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Scientists Dispute Lethal Effect of N-Plant's Water on Sea Life

December 27, 1987|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

When marine biologist RimmonFay donned his scuba gear and first dived in the waters near San Onofre a decade ago, he found a rich blend of the ocean's flora and fauna.

It was like a picture post card of a thriving undersea world. Dense forests of kelp swayed in the currents. Crowds of fish darted about. A potpourri of clams and other mollusks lay encrusted like gems on the cobble bottom.

But today, Fay says, that same patch of ocean floor is a virtual desert, stripped bare of its aquatic denizens. The culprit? Fay blames the San Onofre nuclear power plant, an imposing edifice of concrete and steel crouched atop the sandstone bluffs overlooking the Pacific.

Water used to cool the plant's two big new reactors, first fired up in 1983 and 1984, and then discharged into the ocean, has spread a thick layer of silt over a 33-acre section of ocean bottom once dominated by a flourishing kelp bed, Fay says. In effect, the ecological balance of that submarine world has been turned topsy-turvy, he maintains.

The Company's View

The veteran marine biologist's opinions are by no means unanimous, however, and they have unleashed a scientific struggle dividing some of the best minds in the business.

Coastal experts from Southern California Edison Co., the utility that operates the sprawling nuclear power plant just south of San Clemente, contend Fay is dramatically overstating the impact of San Onofre on nearby ocean waters. They say there is no irrefutable proof that changes in the marine environment are associated with the plant's operations, arguing that many of the effects may simply be the result of Mother Nature.

"Basically, it's not a disaster out there," said Byron Mechalas Edison's manager of environmental research. "There are changes; there are things happening out there, but I would say they aren't very severe. Most of the effects are lost in the noise of the natural environment out there."

This clash represents the latest chapter in a decade-long scientific struggle over the question of what effect the power plant is having on undersea life.

The debate will ultimately land in the lap of the California Coastal Commission during 1988. Late in the year, the commission will consider the results of a scientific study by a special three-member committee--whose members include both Fay and Mechalas--that has monitored the ocean environment off San Onofre since Edison was granted a permit for the two new reactors in 1974.

Fay, who operates Pacific Bio-Marine Laboratories in Inglewood, is the environmentalist representative on the committee. Mechalas represents the utility. The third panel member, a representative of the commission, is UC Santa Barbara biologist William Murdoch, who generally sides with Mechalas.

The stakes are great. If the scientific committee concludes that the San Onofre nuclear power plant has harmed the near-shore waters, the commission could order the utility to take costly measures to compensate for any ecological damage, including modifications to the cooling system.

"The bottom line is, there has been an enormous loss of marine resources," said Don May, Southern California representative of the environmental group Friends of the Earth. "Clearly, if Edison can't comply with the law that said, 'Thou shall not kill in the marine environment,' they should at least be forced to pay for their misdeeds."

Coastal Commission officials concede the issue will be heated.

Abuse of the Sea

"There's no doubt we're going to have a very challenging problem," said Susan Hansch, manager of the commission's energy and ocean resources unit. "We hope that the data will be such that, with an honest interpretation, we will know which direction we should go with possible mitigation measures."

So far, Fay has found little common ground with other committee members. At times, the debate has gotten downright feisty.

Fay contends his counterparts on the panel, dubbed the Marine Review Committee, have been "derelict" in their duty to join him in reporting the environmental problems he believes have developed off San Onofre.

The scientist argues that the power plant has violated the state Ocean Plan and other regulations guarding against abuse of the sea. Fay has taken his gripes to the Coastal Commission, the state Water Resources Control Board and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board but has made virtually no headway.

Murdoch, the UC Santa Barbara biologist, was unavailable for comment because of a family emergency. But Edison's Mechalas chafed at the allegations levied by Fay.

"I just don't understand some of Dr. Fay's claims," Mechalas said. "We're not supposed to be lawyers. We're supposed to study the environment as scientists and report what we find to the Coastal Commission. And that's what we're doing.

"I think Fay is just an old-time environmental type, and he doesn't like nuclear power plants," Mechalas said. "He feels there ought to be a disaster out there, and he just can't understand why we're not finding it."

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