South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

North Myrtle Beach among coastal towns suing Trump Administration over seismic testing
December 11th, 2018

By Christian Boschult

North Myrtle Beach, Briarcliffe Acres, Pawleys Island and more than a dozen other South Carolina coastal municipalities joined the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce in suing the Trump Administration in order to stop seismic testing near the Carolina coast.

Environmental groups contend the testing can cause a host of problems for marine life, especially ocean mammals. The complaint, filed Tuesday in federal court in Charleston, names the National Marine Fisheries Service as the defendant. It says the effect on sea life could in turn hurt towns that depend on tourism and commercial fishing.

The testing involves shooting sound waves into the ocean floor to determine which areas might hold oil, and is a precursor to exploratory oil wells.

“It’s louder than a jet engine,” said Amy Armstrong, executive director and lead counsel for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, which is representing the coastal cities filing the complaint.

On Nov. 30, the National Marine Fisheries Service granted five companies permits for an “incidental take” during seismic testing, which lets companies harass marine mammals during the testing as long as it’s not intentional.

The testing can occur nonstop, with the blasts going off about every 10 seconds, according to documents released by the NMFS.

Armstrong said the constant blasting can damage the ear drums of some sea mammals and disorient mammals that communicate with sound.

“I think the last thing any of us wants to see is having beached whales, or dolphins or sea turtles or other marine life washing up on our shores,” Armstrong said.

Some environmentalists are especially concerned about the effect that the testing would have on the North Atlantic right whale, whose population numbers fewer than 500 worldwide.

“Even the national marine fisheries service acknowledges that they are in a critical condition,” Armstrong said. “And so that under the Endangered Species Act, any activities that will cause a take, which is harm or injury to an endangered species, can’t be authorized.”

In a media release, NOAA said third-party observers would be on hand to monitor for endangered species and shut down operations if they were getting close enough to cause damage.

The federal agency also said the volume would be increased gradually in order to give mammals a chance to escape before the most damaging sounds were emitted.

The Endangered Species Act is just one focus of the complaint. The suit alleges other environmental laws were not followed in granting the incidental take authorizations.

But while the legal challenge is based on environmental protection laws, the impetus for the complaint is the protection of South Carolina’s $21.2 billion tourism industry.

The counties of Horry, Georgetown, Charleston and Beaufort generate 71 percent of all the state’s accommodation tax receipts, equivalent to more than $13.5 billion in annual tourism spending, the suit says.

“Every city along the coast of South Carolina is totally against offshore drilling,” said North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley. “Tourism is one of the largest industries if not the largest industry in the state of South Carolina. There is no way that offshore drilling can offer more jobs and more opportunities for people who live here in South Carolina along the coast … than what they already have.”

Tourism is big in South Carolina. It supports one in every 10 jobs in the state, according to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

“It’s not worth taking the chance of ruining our beautiful coastline with one oil spill,” Hatley said. “And one oil spill would ruin our coastline.”

Seismic testing can scare fish populations away from their normal feeding grounds, thus affecting the commercial and recreational fishing industries.

“There’s areas where fisherman go because there are plentiful fish, and they feed there and that’s where they know they can have a good catch there,” Armstrong said. “But if there’s seismic testing going around near these fishing areas, then the fish will leave because they want to get away from that sound. Obviously if you’re a commercial or recreational fisher, then you go out in an area where the fish have been impacted and have left the area, you’re going to have decreased catch. And that’s documented, that there can be significantly less fish for catching when seismic testing is going on.”

The testing would threaten or possibly destroy the state’s $600 million fishing industry, according to the complaint, which alleges that “seismic airgun surveys have been shown to cause a 40% to 80% decline” in recreation and commercial fishing hauls.

“People’s businesses depend on it. That’s what’s at stake,” Armstrong said. “It’s the quality of our environment, sure, but the whole reason the quality of the environment is important is because that’s what brings people to this state: why they love it, why they go to the beach.”

The environmental group Stop Offshore Drilling in the Atlantic, or SODA, is concerned about man-made items in the ocean being affected as well as sea life.

“There’s World War II ordinance that’s sunk and kind of deteriorating, there’s nuclear waste that’s been buried off our coast and those barrels are deteriorating,” said SODA’s North Myrtle Beach liaison, Barbara MacKinnon. “There’s a newly-discovered coral reef off of Charleston. There’s all kinds of things that will be affected by seismic blasting. All of that’s negative. That’s just the first step of trying to discover where oil might be. It doesn’t even tell you where oil is.”

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