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The Shame of Serious Understaffing : Bureaucratic bottleneck developing over troubling report about San Onofre

September 16, 1990

It has been more than a year since a study concluded that the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is breaking federal law by killing tons of kelp and fish every year. This was no ordinary report. Funded by Southern California Edison, the research was a 15-year, $46-million review of the power plant's impact on the offshore environment.

Ordered by the California Coastal Commission, the review determined that the plant has reduced the San Onofre kelp bed by 200 acres, or 60%. San Onofre's cooling system sucks up and kills 21 to 57 tons of fish a year, discharging the debris into the ocean and reducing the natural light levels on the ocean floor by as much as 16%.

This is perhaps not an ecological disaster of the highest order, but certainly a matter for the commission's attention. And yet a year has gone by without a commission hearing on the report.

As a result of those delays, the Water Quality Control Board--the other agency empowered to force Edison to make changes--has postponed its hearings on the matter three times. This despite an environmental lawyer's requests to revoke the plant's permit until Edison remedies the two reported violations.

The cause of all this delay is the now familiar commission staff shortage. Staff scientists there simply don't have the time to review a study that the agency ordered 15 years ago.

That state of affairs is, of course, traceable to Deukmejian Administration budget cuts. Staff at the commission has been reduced from 172 when Gov. Deukmejian took over to 110 today. An advisory panel on cost control found last year that the agency's budget had been reduced, in real terms, by 56% since 1977.

The November ballot is full of potential new protections for the environment. Forests, crops, the ozone layer, bays and estuaries would receive more help. Yet only the oil- spill-prevention provisions of Proposition 128 would add staff to the badly strapped commission, and those funds would pay for its new responsibilities. (The Legislature has enacted a similar new program).

It's futile to scold Deukmejian again for his attitude toward the environment (except to remind him of the need to sign the bill that would provide the commission with new enforcement powers over those who damage the coastline.) The commission, which will ask for 37 new staffers and a budget increase of $3.1 million for fiscal 1991-92, must place its hope in the next governor. Both candidates have shown concern for the coast's future.

While the electorate considers how far it wants to extend environmental safeguards, the state ought to find a way to help an existing watchdog--the Coastal Commission--do the job we established it to do.

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