.3 million contract when a software-related problem caused an issue with the ship’s multibeam following a supposed upgrade.

In July 2011, the ship’s committee reported buying a new steamer and other equipment from Western Geco—a company Gibson had urged considering for the survey—worth a reported $5 million to $6 million, according to the report. The used equipment was purchased for a mere $400,000.

“This is helping to bring the gear to more modern standards,” the report reads.

According to a December 2011 report, approximately $8 million has been spent on upgrading the Langseth since 2008.

Others have pointed out that the boat is owned by the NSF, which is currently one of the agencies from which PG&E is awaiting approval.

A Federal Register notice detailing PG&E’s requested take was posted Sept. 19. Public comments will be accepted until Oct. 15.

Given approval by the California Coastal Commission—expected in mid-October—and the California Fish and Game Commission, surveys are expected to commence in November.

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

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