Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has agreed to pay more than $14 million--the largest-ever settlement of its kind, according to federal officials--for submitting inaccurate reports on damage to sea life caused by the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.
The company was accused by both the U.S. and California environmental protection agencies of withholding information on the mortality of marine organisms sucked into Diablo Canyon’s giant water intake system.
James M. Strock, the head of Cal/EPA, blamed the company’s actions on “the rogue behavior of senior officials” and said the reporting lapses were “surprising and disappointing, given P G & E’s outstanding environmental record in many areas.”
Company officials, who admitted no wrongdoing, said they left data out of a few reports because they did not have confidence in the information.
Located near San Luis Obispo on the central coast, Diablo Canyon draws 2.5 billion gallons of seawater each day through its cooling system. With the water come larval fish, a certain number of which do not survive their journey through a 1,000-foot intake tunnel before they are spewed back into the ocean.
State and federal officials accused the company of shirking its obligation to report the extent of the fish kill to the state’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.
“For many years, the company willfully didn’t report information it was legally obligated to report,” said Ken Alex, supervising deputy for the state attorney general’s environmental division. “Even after it was brought up by some company scientists in 1992, the company waited another two years to report it.”
The case, settled with a consent decree filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, dealt with allegations that P G & E both omitted and tampered with data collected between 1985 and 1987, which revealed “up to a 90% reduction in sea life” as it passed through the intake system. Two other unreported data samples allegedly showed a 70% and a 27% loss of sea life.
The data were not reported to the water quality control board until 1994, according to federal officials.
“Had it been reported sooner, P G & E could have taken actions to minimize the losses,” said David Schmidt, a spokesman for the federal EPA. “For example, they could have cleaned the intake system more frequently, getting rid of the mussels and barnacles that feed on larval fish.”
But Schmidt said that even three extra cleanings, each of which would have required shutting the plant down, would have cost the company $10 million.
“They tried to save money by not reporting the negative results,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Chuck O’Connor.
Strock said P G & E’s conduct undermined the efforts of state and federal agencies to place more responsibility for environmental compliance in the hands of private industry.
Because of the shoddy reporting, Strock said, officials have been unable to determine the amount of damage to the marine environment around Diablo Canyon.
“That’s not something we will know until we get better assessments from P G & E, and they have agreed to do that as part of the settlement,” Strock said.
P G & E officials, however, took issue with the government’s account of what led to the $14-million settlement.
“We omitted data because we determined it was flawed,” said company spokesman Jeff Lewis.
“The implication is that there were ongoing studies that were withheld. But what we are talking about is a couple of sampling reports that weren’t submitted,” he said.
“If we had it to do over again, we would submit the data and say why we didn’t think it was valid: because the samples were contaminated and we had equipment malfunctions.”
“By its nature you can’t build a power plant and expect no impact. The question for regulators is when does it become significant.”
Lewis said the contention that one set of unreported data showed a mortality rate of 90% was “absolutely untrue.”
“We have also agreed to redo the studies, and we believe they will show that there was no adverse environmental impact,” he said. “We’ve been running out here for more than a decade. We see boats out here catching fish every day and a sea teeming with life.”