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California and the West

Utility Falls Behind on Kelp Project

Environment: Southern California Edison fails to meet expectations. Restoration was ordered to repair damage from San Onofre nuclear plant.

July 09, 1998|DEBORAH SCHOCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California Edison has fallen behind schedule in a massive state-ordered program to build a giant kelp reef and restore wetlands to compensate for years of ocean damage caused by the San Onofre nuclear plant.

Less than 15 months after the state set a strict timetable for the long-awaited projects, the wetlands restoration is lagging six months behind deadline. And although designers once hoped to start work this year on the artificial reef aimed at encouraging kelp growth off the San Clemente coast--expected to be the largest of its kind in the nation--the project probably will not begin until autumn 1999.

Edison officials say that they remain strongly committed to the marine restoration projects. And state regulators say they believe that regulatory red tape is partly to blame for the delay.

"Things are behind, there's no question, but it's not all their fault," said Susan Hansch, deputy director of the California Coastal Commission.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 10, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Restoration project--In Thursday's Times, the headline on a story about delays in a program to build a kelp reef and restore wetlands outside the San Onofre nuclear plant did not make clear, as the story did, that the primary reason for the current delay has been bureaucratic red tape rather than failure by Southern California Edison to meet deadlines.

The $118-million program is meant to offset environmental damage caused by the twin 1,100-megawatt nuclear plants since they started operating in the early 1980s. Unlike many nuclear plants, San Onofre lacks large onshore cooling towers and instead depends on ocean water for cooling. Scientists concluded nine years ago that the plants' giant cooling system was sucking up and killing tons of fish, eggs and larvae each year.

Although the commission ordered the restoration projects in 1991, work was delayed repeatedly as Edison sought to sharply scale back the scope of the work, arguing that the nuclear plant was less harmful to marine life than scientists had believed. But commissioners voted unanimously in April 1997 to require that the utility build the 150-acre reef, restore 150 acres of the San Dieguito wetlands near Del Mar and conduct other work to safeguard fish.

Now, with the pace of the program dragging, the Coastal Commission at its meeting in San Francisco on Friday will review a staff report on the delays. The panel is expected to formally amend the timetable when it meets in Oceanside in October.

Hansch vows the project will continue pushing ahead.

"What we want is results," she said. "That's the job I have . . . to keep them on the conditions and to get it done."

And Edison says it is trying to move swiftly while meeting legal requirements.

"We have complied with every deadline set forth in the [commission] permit," said Frank Melone, who manages the project for Edison.

Melone said the 1997 timetable set by commissioners may have been too optimistic, because such a large program can take a few years to go through environmental review.

"We told the staff that," Melone said. "We tried to encourage them to put a schedule in the permit that was realistic. . . .

"They were sort of in the mind-set to keep our feet to the fire."

One of the program's most scientifically complex elements is the artificial kelp reef off San Clemente. A 17-acre experimental reef will be monitored for five years and then expanded to 150 acres of medium- and high-density kelp. That should rekindle more marine life offshore, in turn producing more abundant fishing and diving.

"It's got to be one of the biggest ones that's been done anywhere," said Steve Schroeter, a staff scientist working on the project for the Coastal Commission. "More fish. More invertebrates. More kelp forest."

The reef has been slowed because of unexpected environmental hurdles, the Coastal Commission report said.

Designers had hoped to install the small reef during ideal weather conditions late this summer or in early fall. But state officials have decided full-scale environmental review is required, probably pushing back construction until summer or fall 1999.

"I'd hate to put the onus on Edison," Schroeter said. "Edison met all their deadlines--and then, all of a sudden, we had to do an environmental impact statement."

The wetlands restoration has been delayed for various reasons, such as studies Edison conducted on potential stream flow. Although the commission ordered a final restoration plan with government approval by November 1998, the environmental review is six months behind, meaning that the public may not see a draft impact report before late fall. That could delay the start of restoration until late 1999 or later.

The San Dieguito wetlands project will be the third-largest wetlands restoration in all of Southern California, after the 1,100-acre Bolsa Chica project near Huntington Beach and the 600-acre Batiquitos Lagoon project in Carlsbad.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Reef to the Rescue

Southern California Edison is behind schedule on creating its experimental 17-acre reef. The reef is part of a mitigation project, following a study that said the San Onofre nuclear plant's cooling system caused kelp beds in the area to shrink by 60%.

How Kelp Beds Were Killed

Outflow pipes from San Onofre diffused water that created sediment clouds. The silt obscured light the kelp needed to grow.

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