South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Trump’s plan has a new opponent: Hilton Head
January 16th, 2018

By Alex Kinkaid, Island Packet

Hilton Head Island became the latest Beaufort County municipality to join the fight against seismic testing and drilling in the Atlantic Coastal waters on Tuesday.

This comes after the Trump administration announced plans to open up the East Coast to offshore drilling and gas exploration, including waters off Beaufort County. The plan would allow private companies to begin drilling in the Atlantic as early as 2020.

The city of Beaufort and the town of Port Royal joined the cities of Charleston and Edisto Beach last week in the federal lawsuit that would be filed by the S.C. Environmental Law Project, according to a Jan. 16 newsletter from Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.

And now, Hilton Head will take part after unanimously approving to join the potential litigation at its Tuesday meeting.

“This council has stood unanimously in the past against sound testing and drilling off the coast,” said Mayor David Bennett at Tuesday’s meeting. “I believe that’s very appropriate. I just don’t want to see inaction that doesn’t have any downside for us to potentially lead to the approval of something we don’t believe is good for our community.”

According to documents provided at Tuesday’s Hilton Head Town Council meeting, the S.C. Environmental Law Project’s attorneys would file the suit without any expense, attorney fees or financial contributions by the municipalities that join.

According to Amy Armstrong, executive director of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, if approval is given for seismic testing and drilling, it could harm Beaufort County in several ways.

Armstrong said seismic testing for oil and gas reserves would involve underwater “sonic booms” going off every 10 to 12 seconds to collect data. This would harm marine life because it could drive fish, dolphins and other marine life away, she said.

But it could also affect tourism and businesses, she said.

“(Seismic testing and drilling) harms people who live there full time and tourists who come to Beaufort (County) to fish,” Armstrong said. “I think there are just multiple different ways the seismic activity could be harmful, not only to marine life, but to other interests that rely on healthy marine ecosystems.”

According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, marine fisheries provide more than a billion dollars in economic value to the state, and coastal tourism is responsible for about half of a $17 billion tourism industry. The National Marine Fisheries Service found recreational fisheries create more than 3,300 jobs, according to the S.C. Environmental Law Project’s website.

Armstrong said no lawsuit will be filed until a final decision is made from federal agencies to allow seismic testing and drilling in Atlantic Coastal waters. By gaining municipal support now, the S.C. Environmental Law Project will be prepared to take action, she said.

According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, residents, organizations and public officials have until March 9 to comment on the plan.

Bennett spoke out against seismic testing and drilling in a newsletter sent on Jan. 6. He called for residents to “join in, echoing the widespread disgust evident among our elected officials, citizens and businesses about this proposed plundering of our environment.”’

In 2015, Town Council unanimously voted to oppose seismic testing off the South Carolina Coast in opposition to former president Barack Obama’s consideration of creating a five-year plan to permit drilling in the Atlantic from Virginia to Georgia. Facing public opposition, the Obama administration did not go through with the plan, according to town documents.

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