Beaufort joins suit against seismic blasting

8 mins read

Beaufort is among 16 coastal municipalities who have joined the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce in litigation challenging authorizations for seismic blasting in the Atlantic.   

The South Carolina Environmental Law Project is representing the 16 coastal communities and the Small Business Chamber in a lawsuit filed in Federal District Court in Charleston “contesting the validity of authorizations to harass hundreds of thousands of marine mammals,” issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”).  

The authorizations were wrongly issued, according to the complaint, because they violate multiple federal statutes, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.  

“Importantly, NMFS failed to consider the cumulative impacts of allowing an unprecedented amount of seismic airgun surveying to be conducted in the Atlantic. Five surveying companies will blast and reblast much of the same area, in turn, as they each gather their own proprietary data to be sold to big oil companies in anticipation of offshore drilling,” the plaintiffs said in a release. 

Seismic airgun surveying is done in preparation for offshore oil and gas drilling, which is unanimously opposed by every coastal municipality in South Carolina. Seismic airguns are dragged by boats in large arrays along the surface of the ocean. The airguns blast sound downward at 16,000 decibels, every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day. The blasting is slated to take place offshore from Delaware to Florida and last for about a year. Seismic airgun surveying has been shown to injure and drive away marine life, from destroying microscopic zooplankton at the base of the oceanic food chain to harassing the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, the release says. 

“I am disappointed that NMFS authorized serious impacts to the critically endangered right whale, along with hundreds of thousands of other species of marine life, in order to allow for unnecessary seismic blasting,” SCELP Executive Director Amy Armstrong said. “The coast has spoken loudly and repeatedly against seismic airgun surveying and offshore drilling. But the current administration refuses to listen. I hope that the courts agree with us that this activity would be unnecessary and illegal.”  

The 16 municipalities that SCELP is representing — Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Port Royal, Beaufort, Edisto Island, Seabrook Island, Kiawah Island, Folly Beach, James Island, Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Isle of Palms, Awendaw, Pawleys Island, Briarcliffe Acres, and North Myrtle Beach — are concerned about the environmental impacts along with economic ones.   

“Issuing these authorizations is but the first shot off the bow by money-hungry special interests at the expense of our quality of life and our pristine coast, which we work diligently to protect — with disregard for the security of our jobs, with disregard for the largest industry, and with disregard for the loud voices of opposition by the many,” Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said. “We fought the Obama Administration’s 5-year plan, we have been fighting the Trump 5-year plan, and we will fight even harder against the issuance of the seismic permits whose impact is more imminent because they are more than a plan — they are a green light to enter our waters and begin destroying what we have.”  

The South Carolina Small Business Chamber points to the fact that seismic blasts drive away fish, whales and dolphins that help support the fishing industries and tourism industries along the coast. 

“The IHA’s failed to address the socio-economic damage to our local communities and businesses from seismic surveys,” said Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce. “Studies have shown that our vibrant coastal seafood industry is at risk from the intense and constant airgun blasts that will cause commercial fish catches to be reduced by up to 80 percent. The sport fishing industry will also suffer from the same displacement effect. Scientific research has shown that seismic surveys cause physical harm to invertebrates like scallops, squid and crabs. Whales and dolphins will not be found for sightseeing tours. And research has shown that zooplankton, the base of the ocean food chain, is killed from the loud blasts. The failure of the National Marine Fisheries Service to address the potential threat to marine life and humans should seismic blasts cause the release of toxic chemicals from deteriorating bombs and radioactive waste drums dumped off the coast is unquestionably negligent.”   

Congressman-elect Joe Cunningham made the issue the centerpiece of his campaign against Republican Katie Arrington and has maintained his opposition to seismic testing and offshore drilling since being elected. Outgoing Rep. Mark Sanford also has maintained his opposition to the practice. 

“The administration’s latest action in opening the waters of the Atlantic to seismic testing is a decision that is fundamentally at odds with the notion that the government closest to the people governs best,” Sanford said in a statement. “I once again join with my colleagues in urging the administration to respect the wishes of the coastal communities that I represent as well as many others along the eastern seaboard, who so vocally oppose seismic testing.” 

The final step before seismic blasting can commence will be the issuance of permits by the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management (BOEM). Pursuant to President Trump’s April 28, 2017, Executive Order entitled “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” Secretary Zinke issued Secretary’s Order 3350, directing BOEM to expedite consideration of seismic permit applications. Therefore, the plaintiffs expect those permits to be issued in short order.

“Mayors, City and County Councils, business owners and employees in concert with 10s of thousands of citizens along the east coast are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop this nonsense,” Keyserling said. “I am confident that the coastal mayors will block the insanity and insensitivity of a government that refuses to hear the human cry.” 

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