A controversial seismic project off Long Beach Island will be postponed until next summer after a series of mechanical failures halted research.
Gregory Mountain, the Rutgers geology professor leading the sea-level-rise project 15 miles offshore, said the Marcus G. Langseth was at sea for less than two weeks when the combination of a disabled electrical generator and malfunctioning winch forced it back into harbor. They were able to use the array of air guns, which send a sound wave into the sea floor, but most of the data was unusable.
“We considered ourselves really snake-bitten on this with a long string of challenges that one encounters in a complex operation like this,” Mountain said Friday. “They all seemed to hit us unfairly.”
Those difficulties came after strong opposition from boating, commercial fishing and environmental groups concerned about the effects of shooting a pulse of sound energy into the ocean would have on marine life. The state Department of Environmental Protection also filed a lawsuit against the National Science Foundation, which funded the expedition, to halt operations.
However, as of last month, there were no legal impediments remaining to halt the project following several court decisions in favor of the NSF.
Mountain said the team plans to apply for a new permit through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to commence operations at the same time next summer. Part of the reason for postponing the work this year, he said, was the looming Aug. 17 deadline that was part of the current permit, he said.
“This is a victory for marine life this summer and for all of those who fought against ocean blasting,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. “We are stunned and disappointed they plan to return next year, but we will be better prepared and better organized.”
DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said the department had not appealed the most recent decision in the Rutgers case. So far, there were no immediate plans regarding the project’s permitting process for next summer, he said.
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, said he considers Friday’s news a victory, albeit a temporary one. He said the broad coalition of groups that came out in opposition of the project will use this opportunity to regroup.
“Hopefully, this will provide more time for a better presentation on the state’s behalf . . . to show how wrong this is when it comes time for them to reapply for permits,” he said.
The best-case scenario, LoBiondo said, is that the researchers simply give up and the case doesn’t have to return to court.
“We don’t want them to do it — whatever way stops them from doing it,” he said.
During the short period that air guns were being operated, Mountain said the five NOAA-mandated observers on board didn’t find any protected species. Their reports should be made public soon, he said.
Much of the expedition’s trouble came from a malfunctioning winch the team used to move the hydrophones out to the proper locations in the water. The work, Mountain said, required the hydrophones to be placed very precisely — something the team struggled with each day at sea.
“If you can’t say where that geologic feature is in the subsurface so that you can return to it and remeasure it, you may as well not have any data at all,” he said.
Mountain said the next problem was with the electrical generator that powered one of the Langseth’s two propellers. Ball bearings in the generator had burned out, he said, but it took a long time to figure out the cause.
“We weren’t in any great personal danger, but there was a risk of becoming stranded if we had an additional failure on the other generator,” he said. “It became a situation where: ‘Wait a minute, that’s something we have to pull into port for’.”
There was never any suspicion of sabotage, Mountain said. Instead, these are the kinds of routine failures that occur on these kinds of expeditions.
Mountain’s project would create a three-dimensional map 2.5 miles — or about 65 million years worth of sediment — into the sea floor in an area he believes will provide a clear glimpse into how sea-level rise has shaped New Jersey's shoreline.
“The only way to understand how the system works is to find out how it worked in the past,” he said. “We’ll try it again if good fortune is with us the next time.”
The Langseth could be used in a much larger seismic testing project — this one to map the continental shelf and determine tsunami dangers — planned by the U.S. Geological Survey. That project is currently awaiting approval by NOAA. It, too, has faced strong opposition from various advocacy groups and politicians.
Mountain said the winch issues have since been resolved, but crews were still working on the electrical generator.
“I hope (the USGS) go out and have all the good luck we didn’t,” he said.
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
@wjmckelvey on Twitter