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Nuclear Plant Asks to Cut Back Marine Life Projects : Environment: Utility says all the steps agreed upon in 1991 are not needed now. Request for changes reopens debate over San Onofre facility’s effects on ocean.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When scientists concluded that the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was destroying massive numbers of fish and kelp, plant operators were required to undertake a plan to reduce damage to marine life.

Now, the utility companies that own the plant are seeking to curtail the 1991 mitigation plan--a turn of events that alarms environmentalists and threatens to reopen a decades-old debate over the effects of operating a nuclear plant alongside the Pacific Ocean.

Plant operator Southern California Edison wants the California Coastal Commission to rethink its requirements for mitigating the damage to fish and kelp beds.

For example, instead of creating a 300-acre kelp reef as required in the plan, Edison wants to build a 12-acre experimental reef near San Clemente. The utility also seeks other changes, such as shortening from 30 years to 10 years the monitoring time for its mitigation projects.

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The plan was forged four years ago in response to a long-term scientific study that found that the nuclear plant had caused over time a 60% reduction in the area covered by a nearby kelp bed. The 1989 study also said the plant’s cooling system sucks up and kills 21 to 57 tons of fish and 4 billion eggs and larvae each year.

But new research suggests that the San Onofre kelp bed has rebounded, Edison officials said.

“It’s as healthy as it’s been in recent history, and it’s about as big as it can get,” said Michael Hertel, Edison manager of environmental affairs, who questions the need for a 300-acre reef in light of the research.

A commission planner said she has not seen the new data. However, the size of kelp beds can fluctuate significantly from year to year, which was taken into account in the 1991 report’s findings, planner Christiane Parry said.

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Edison officials also warn that the cost of the mitigation program--initially estimated at $30 million--could skyrocket to as much as $160 million. The program includes the reef--to be built between Dana Point and Camp Pendleton--a planned San Diego County wetlands restoration project, fish hatchery funding and technical plant changes to protect fish.

Edison blames the soaring price tag on several factors, such as an initial estimate that was too low and projects that were more complex than expected. In particular, Edison officials said commission planners are unrealistic in their expectations, asking for costly features and in-depth research.

Although Edison wants to mitigate the plant’s effects, company officials believe they can do it more cheaply, said Frank Melone, Edison senior engineer for environmental affairs.

“What we’re asking for is just reconsideration. We want the commission to act in a fair and equitable way with us,” said Melone, who estimates that the changes Edison is seeking would reduce costs to about $60 million.

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If Edison were forced to finance full-scale mitigation as envisioned by the commission’s staff, the utility would be forced to rethink the economics of operating its two San Onofre units, he said.

“It’s a very serious issue for us,” Melone said.

A Coastal Commission official said last week that state planners are simply working to implement conditions set by the commission.

“This is not a matter of the staff dreaming something up,” said Susan Hansch, deputy director for energy, ocean resources and technical services. “Our job is to implement what the commission approves.”

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Hansch called the Edison proposal a “significant weakening of the mitigation package.”

Talk of altering the program deeply angers environmentalists.

“Edison continues to think of the California coast as its own personal punching bag,” said Mark Massara, director of the Sierra Club’s coastal program.

When the mitigation program was approved four years ago, Massara said, “Southern California Edison was not only a cheerleader, but a sponsor of those mitigations.”

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Joan Jackson, a board member of the League for Coastal Protection, also criticized Edison’s proposal to change the plan, including the cutback in monitoring.

“To do these projects and then walk away from them in a few years is irresponsible,” Jackson said.

The changes are being sought by Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, which owns a portion of the San Onofre plant.

Their proposal was rejected by Coastal Commission Executive Director Peter M. Douglas in an Oct. 12 letter. But a public hearing is planned for the commission’s Nov. 15 meeting in Los Angeles, and the panel can choose to have the proposal studied further.

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Edison is disturbed by Douglas’ rejection and believes that new information on the kelp bed and other matters deserves to be reviewed by the panel, Hertel said.

“We don’t want to spend more of our customers’ money than is necessary,” he said, adding that the company has already spent $21 million on the mitigation plan.

That plan is rooted in the history of the two units next to San Onofre State Beach south of San Clemente.

The huge cooling systems of the units draw in seawater at a rate of more than 1.6 million gallons a minute, discharging the water back into the ocean. Fish are sucked into the intake pipes and killed.

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Environmentalists once predicted that the plant would wreak ecological havoc off the Southern California coast. And when Units II and III were approved in 1974, the Coastal Commission attached several conditions, including the creation of a Marine Review Committee that conducted a 15-year, $48-million study of the plants’ effects.

After that study found that the plant had destroyed tons of fish, the Coastal Commission required Edison to build the 300-acre kelp reef, restore a 150-acre coastal wetland, improve the plant’s fish protection systems and contribute money for a marine fish hatchery.

The hatchery opened last month in Carlsbad and is expected to produce and release more than 350,000 juvenile white sea bass annually.

A wetlands restoration project is planned for the San Dieguito River Valley, and officials are doing laboratory experiments to improve mechanisms to protect fish drawn into the plant’s intake system.

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But after extensive study, Edison has not found an ideal site for the kelp reef and believes the feasibility of such a reef is questionable, Melone said. In its place, Edison is proposing a 12-acre experimental reef and a 10-year study to evaluate it.

Melone said the ties between the San Onofre plant and kelp damage remain murky. Other factors may have hurt kelp in the area, such as oceanographic conditions and residual effects from plant construction, he said.


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