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Coastal Panel Deadlocks on San Onofre Request : Environment: 6 to 6 vote on Edison’s plea to have nuclear plant’s mitigation rules eased effectively leaves them in place. The utility expresses disappointment.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Coastal Commission deadlocked Wednesday over a request to rethink mitigation plans at the San Onofre nuclear plant, effectively leaving in place requirements that plant operators build a large artificial kelp reef and take other steps to offset the plant’s effects on the marine environment.

A Southern California Edison Co. official expressed disappointment at the turn of events, saying he had hoped the panel would allow his company to present its case for curtailing mitigation measures ordered in 1991. Edison, which operates the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, contends that the damage it causes is less than once thought.

“We had hoped for a hearing on the merits of our case,” said Michael M. Hertel, Edison manager of environmental affairs.

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Environmentalists opposed to relaxing those guidelines, however, said they were relieved at the outcome.

The debate revealed the commission is sharply divided over whether to reopen the question of how much mitigation is needed to balance damage to marine life caused by the plant. The panel had ordered wide-ranging mitigation measures in 1991 after scientists concluded the plant’s cooling system was killing large amounts of kelp and fish.

Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas had already ruled against Edison’s efforts to reopen the matter, maintaining that Edison should have to abide by the 1991 plan and that “a deal is a deal.”

But Edison officials appealed directly to commissioners at their Wednesday meeting in Los Angeles, contending that new research and skyrocketing costs merited a fresh look. More than a dozen people spoke in opposition, including representatives of such groups as the Sierra Club and Heal the Bay.

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After a contentious back-and-forth that lasted more than four hours, the commission deadlocked, 6 to 6, on whether to support Douglas’ decision rejecting Edison’s request. That meant that efforts to overrule Douglas failed, since a majority vote would be needed to order Douglas to reopen the mitigation issue, the commission’s counsel advised.

Douglas said after the meeting that his staff “stands ready” to work with Edison to try to find solutions to its concerns.

“We are prepared to sit down and talk with them,” Douglas said.

Edison’s Hertel said as he left the meeting, “We simply have to review the options.”

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Commissioners disagreed both over the merits of Edison’s request and over the legalities of how to deal practically and legally with their 6-to-6 split.

Commissioner Gary Giacomini read from 1991 records when the mitigation program was crafted, noting Edison’s support of the plan then and questioning their changed stance. “It’s the best bait-and-switch I’ve ever seen in my life,” Giacomini said.

But Commission alternate Dorill Wright defended Edison, saying, “I suggest to you that the economy in California would be significantly different had this plant not been on line.”

The debate over San Onofre’s impact on marine life began long before Unit II and Unit III were approved by the commission in 1974. The twin units began operating in the early 1980s next to San Onofre State Beach south of San Clemente. An older unit closed in 1992.

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Environmental concerns were rekindled in 1989 when a 14-year, $48-million study found the power plant had caused a 60% reduction in the size of the nearby San Onofre kelp bed. The study also found that the plant’s huge cooling system sucks up and kills 21 to 57 tons of fish and 4 billion eggs and larvae each year.

In response, the 1991 mitigation plan orders Edison to build a 300-acre artificial kelp reef, restore wetlands and make technical changes at the plant to protect fish. The utility has also contributed money to a marine fish hatchery that opened last month in Carlsbad. In recent months, Edison proposed building a 12-acre experimental kelp reef instead of the 300-acre reef that was slated for construction between San Clemente and Dana Point. Edison officials cited new research suggesting the San Onofre kelp bed had rebounded.

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The utility also sought to shorten from 30 years to 10 years the monitoring period for its mitigation projects. And while the Coastal Commission staff currently monitors the mitigation’s effectiveness, Edison requested the power to monitor itself--a power it says is allotted most other companies who appear before the coastal panel.

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In support of its request, Edison said the total cost of mitigation had soared from an early $30-million estimate to as much as $160 million, and it blamed the unexpected complexity of projects as well as what it termed the unrealistic expectations of commission planners.

But some environmentalists on Wednesday questioned Edison’s commitment to the project.

“This proposal is all about money. It’s not about mitigation, and it’s certainly not about science,” said Mark Gold of the environmental group Heal the Bay.

Mark Massara of the Sierra Club argued that the commission could set a dangerous precedent by reopening the mitigation package, prompting other firms to attempt to follow suit.

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“Pandora’s box will be opened,” Massara said, adding that “other permit holders are waiting in the wings with bated breath.”

San Onofre produces 22% of all power generated for Edison customers and 20% of power for San Diego Gas & Electric Co. customers. Edison owns 75% of the plant, the San Diego utility owns 20%, the city of Anaheim owns 3% and the city of Riverside owns nearly 2%.


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