Claiming improper lobbying by Southern California Edison, an environmental group is seeking to overturn a ruling that Edison's San Onofre nuclear power plant isn't violating its federal pollutant discharge permit.
Earth Island Institute alleges that Edison representatives met privately with Arthur Coe, executive officer of the San Diego County Regional Water Quality Control Board, before the board voted favorably for the power plant on Feb. 10.
In a 60-page petition, the group's attorney, Steve Crandall, asked the State Water Resources Control Board to review the regional board's ruling because "unlawful" contact had "tainted" the decision and excluded public comment.
"It's basically a fraud on the public," Crandall said Tuesday.
However, both Coe and Edison official Frank Melone insisted Tuesday that their meeting on Jan. 24 was appropriate because board policy prohibits lobbying voting board members, but doesn't ban contact with administrative staff.
The complaint "is absolutely without merit. He's grasping at straws and trying to get the state board's attention," said Melone, a senior engineer who handles San Onofre's environmental affairs.
The lobbying allegation is a small but potentially significant skirmish as Earth Island Institute and Edison prepare to battle in federal court over environmentalist claims that San Onofre is violating federal pollution laws.
Scientists have concluded that San Onofre, which Edison operates on the coast south of San Clemente, has damaged offshore kelp beds and killed tons of fish in its cooling system.
Last year, the California Coastal Commission required Edison to improve the plant to offset environmental damage and build an artificial reef to help restore kelp beds.
Earth Island wants more expensive and far-reaching improvements, and filed a lawsuit alleging that Edison is violating the federal Clean Water Act.
Environmentalists suffered a setback when the regional board, spurning its own staff's recommendations, voted that evidence didn't "clearly indicate" San Onofre was violating terms of its pollutant discharge permit.
Crandall's petition to the State Water Resources Control Board seeks to overturn that ruling, both on technical grounds and because of the purported improper lobbying activity.
He hopes state action will nullify the regional board's decision and weaken Edison's defense in the lawsuit. Similarly, Edison believes that, if the state rejects the petition, Edison will be in a strong position to seek dismissal of the suit.
According to Crandall, the regional board had closed testimony on the San Onofre matter last November and required "any further comments on the evidence to be presented at a formal, open and noticed public meeting" on Feb. 10.
Instead, he argued in the petition, Coe, the board's top administrator, met privately with Edison representatives Jan. 24, about two weeks before the board's key vote.
During that meeting, Coe and the Edison representatives acknowledge that they discussed preparation of a San Onofre resolution to take before the board.
But Crandall claims he and other interested parties weren't informed of the meeting and thus were "unable to present evidence" about what had been discussed behind closed doors.
"I should have been there. . . . I should have been able to respond to whatever Melone had to say," Crandall said. "It's basically a threat to the integrity of the process and goes to the fundamental fairness of the hearing."
But Melone said the meeting with Coe was "procedural in nature, which we had a right to discuss with the board staff."
He said the session didn't constitute lobbying because Coe "is not a voting member of the board. He is the top staff member, but he has no decision-making role."
Coe said Tuesday that the whole lobbying issue is pointless because the resolution hammered out with Edison representatives wasn't adopted by the board anyway.
"In this particular case, the board didn't go along with the staff recommendation, which makes the thing rather moot," Coe said.
Crandall said that, although the board didn't approve the actual staff recommendation, the action the board did take was similar in effect.
Beside overturning the board's decision, Crandall's petition also asks the State Water Resources Control Board to intervene in the lawsuit.