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Environmentalists, Edison Both Dislike San Onofre Proposal

September 27, 1996|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to repeated urging from owners of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, California coastal planners have proposed softening some 1991 mandates intended to offset the plant's impact on fish and other marine life.

But the proposed changes made public by the state Coastal Commission staff this week are being met with disappointment by plant owners and environmentalists alike.

Plant operator Southern California Edison claims the changes fall far short of what the company had requested, while environmentalists fear that political pressures may be forcing coastal planners to buckle and to give Edison too much. The commission staff report is adding still more fuel to the acrimonious controversy that has raged for decades over how the massive nuclear plant just south of the Orange-San Diego counties line is really affecting fish, kelp and other marine life.

Two key changes in the new report deal with how much San Onofre's owners must do to compensate for reported kelp and fish loss.

The report calls for plant owners to build 122 acres of artificial kelp reef off the coast near San Clemente, less than half the 300-acre kelp reef originally required to compensate for kelp-bed damage believed caused by the plant's giant cooling system. Recent studies have shown that a kelp bed offshore from the plant has shrunk less than once believed.

Coastal planners also have agreed in concept with an Edison proposal that it meet some wetlands restoration requirements by funding a project at Ormond Beach in Ventura County.

But planners did not concur with another Edison request: that it be freed from independent-monitoring requirements and allowed to monitor the progress of the mitigation projects itself.

Edison official Michael Hertel disagrees that the proposal really softens the 5-year-old requirements, contending that instead it threatens to set up a new thicket of complex and costly rules.

"When you look at the details, they give with one hand and take with the other," said Hertel.

Environmentalists, however, worry that the commission staff report may be too generous in freeing Edison from earlier requirements.

"The staff's been under unprecedented political pressure," said Ann Notthoff, senior planner with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We're going to be looking at this to see how well this makes whole the California coast from the ravages of a nuclear plant."

Edison officials and environmentalists on Thursday were both still scrutinizing the complex and voluminous 145-page document, which outlines mitigation projects in three counties costing an estimated $78 million to complete and monitor.

Edison issued a four-page media release challenging the report and promising to submit a formal response to the full Coastal Commission.

A group of environmentalists met Thursday afternoon in Los Angeles to study the report, promising that more thorough public comment will be forthcoming.

The full commission is due to vote on the matter Oct. 8, a decision that environmentalists are viewing as a crucial litmus test for the newly Republican-dominated board.

The San Onofre debate is being revived less than three months after a failed July effort by the new GOP majority to fire longtime Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas. That effort had the support of state Resources Secretary Douglas Wheeler, who cited Douglas' unwillingness last year to discuss Edison's desire to soften the San Onofre mitigation standards.

San Onofre Units II and III, located next to San Onofre State Beach, are owned jointly by Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and the cities of Anaheim and Riverside.

The tug of war over the plant's effects on the marine environment was spurred on in 1989 with a long-term scientific study determining that the plant had caused a kelp bed to shrink by 60% and that the plant's cooling system was sucking up and killing 21 to 57 tons of fish and 4 billion eggs and larvae annually.

Under a 1991 plan agreed to by the commission and Edison, plant owners were required to build a 300-acre artificial kelp reef, restore wetlands and protect fish with technical improvements at the plant. In addition, Edison helped fund a new marine fish hatchery in Carlsbad.

Last month, contending that those conditions are too stringent and citing new kelp research, Edison proposed rolling back the 1991 requirements on a number of fronts. For instance, it wants to be allowed to build a reef that covers less than 17 acres instead of 300.

Although the commission staff is concurring with the building of the smaller reef, it wants it to be used as a test case for construction of a larger, 105-acre reef--bringing the total size of the artificial kelp reef to 122 acres.

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