Coastal Panel Orders Edison to Launch Conservation Projects


The California Coastal Commission, settling one of the state’s longest-running environmental disputes, voted 12 to 0 Wednesday to require Southern California Edison Co. to move ahead with conservation projects in northern San Diego County and off the southern Orange County coast.

Under the $113.4-million plan endorsed by the commission, the utility will be required to restore 150 acres of wetlands of the San Dieguito Lagoon in Del Mar and build a 150-acre reef off the coast between San Clemente and Camp Pendleton.

Edison had sought to downsize both projects, pleading increased costs and new scientific evidence.


The plan was enthusiastically supported by officials on the governing board for the San Dieguito River Regional Park, which boosters envision stretching 56 miles from the mouth of the San Dieguito River at Del Mar to Vulcan Mountain near Julian. The park encompasses 89 acres of wetlands.

“This is the project, this is the place, and it is long past time to go forward,” said Del Mar Deputy Mayor Mark Whitehead, a member of the park board.

“You need to put a stop to Edison’s haggling, foot-dragging and interminable delays,” Susan Jordan, a spokeswoman for the League for Coastal Protection, told the commission.

At issue before the agency was a 1991 agreement that Edison made with the Coastal Commission to restore 150 acres of wetlands near the Del Mar racetrack and build a 300-acre reef off the coast.

The projects were meant to mitigate damage done to kelp, fish and invertebrates by Edison’s San Onofre nuclear power plant on the coast north of Oceanside. The reef would stimulate the growth of kelp.

Scientists for the commission and for various environmental groups have asserted that the nuclear plant, which sucks in 1.6 million gallons of seawater per minute for cooling and recycles it back to the ocean, damages the marine environment from Point Conception to the Mexican border, although the amount of that damage is open to dispute.


To obtain commission approval for its second and third generating units at the plant in the 1970s, Edison had agreed to fulfill a mitigation plan whose details would be determined later.

Almost continuously since the 1991 agreement was struck, Edison, the commission staff and environmental groups have been squabbling over the cost of the projects and the amount of damage done by the plant, with each side bolstering its case with scientific consultants.

A scientist from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, acting as a consultant to Edison, told the commission that there is no evidence that San Onofre has decreased the size of the kelp bed.

In contrast, a Sierra Club official countered that the plant is “the single most destructive marine facility in the history of California.”

Although the commission reduced the size of the reef that Edison will be required to build, it also added a new requirement, that the utility spend $3.6 million to build fish hatcheries.

The issue of how to compensate for the environmental damage done by the San Onofre nuclear plant has been before the commission since its initial decision in 1973 to deny permits for the two additional generating units. Commission members have come and gone, but the San Onofre issue has remained unresolved.


“We have set a world record: 20 years of studies and continuances is enough,” said commission Chairman Rusty Areias, a former Democratic state legislator. “I’m out of patience.”

Similar impatience was expressed by commission staff.

“For 13 years [since Units 2 and 3 came on line], the public has suffered loss of natural resources,” said commission Executive Director Peter M. Douglas.

“We think it’s time to get on with actually implementing the mitigation.”

Edison had asked the commission to amend the 1991 agreement--to trim the kelp bed to 16.8 acres, decrease the wetlands requirement at San Dieguito, and provide the utility with immunity for any flood damage done by restoring the wetlands.

Beyond its immediate impact on the coastline, the San Onofre issue is also seen as a test of the new Democratic majority on the Coastal Commission.

In November, with Republican appointees in the majority, the commission came close to approving Edison’s request to downscale the mitigation being required of the giant utility.

Among other things, Edison had wanted to shift some of its mitigation efforts north to the wetlands at the South Ormond Beach in Ventura County.


In deference to protests from environmentalists and officials of San Dieguito River Valley Park, the commission delayed its decision after a marathon session marked by legal threats on both sides and conflicting scientific claims.

Since then, newly appointed Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante replaced four Republican appointees with Democratic appointees, returning control of the commission to Democrats.