Was the public shut out of key meetings over where to put radioactive waste from the shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station?
It is a question looming over recently filed documents in a lawsuit challenging plans to store 3.6 million pounds of the toxic material near the shoreline.
Records show 15 months before the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a permit allowing Southern California Edison to keep the waste at San Onofre, there were closed-door meetings.
From July 2014 to October 2015, documents reveal that Edison representatives met with coastal commission staff at least three times and traded scores of emails. The two sides discussed the process, drawings of the waste storage plan, the approval timeline and opposition to the plan.
“They were in partnership with each other and the public was completely closed off from the process,” said San Diego consumer lawyer Mike Aguirre, who has sued the commission and Edison to get the permit to store the waste at San Onofre overturned. “One side had over a year to put together a package which they then tried to run through the process.”
Edison’s plan to hold the waste at the plant site about 100 feet from the sea was an idea that drew fierce criticism from activists, including Ray Lutz, who heads Citizens Oversight Inc. Lutz said he was never told about the private meetings.
“It’s astonishing that this is the way business is done,” Lutz said.
KPBS reached out to Edison but they declined to comment, citing ongoing settlement talks over possibly moving the waste off-site. Instead, they referred questions to the coastal commission.
In a statement, a coastal commission spokeswoman wrote that the private meetings are an efficient way for staff to get a “fuller understanding” of the proposed development.
“Pre-application meetings are not unusual, especially for more complicated projects such as this,” said coastal commission public information officer Noaki Schwartz. “To allow the general public to attend such informal meetings would in many cases make them unmanageable.”
The closed-door sessions are legal.
San Diego Mesa College political science professor Carl Luna said government must conduct some business away from the public glare. But he said that transparency requires the decision-making process — which started in those private meetings — include the public.
“You would think just for a good public policy discussion, you would bring everybody in, to recognize the short-term and long-term costs that you’re leaving buried there for our kids and our grandkids and maybe the great, great, great-grandkids," Luna said.
Coastal commission spokeswoman Noaki Schwartz added that Edison held five outreach meetings for the public to discuss waste storage. The public was still, however, excluded from the private sessions between Edison and the coastal commission. In fact, the public was only brought in when Edison’s pitch to keep the nuclear waste at San Onofre went before the panel for a decision in October 2015.
And while Edison and coastal commission staff had one year to prepare for that meeting, the public was given about one week notice of the session. Soon after, Aguirre said opponents expressed their discontent through emails to the commission.
“There was a volcano of objections and they flowed into the coastal commission staff, and the coastal commission staff kind of joked about it with Southern California Edison,” Aguirre said.
Documents also reveal a commission staffer described those opposition emails in his own email to an Edison representative as “formulaic.” The Edison employee replied, “Please don’t waste your time if you’re forwarding repetitive subject matter.”
Edison’s private talks did not stop with staff. They went all the way to the top.
Just before the coastal commission signed off on Edison’s plan to keep the nuclear waste at San Onofre, commissioners themselves disclosed their own private talks.
Records show more than a dozen private conversations were held between commissioners and Edison representatives ahead of the crucial vote.