ATLANTIC CITY — Environmental advocates told stories of damaged animals and potential oil spills Friday at a hearing on a federal proposal to permit companies to explore much of the waters off the East Coast for oil and natural gas.
Atlantic City resident Tom Forkin testified while holding up a picture of a dozen dead dolphins he said washed ashore in Peru this month following seismic testing.
“When you look at the dolphins, there is blood pouring out of their ears,” Forkin said. “Just think of the impact that is being done to the environment.”
He was one of almost 30 people who told the three-person panel from the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management that they oppose the proposal. They outnumbered supporters nearly 10-1.
At issue is the potential environmental impact of allowing companies to map and analyze the lands underneath the Atlantic Ocean from Cape May to the middle of Florida. The stated goals would be for sand and gravel mining, offshore renewable energy and finding deposits of oil and natural gas.
The region has been generally off limits to exploration since the 1980s. The bureau wants to decide by the end of the year whether to explore, with an eye toward selling drill leases by the end of 2017.
The panel said Friday that if approved, testing could begin as early in 2013.
The department is considering three options. The first would suspend testing between Nov. 1 and April 30 during the migration of the endangered Northern right whales. Other vessels would also have to look for marine life both prior to and during testing.
The second option would lengthen the suspension in certain key areas, including at the mouth of the Delaware Bay and 20 nautical miles from shore, slightly more than 23 statute miles.
The third option would be to essentially shelve the proposal.
The analyses would be done through shallow drill tests, core samples, gravity and magnetic surveys. The proposals to use seismic testing attracted the most attention.
Those tests would be done by boats detonating underwater air guns, while sensitive acoustic devices the boats towed would record the echoed audio. This would give insight into what lay beneath the water, in the sediments and muck.
Opponents said they feared the testing would be a precursor to drilling, which they fear could lead to oil spills.
“The ... framework for this is that somebody is thinking about drilling for oil offshore, so we are going to test,” said Greg Vizzi of the Sweetwater section of Mullica Township. “If we say ‘no’ to drilling, then there is no need for testing.”
Others, including a number of fishermen, said they fear the results of sonic testing.
“Your department can cavalierly nuke every whale on the East Coast into oblivion and no one seems to care,” said Jim Lovgren, a Point Pleasant-based commercial fisherman, who said the bureau’s own data suggested the testing could lead to thousands of fish deaths.
“Why can Big Oil kill anything they want,” he said, “but the little fisherman gets crucified every time he looks cross-eyed at a whale?”
Sheila Dean, co-founder of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, said she anticipated effects on marine mammals up and down the East Coast.
“What I’m trying to say is we are part of the cleanup crew for seismic testing and the resulting oil wells,” Dean said. “Please don’t make me say, ‘I told you so.’”
Others questioned why the hearing was held at 1 p.m., and Atlantic City was the only city on the schedule of hearings where the bureau did not also hold a 7 p.m. meeting. This limited participation, they said.
Industry advocates said they want to modernize the maps that were largely created in the 1960s with now-outdated technology.
Michael Egenton, senior vice president for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports the proposal as a way to keep all energy options on the table. He also said the companies doing the research are private companies that would sell the data, creating jobs.
The proposal to reopen Atlantic waters for exploration was broadly criticized when discussed in 2010. That year, both Gov. Chris Christie and the state’s congressional delegation vocally opposed the proposal
On Friday, representatives of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th; and state Assemblymen John McKeon and Upendra Chivukula, D-Essex, Morris, read letters expressing those officials’ opposition.
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