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In the Shadow of Power Plant, Debate Over Access to Land

Coastal strip at Diablo Canyon was used as a buffer between residents and reactors.

November 06, 2005|Tim Molloy | Associated Press Writer

LOS OSOS, Calif. — For two decades, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has preserved a three-mile stretch of pristine coastal land bordering the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant -- an ecological haven in the shadow of a seaside facility that environmentalists derided as a major threat to California's coast.

Now the state's coastal protection agency wants to open the land to the public. PG&E has agreed, but says it wants to limit public access for fear that hikers will pose security threats or simply love the open space to death.

On the surface it looks like a rare situation in which a power utility is taking a more cautious approach to preservation than professional preservationists.

But some environmentalists in this area midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco say appearances are deceiving. They accuse PG&E of trying to choreograph an elaborate dance in which the utility offers the same piece of land to two sets of state regulators so it can avoid possible environmental fines from one agency while limiting the public access it has already promised another.

No matter what happens, those involved say the deal-making will end with increased public access to the land located north of the plant, which provides electricity to 1.6 million homes.

The question is how open the land will be.

Located near the small town of Los Osos and separated by a barbed wire fence from a state park, the unnamed stretch of grassland, creek beds, and bluffs seems like an isolated paradise.

Steelhead trout climb the gurgling Coon Creek to spawn and endangered southern sea otters frolic on rocky outcroppings beyond sea caves. Cattle, sheep and goats graze the grasslands. Peregrine falcons, golden eagles and gray-horned owls feed on abundant rabbits, rodents and smaller birds.

Since the plant opened in 1985, PG&E has used the land, which begins a mile north of the facility, as a safety buffer between residents and Diablo Valley's two nuclear reactors. The company also monitors the environment to gauge how areas closer to the plant are affected by its operations.

In recent years, PG&E has offered up the same land in different negotiations as the utility sought to win state approval for two aspects of its operations that alarm regulators and environmental groups.

Regional water regulators wanted the utility to offset environmental damage caused by a process called once-through cooling, in which the plant ingests ocean water to produce steam, then spits it back into the ocean at higher temperatures. That kills up to 15% of the eggs of some species of fish for several miles of coast.

The Coastal Commission was concerned by the utility's request to permit dry cask storage, in which nuclear waste is enclosed in thick containers to prevent radiation leaks -- a technique used at 25 plants nationwide. The casks are kept on site because there is no national nuclear waste repository.

To win a cask-storage permit, the company agreed to the Coastal Commission's demand that it open the land.

Before that deal, however, PG&E had been negotiating with the regional water board to set aside the land as open space to be run by a conservancy -- a trade-off for killing marine life in once-through cooling. If PG&E can't agree with the water board on how to mitigate harm to fish, the board could fine the company, said assistant executive director Michael Thomas.

No deal has been reached with the water board, but that could happen if the Coastal Commission changes its mind and lets PG&E open the land to the public while keeping access limited.

One way to do that: guided tours.

PG&E says hikers should only be allowed on the land when accompanied by guides who could keep them on trails.

"If you simply allow people out there willy-nilly, there would be damage to the land, damage to this pristine area," company spokesman Jeff Lewis said. "If people were simply allowed out there we wouldn't have any record or way to know who was out there on our property, which creates safety and security concerns."

Andrew Christie, coordinator of the local Sierra Club chapter, said PG&E wanted guided tours so it could claim the land was still protected even as the public used it.

Limiting public access to guided tours appeals to staff of the water board.

"We think it's possible to have access and conservation at the same time," Thomas said.

But the Coastal Commission isn't going for it, saying its deal requires the company to open the land to everyone, without restrictions. The commission believes that can be done without jeopardizing plant security.

"There will be a monitor there," said Peter Douglas, the Coastal Commission's executive director, "so we can see who goes in and who comes back out."

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