Press release via Oceana

CHARLESTON, SC – A group of conservation organizations today asked a federal judge to block the start of harmful seismic airgun blasting in the Atlantic Ocean, a precursor to offshore drilling, until the case can be fully heard in court.

The motion for a preliminary injunction filed in federal court in Charleston contends, among other things, the Trump administration’s approval for five companies to harm ocean animals with seismic airgun blasting violates three federal laws — the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Separately, 16 South Carolina coastal communities and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce also filed a lawsuit to prevent seismic blasting. That lawsuit has been merged with the one from the conservation groups. Ten East Coast attorneys general, including South Carolina’s Alan Wilson, have intervened in the combined lawsuits.

However, without today’s request from the conservation organizations, the blasting could begin before this case is fully resolved.

The filing asserts that:

  • Dolphins, whales and other animals could endure five million blasts as these companies seek offshore oil and gas deposits.
  • The blasts will happen approximately every 10 seconds for weeks or months at a time.
  • Seismic airguns create one of the loudest sources of noise in the oceans.
  • The government failed to consider the combined effects of overlapping and simultaneous surveys, which are greater than the effects of individual seismic-blasting boats.
  • The government erroneously determined that only a “small number” of whales and dolphins would be harmed.
  • Should it go forward, this blasting will irreparably harm marine species, from tiny zooplankton—the foundation of ocean life—to the great whales.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has authorized one company to harm more than 50,000 dolphins and another company to harm 20,000 more.

The filing also claims the blasts could irreparably harm the small population of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, a species on the verge of extinction. There are only about 400 right whales remaining in the Atlantic. Further, the filing shows that blasting ships would “concentrate their fire” on the world’s densest population of acoustically sensitive beaked whales off North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

The case number is 18-3326 in United States District Court for the District of South Carolina. It is assigned to Judge Richard Gergel.

The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, North Carolina Coastal Federation, Oceana, One Hundred Miles, Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation are bringing the case.  The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Defenders of Wildlife, North Carolina Coastal Federation, and One Hundred Miles. Earthjustice is representing Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation.

Quotes from participating organizations:

“Bombarding endangered whales with deafening blasts to search for dirty oil is indefensible. The court should prevent the devastating harm seismic airgun blasting would do to marine life,” said Kristen Monsell, ocean legal director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “There’s strong bipartisan opposition to Trump’s proposal to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic. We need to leave that oil in the ground and call off this sonic attack on North Atlantic right whales and other animals.”

“The harm seismic blasting will inflict on dolphins and whales can’t be reversed, that’s why it is so important to have a full and open debate in court before allowing boats in the water,” said Laura Cantral, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League. “We have a chance to stop harm before it begins and to prevent the precursor to offshore drilling, something that no coastal communities in South Carolina want.”

“We are fighting to keep seismic ships and an estimated 5 million sonic blasts out of our oceans,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Seismic blasting poses unacceptable risks to vulnerable marine wildlife at every level, from plankton at the base of the food web to the critically imperiled North Atlantic right whale at the top. The Trump administration’s decision to allow seismic blasting to proceed violates our nation’s bedrock wildlife protections laws and flouts common sense. We will not stop fighting this illegal move by the Trump administration to pander to the fossil fuel industry at the expense of our marine wildlife heritage.”

“Allowing oil and gas companies to proceed with the activity we are challenging while the case is heard is like letting a city build a highway through a community while that community is trying to stop the construction in court. Once the damage is done, it’s done. The harm this activity will cause to thousands of whales, dolphins, and other marine wildlife has similarly irreversible consequences,” said Steve Mashuda, Earthjustice attorney representing Sierra Club and Surfrider in the litigation.

“Seismic blasting will cause harm the moment it begins. We’re asking the court to prevent any seismic activity from going forward while it considers our claims that the Trump administration is violating multiple federal environmental laws,” said Michael Jasny, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The North Carolina Coastal Federation is concerned that the continuous and cumulative airgun blasting associated with seismic testing surveys will negatively impact marine mammals, commercially and recreationally important fisheries, and dramatically decrease the abundance of zooplankton, which is a key organism in the marine food web and a main source of food for fish and baleen whales,” said Michael Flynn, the group’s Coastal Advocate. “Seismic testing surveys are the precursor to offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling — an activity that the federation strongly opposes.”

“This important issue deserves a fair day in court. We can’t let this dangerous activity cause a species to go extinct just so the oil industry can open our oceans to offshore drilling. Up and down the Atlantic coast, businesses, communities and bipartisan elected officials are overwhelmingly opposed to seismic airgun blasting. Every East Coast governor and over 90 percent of coastal municipalities in the blast zone are opposed to opening our coast to drilling – this is states versus President Trump,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana. “We are going to do everything in our power to stop this unlawful, irreparable and needless harm.”

“Georgia’s coast, and the Southeastern United States, is home to rich, diverse, and valuable marine life upon which our local economies depend. One Hundred Miles will do whatever it takes to protect these assets from the damage caused by seismic blasting,” said Alice Keyes of One Hundred Miles.

“There are so few right whales left that risking harm or death to a single calf or a single female would be a devastating blow to the population,” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charleston. “This season, we know seven calves were born, which is a remarkable turnaround from last year when none were. These new calves are a small but critical step for this species, and we shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that.”

“We will not back down in our efforts to protect America’s public waters from expanded drilling and the dangerous seismic blasting that precedes it,” said Sierra Club Lands Protections Program Director Athan Manuel. “To allow this destructive activity to move forward before these challenges have been settled would be inexcusable.”

“Seismic testing can be harmful and even fatal to the millions of dolphins, whales and other marine animals in the Atlantic,” said Surfrider’s Legal Director, Angela Howe. “We will fight to prevent this damaging first step to offshore drilling at every turn, and this preliminary injunction motion is intended to stop the destructive activity before it starts. Together, we will continue to stand up to protect our marine environment and our ocean ecosystems for this and future generations.”