South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Here’s why Bluffton and Port Royal joined a lawsuit against Trump’s latest plan
February 15th, 2018

By Maggie Angst, Island Packet

Bluffton and Port Royal decided this week to stand with the rest of Beaufort County in a fight against seismic testing and offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

The municipalities unanimously voted during their council meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday to join a federal lawsuit that will be filed by the S.C. Environmental Law Project to block federal permits allowing seismic testing and drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.

The City of Beaufort and the Town of Hilton Head Island had already joined the suit last month.

The momentum across Beaufort County and up and down the coast of South Carolina comes months after the Trump administration announced a new five-year plan that would open the Atlantic shoreline, including Beaufort County waters, to offshore drilling and underground gas exploration. The plan would allow private entities to begin drilling in the Atlantic as early as 2020.

“Our surrounding towns have signed onto it … so we’re joining hands with our local municipalities to tell them (the Trump administration) that we’re against offshore drilling,” Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said. “We don’t have the beach, we’re not like Hilton Head, but we know it’s the right thing to do.”

In 2015, former president Barack Obama also considered a five-year plan that would permit offshore drilling in the Atlantic. The Obama administration eventually denied the pending permits after facing a great deal of public opposition.

At that time, Hilton Head, Beaufort and Port Royal adopted resolutions to oppose the plan. Bluffton Town Council did not take up the matter for consideration then.

If approved, seismic testing would send sonic blasts every 10 to 12 seconds for months so companies can collect data on possible gas sources underground. These blasts would be “extremely harmful to marine life, from microscopic zooplankton to massive right whales,” according to the S.C. Environmental Law Project’s website.

In addition to possible environmental damage, seismic testing and offshore drilling would also put the state’s and Beaufort County’s tourism economy at risk, according to Amy Armstrong, executive director of the S.C. Environmental Law Project.

“(Seismic testing and drilling) harms people who live there full time and tourists who come to Beaufort (County) to fish,” Armstrong told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette last month. “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.”

Coastal tourism is responsible for about half of the $17 billion tourism industry in South Carolina, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The National Maine Fisheries Service also estimates that recreational fishing has created more than 3,300 jobs across the state.

No lawsuit will be filed until a final decision is made by federal agencies to allow seismic testing and drilling in the Atlantic. If filed, the municipalities represented in the suit will not have to pay any expenses or attorney fees.

Proponents of the plan say it will allow the U.S. to become a leader in production of affordable, domestic energy.

“Responsibly developing our energy resources on the Outer Continental Shelf in a safe and well-regulated way is important to our economy and energy security, and it provides billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands and parks,” said U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke when he announced the new plan in January.

Still, the opposition to Atlantic drilling remains strong — including millions of East Coast residents, more than 150 municipalities, 41,000 businesses and half a million fishing families, according the environmental organization Oceana.

In January 2018, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Interior that stated: “Our seaside communities like Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Hilton Head and Beaufort depend on a pristine coastline that brings visitors here from all over the globe. Such reliance means that we cannot afford to accept the risk of adverse environmental impacts attendant to offshore drilling.”

Other South Carolina municipalities that have joined the suit include Charleston, Seabrook Island, Folly Beach, Isle of Palms and North Myrtle Beach.

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

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