There’s 37 tons of nuclear waste stored in concrete casks at Humboldt Bay and two Cal Poly researchers are encouraging the community to consider “potential futures” brought on by sea level rise.
In a Feb. 23 webinar presentation sponsored by the Schatz Energy Research Center and Cal Poly Humboldt, the results of “focus group convenings” on how to deal with the waste from a former PG&E nuclear power plant were described.
Jennifer Marlow, a Cal Poly assistant professor of environmental law, is the founder of the 44 Feet Project. The name of the community engagement and research effort refers to the nuclear waste site’s height above sea level.
That’s a measure of concern because by 2065, sea level rise is predicted to rise enough – by 3.3. feet – to at times turn the site “into an island that will be increasingly vulnerable to wave erosion, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion,” according to 44 Feet’s website.
Co-presenter Alexander Brown, a Cal Poly graduate research assistant and master’s candidate, said the PG&E nuclear waste storage site is the second smallest in the U.S. but is “classified as one of the most at-risk sites to climate change.”
There isn’t another storage site available and Brown said relocation is “speculative at this point.”
Meanwhile there’s “shoreline retreat” due to erosion. Brown compared a 1952 photo to one from last January showing how the shore slope at the site is “considerably smaller now.”
To cope with risk, Marlow said 44 Feet sought to “learn from community members” by organizing discussion groups.
The ultimate goal is local involvement “where knowledge is accessible and shared openly,” “coalitions can help fill technical and political gaps” and the public “can enjoy a safe and resilient Humboldt Bay without risk of radioactive exposure.”
PG&E’s website says the waste site is “safe and secure” and gets regular federal inspections. Spent fuel is stored in canisters “within transportation casks” and the company describes the entombment of the waste as “an interim onsite storage program.”
During a question and answer session, Jen Kalt of Humboldt Baykeeper said PG&E “assumes a static physical environment but we know the bay is changing and not always in ways we understand.”
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Fifty years ago, the federal government passed the Clean Water Act to clean up the nation’s rivers, lakes, and oceans, many of which were polluted to dangerous levels. The State and Regional Water Boards were charged with implementing the Act here in California. In addition to setting statewide water quality standards and policy and issuing regulations, the Water Boards are also charged with enforcing water quality rules and penalizing violators.
Under current law, those who violate water quality rules (say, by discharging more of a chemical into a river than is allowed) have two options. The first option is to create a Supplemental Environmental Project to clean up the water in the community in which the violation occurred. Nearly all violators, however, choose the second option: paying a penalty into the State Water Board’s Cleanup & Abatement Account. They prefer this option because it allows them to write off their liability. Historically, the State Water Board has returned much of the money from the Cleanup & Abatement Account to the Regional Water Boards in order to clean up waterways in the communities most impacted by pollution.
Unfortunately, in recent years the State Water Board has sent an increasing share of Cleanup and Abatement Account monies to only a select few Regional Boards – leaving the majority of California communities (including many low-income communities of color) without the funding necessary to clean up polluted waters. Because water quality violators can simply send money to the State Water Board in lieu of cleaning up after themselves, but the Water Board no longer sends that money back to local communities at the same rate, many disadvantaged communities around the state have seen water quality issues persist or even worsen.
California Coastkeeper Alliance is partnering with Assembly Member Papan to introduce Assembly Bill 753 in order to ensure pollution fines and penalties are sent back to the community originally harmed by water quality violations.
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A coalition of advocates, academics and government officials are throwing their weight behind a regional strategy to address future sea level rise.
They argue that, for the plan to work, state regulators spearheading the effort need new authority to implement it — a policy idea that many stakeholders agree is necessary, but that would require the equivalent of a political Hail Mary pass.
At the moment, preparing for rising seas is mostly a free-for-all. Counties, cities and developers are coming up with plans separately and not all to the same level of protection, which has created a patchwork of inconsistent zoning and differing interpretations of state law.
For the regional plan to succeed, San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) needs to treat front-line communities as climate experts, said Julio Garcia, a BCDC environmental justice adviser and director of the nonprofit Rise South City, which focuses on climate issues in South San Francisco.
Will Travis, former executive director of BCDC, suggested the state create a different agency to enforce sea level rise adaptation across California.
“For there to be any kind of a regional strategy for dealing with sea level rise, you can't just expect that local government by local government will do the right thing,” he said.
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On the last day of its monthly meetings Friday, the California Coastal Commission approved a bid by the city of Eureka to ban all new digital signs and billboards.

“I’m just delighted. We think they are really ugly,” said Michele McKeegan, the head of Keep Eureka Beautiful's tree project, a volunteer community advocacy group that supported the legislation. “They’re ugly. They flash and they’re often garish. People just don’t like them.”

The bill then went to the City Council, which passed a ban on digital signs and billboards from certain parts of the city and regulated the brightness of the signs. Because Eureka is on the Pacific coast and the ordinance would change zoning policy, the California Coastal Commission — the state agency assigned to protect and conserve the state’s coastline — had to sign off. 

Not only did the commission approve Eureka's ordinance, it asked the city to go farther and enact a complete ban on new digital billboards and signs across the city. The city agreed, passed the amended ordinance and sent it to the commission for approval.  

Along with banning new digital signs and billboards, the ordinance also forces the existing billboards to only contain static messages and only transition from one message to another instantly, without any transitional effects like fading out. The ads on the digital billboards can’t change more than once every 15 seconds, and they have to conform to both the city’s brightness standards, and the International Dark-Sky Association's brightness standards.   

“What we need are trees in our community, not digital billboards, street trees,” McKeegan said. 

Jennifer Kalt, the executive director of Humboldt Baykeeper, a coastal resources advocacy group, said the signs are also dangerous.
“The digital signs are more of an issue of light pollution and safety hazards, particularly on a quite dangerous stretch of US 101 that lacks pedestrian and cycling features,” Kalt wrote in an emailed statement. “We certainly applaud the city for being proactive about this, although it should have been done years ago.” 

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Good news for fans of non-motorized transportation: The last stretch of trail needed to connect Eureka and Arcata is getting closer to realization.
“It’s a really big step,” said Hank Seemann, the county’s deputy director of public works. If all goes to plan, he said, people will be cycling, jogging, roller-skating and skateboarding between the Arcata Plaza and the Eureka boardwalk before long.
“I would fully expect it to be complete by summer of 2024,” Seemann said, adding that construction could begin on or around May 1.
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