Experts: Seismic testing may release radioactive material from ocean floor

South Strand News

April 12, 2018

By Clayton Stairs

New fears of releasing toxic and radioactive materials buried in the ocean floor are fueling concerns about the affects of seismic testing for oil and natural gas in the Atlantic Ocean.

This is in response to the Trump administration’s new draft five-year program (2019-2024) for oil and gas development on the outer continental shelf, which proposes to expand future oil and gas leasing to nearly all U.S. waters including the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic and eastern Gulf of Mexico. This is the largest number of potential offshore lease sales ever proposed.

The South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Department of Defense to obtain the facts about ammunition dumps in the Atlantic that contain conventional, chemical and radioactive weapons and materials, according to a press release. FOIA requests were also sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce for information on radioactive waste disposed of in the Atlantic, the release states.

“For over 60 years our country has used the Atlantic Ocean as a trash can for all kinds of toxic materials,” said Frank Knapp Jr., president and CEO of the chamber. “According to a 2009 Defense Department report, ‘Prior to the 1970s … sea disposal was considered one of the safest alternatives available to dispose of munitions.’ That report indicates that over 17,000 tons of munitions with highly toxic materials have been dumped along the Atlantic Coast. In the 1950s the old Atomic Energy Commission approved the dumping of radioactive waste in 55-gallon drums in the ocean. Industries creating other kinds of toxic wastes did the same.”

The FOIA requests seek to identify the exact locations, types of toxic materials, containers used, weight of deposits and dates of the dumps, Knapp said. This information would be the basis for asking for mitigation strategies to prevent the disturbance of these toxic material dump sites should federal agencies approve seismic surveys, he said.

Knapp said James Barton, a retired member of the U.S. Navy Bomb Squad and expert on sea-dumped munitions, has warned the National Marine Fisheries Service about seismic airgun blasts disturbing munition deposits. Barton told the agency that the intensity of the seismic surveys “have ample power to disrupt severely corroded yet otherwise stable concentrations of sea dumped munitions.”

Knapp said a 2016 Department of Defense Report to Congress concludes that disturbing these sea-disposed munitions would have serious consequences and it is best to leave the munitions in place.

Opposition to seismic testing and drilling in the Atlantic continues as opposition groups share new fears and concerns about the effects.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is expected to issue its Proposed 2019-24 Program prior to the November 2018 midterm elections, according to information provided by the grassroots group Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic. The Atlantic Ocean and other Outer Continental Shelf waters may or may not be included in this version.

“BOEM’s Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) will be released at the same time,” said Jim Watkins, chair of the leadership committee for SODA. “This will kick off yet another 90-day comment period.”

Seismic testing permits may be issued before the end of April, Watkins said.

“Combined, these five permits would create an unprecedented scale of man-made noise in the Mid- and South Atlantic, and is expected to harm or kill about 500,000 marine animals,” Watkins said. “If the permits are issued, coastal cities and towns in South Carolina are prepared to file suit, represented by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, to protect marine life and our fishing industry from this sonic assault.”

Watkins said more than 1.6 million comments were submitted to BOEM before the March 9 deadline.

“Put the pressure on elected officials, especially South Carolina state legislators from the Midlands and Upstate who strongly support offshore drilling despite unanimous opposition by coastal counties,” Watkins said. “Ask family and friends living in those areas to contact their state senators and representatives and tell them to stand with the coast.”

As reported earlier, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has formally requested that BOEM take South Carolina off the list for oil and natural gas leases in the Atlantic Ocean — Florida has already been exempted. Also, according to reports from the Associated Press, almost every other state governor on the coast opposes oil drilling in the Atlantic.

U.S. senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, as well as state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch are not opposed to oil drilling, but U.S. Rep. Tom Rice has said he is against it. Goldfinch has testified before state and federal legislative committees on the issue, stating that jobs and revenue from oil drilling would be worth the risk to the coast’s tourism economy.

Goldfinch told members of a U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, in writing and in person, that Georgetown has “a port facility that has available capacity. I believe offshore oil and gas exploration and development could help write the next chapter in the town’s history.”

Goldfinch is also trying to get a state Senate vote on a ballot referendum that would allow voters to decide in November whether they support offshore oil drilling.

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