Charleston Post and Courier
May 16, 2018
BY FRANK KNAPP JR.
Before March 2015, had anyone dared suggest that seismic surveys commonly used to explore for oil and gas deposits in marine environments might have a harmful effect on zooplankton, the response from the trade association for seismic survey companies would have gone something like this:
This issue has never been a concern anywhere in the world. Seismic surveys have been conducted around the world for eight decades and extensively for the last five decades with no scientific documentation of any sound impacts causing harm to zooplankton.
This would have been a true statement by the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA). It would also have been a totally misleading response to the concern that zooplankton, the vital base of the ocean food chain, could be harmed by the sonic airgun blasts used in seismic surveys.
Prior to March 2015, there had never been scientific research to document what, if any, impact seismic surveys had on zooplankton. Thus, there was no scientific evidence to show harm or show no harm of seismic surveys. But NOIA would not have mentioned that research had simply not been conducted and therefore there was no evidence either way.
But that all changed with a scientific study by McCauley, Day, Swadling, Fitzgibbon and Watson in March of that year and published in 2017. This study found that seismic surveys kill zooplankton, a finding that raised serious concern about what this exploration was doing to the health of marine animals dependent on this food supply.
Fast forward to today. My organization, the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, has been raising concerns that the intense sonic blasts by seismic surveys could disturb munitions of conventional and chemical weapons that the U.S. government dumped in the Atlantic Ocean from 1917 to about 1970.
Our concerns are shared by University of Georgia professor of ecology James Porter who has conducted underwater studies of unexploded munitions contaminating the waters off of Puerto Rico. He is recently quoted saying, “If a seismic blast occurs near unexploded ordnance, it can explode that ordnance.”
In addition to munitions, we have also expressed concern that seismic surveys could disturb the tens of thousands of 55-gallon drums of radioactive waste the Atomic Energy Commission had dumped along the Atlantic Coast by U.S. Navy and private vessels in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
The munitions are in such deteriorated condition that a 2016 Department of Defense report concluded that there should be no attempt at recovery because disturbing them could “have an adverse effect on human health and the environment.”
The drums of radioactive waste conceivably could be in the same deteriorated conditions calling for the same recommendation of non-disturbance to avoid setting the material loose in the environment.
My organization called for scientific research to be conducted to look at our concerns and also for the federal government to locate all munitions and radioactive waste drums dumped in the Atlantic. Should federal agencies approve of seismic surveys to explore for oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic, the public deserves to know if they will be put in serious danger.
In response to our public concerns, NOIA gave this response to the media:
“This issue has never been a concern anywhere in the world. Seismic surveys have been conducted around the world for eight decades and extensively for the last five decades with no scientific documentation of any sound impacts causing the initiation of explosions or the compromise of storage containers containing chemical or radioactive waste.”
The lack of scientific documentation is not the same thing as research finding the process to be safe. If zooplankton could talk, that’s what they would tell us.
Frank Knapp is the president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.