Green Groups Seek Court Action To Stop Seismic Testing

OCEAN CITY — Weeks after the Trump administration authorized seismic air gun testing for offshore oil and gas exploration off the mid-Atlantic coast, a coalition of environmental advocacy groups this week filed suit in federal court intent on stopping the potentially dangerous practice.

In late November, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced it had issued its final Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA) permits allowing five private sector companies to begin the potentially dangerous practice of seismic air gun testing for oil and gas reserves in the mid-Atlantic, including vast areas off the Ocean City coast. As the name implies, the permits allow for the incidental harassment of marine life off the coast during the testing process including dolphins, whales and other species, for example.

Seismic air gun testing is used to determine what oil and natural gas reserves lie beneath the ocean floor. Seismic air guns essentially shoot blasts of compressed air into the ocean floor each of which is an estimated 100,000 times more intense than the sound of a jet engine. If approved, vessels would tow as many as 30 air guns, which would be fired every 10 seconds continuously 24 hours a day and seven days a week for the duration of the mapping exercise, which could last for several weeks.

Just two weeks later, a coalition of nine environmental advocacy groups, most notably the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation, filed suit in U.S. District Court seeking to force NMFS to reverse its issuance of the five IHA permits. The federal suit also seeks to force NMFS to essentially admit the agency has violated several longstanding federal policies including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policies Act.

The 46-page complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court goes into great detail about the various ways scientific research has allegedly shown seismic air gun testing has proven to be harmful to marine mammals and other species.

“The ocean is an acoustic world,” the complaint reads. “Sound travels far more efficiently under water than through the air. Whales, dolphins and other marine species depend on sound to find mates, forage, avoid predators, navigate and communicate- in short for virtually every vital life function. Ocean species are acutely sensitive to acoustic disturbance, which can disrupt or prevent these vital activities.”

With the suit, the named plaintiffs assert the potential effects of seismic air gun testing will be widespread and long-lasting.

“In total, the authorized seismic surveys could harm 34 species of marine mammals including five endangered and threatened whale species, four species of endangered sea turtles and many species of fish and invertebrates,” the complaint reads. “A substantial body of research shows that seismic air guns adversely affect marine species through disruption of vital behaviors, damage to sensory organs and even death. The introduction of large-scale seismic surveys for oil and gas along the Atlantic coast is likely to have significant, long-lasting and widespread impacts on marine mammals and other species in the region.”

The suit points out members of the plaintiff organizations, and ostensibly the public at large, utilize the ocean off the mid-Atlantic coast for a wide variety of activities, activities that could be curtailed by the potentially dangerous practice and its long-term effects.

“The plaintiffs’ members live along and visit mid-Atlantic and south Atlantic coastal waters,” the complaint reads. “They fish, whale-watch, scuba dive, snorkel, kayak, boat, swim, surf and conduct scientific research in the affected waters. The plaintiffs’ members derive recreational, aesthetic and economic benefits and gain valuable scientific knowledge from the ocean and the diverse marine life that resides there, including marine species that are likely to be harmed by seismic surveys.”

The suit filed this week goes to great lengths to outline the many alleged ways NMFS was short-sighted in approving the five IHA permits. It also points out the vast areas of open ocean affected by the permits in the survey area which extends roughly from the mouth of the Delaware Bay to the central Atlantic coast of Florida.

“The five companies’ surveys largely overlap,” the complaint reads. “A large swath of the mid- and south-Atlantic will be exposed to air gun blasts from all five companies. Because seismic air gun noise travels extremely long distances underwater, many areas with the survey region will be exposed to continuous air gun blasting 24 hours a day for months at a time.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.