Morro Bay is located in an area that PG&E wants to test for seismic activity. (Photo courtesy Google Images)

CIVIC CENTER — The Surfrider Foundation plans to hold a rally at the Civic Center Wednesday morning to protest a proposal by a Northern California electric company to conduct seismic surveys along the coast, a move activists fear will harm marine wildlife and people.

Pacific Gas & Electric asked for a permit to carry forward with seismic surveys that would create a three-dimensional image of the coastline between Cayucos and Point Sal near the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, a nuclear facility, to define the level of seismic activity that earthquake faults in the area are capable of producing.

It proposes to do so using air guns dragged behind a 235-foot research vessel provided by the National Science Foundation that generate high-energy acoustic pulses that pass through the water and penetrate six to nine miles into the sea floor.

The pulses would hit 230 to 252 decibels at their source, and would go off every 11 to 20 seconds for at least nine days of testing and up to 17 days including time to calibrate the technology.

The Surfrider Foundation released a position statement questioning the impacts of such sustained testing on the animals that live along the coast, the people that recreate in the water and the commercial fishermen that rely on it for their livelihoods.

“Imagine a bomb exploding every 15 seconds, 24 hours a day for weeks on end,” the statement reads.

High levels of noise can induce dizziness, hearing damage and other harm to people in the water. Animals in the area primarily rely on sound to sense their environment and communicate, so large mammals like whales could be seriously impacted, according to the report.

That could include hearing loss and even death. Activists say thousands of animals could be affected.

The method has been used in coastal waters near Washington state and Costa Rica as well as other locations around the globe, said PG&E spokesman Blair Jones.

The plan includes a monitoring program to watch out for wildlife. If any appears within a certain radius of the research boat, the vessel can change course or power down the machines.

“Similar research is performed around the world without harming marine life,” Jones said. “Our proposal includes an effective science plan, an appropriate research vessel and technology that was reviewed by the state.”

The same technology has been used in other places, acknowledged Matt McClain of the Surfrider Foundation, but to say that it hadn’t hurt marine life was a stretch.

“Some of those places it’s taken place without incident, and some there’s evidence that it’s harmed marine life,” McClain said.

There have been reports of commercial fishing areas depleted of fish for up to three years after the air guns made their way through, McClain said.

PG&E plans to post warnings along the shores at beach parking lots and access trails, and diving will not be allowed within the survey area to protect beachgoers and SCUBA divers.

According to the PG&E website, people would have to be exposed to sounds of 154 decibels or higher for 15 minutes to see any damage. The noise levels reaching shore will be no more than 160 decibels, and the company believes that’s higher than what people would actually experience.

Officials with the Coastal Commission have already recommended that commissioners deny the request, saying there wasn’t enough information to say conclusively that PG&E’s proposed methodology was the least damaging to the local environment.

There was also a possibility that the company could dodge the surveys or go ahead with a more limited set by taking another look at information that already exists, according to the report.

Surfrider wants to be clear that this isn’t an indictment on nuclear energy, which has also been fired on by Santa Monica activists.

“We’re not weighing in if it’s a good source of energy or a bad source,” McClain said. “We’re saying this project is harmful to the ecosystem, ocean recreation and the coastal economy.”

Activists can gather at Jinky’s Cafe on Second Street at 7 a.m. for a pancake breakfast courtesy of Vans Shoes before heading over to the east wing of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for the rally.

The Coastal Commission meeting begins at 9 a.m.

 

ashley@smdp.com