Fenwick council opposes seismic testing for oil and gas

Fenwick Island is the latest town to join a long list of municipalities opposing seismic testing off the Atlantic coast. Besides the potential harm to hundreds of thousands of animals, the town should not have to face the threat of a possible future oil spill, the town council decided on Jan. 22.

The town council voted unanimously (with council members Gardner Bunting and Julie Lee absent) to approve a resolution opposing “the proposed oil and gas exploration and development activities, including but not limited to seismic testing, off of the coast of Delaware and other coastal areas of the Mid-Atlantic region.”

There is currently a federal proposal to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, explained Matt Heim of Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT).

“Every five years, the federal government puts together a plan of how to manage resources,” he explained.

The 2017-2022 plan could include seismic testing offshore from Delaware to Florida. Seismic testing would be used to find potential reserves of oil and natural gas.

No lease sales for oil or gas drilling have been approved by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). That would only come if potential oil reserves are found, and if gas companies are approved for a lease site.

As part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, BOEM received applications from eight companies to survey the underwater terrain of the mid- and south-Atlantic.

At first glance, a potential oil spill could wreck the local tourism economy, one of Delaware’s biggest sources of income.

But just locating the oil is a big deal. Seismic surveys use deep-penetration technology to study where fossil fuels might be located. With seismic air guns, companies shoot sound waves into the ocean, sometimes penetrating miles into the ocean floor.

At 250 decibels, it is one of the loudest manmade sounds on earth — far above a jet engine at takeoff. Each ship could carry up to 40 air guns, shooting every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day, usually for weeks or months at a time.

Heim described mass whale die-offs and commercial fishery slumps that he said have correlated with seismic testing.

With Florida as a nesting ground for fish and other species and the Gulf Stream as a major migratory route, seismic testing could disrupt fish that have evolved over thousands of years to make these journeys, Heim said.

To reduce wildlife harm, ships turn the air guns up to full power slowly, increasing sound intensity over a period of 20 minutes, to allow wildlife to vacate the area.

But what about animals that don’t move fast enough to escape a moving ship?

Horseshoe crabs are a good example, Heim said. They hang out on the continental shelf, then lay eggs in the Delmarva bays. Some birds — including the red knot, which is listed as “threatened” on the endangered species list — time their migrations from the Arctic to South America just to land during this prime feeding season, feasting on the horseshoe crabs’ eggs. But air guns could disrupt that ecosystem.

“The reproductive organs of female crabs are especially susceptible to damage from [seismic blasts],” Heim said. “This is a local issue that has potential to be very far-reaching.”

BOEM has stated that there is “no documented evidence on adverse effects on population sustainability,” which means seismic testing hasn’t been known to endanger an entire species. But that doesn’t help the thousands of bottlenose dolphins that could be injured or killed, Heim said.

Contractors are also hired to physically watch for nearby sea life and acoustically listen for whales — in what Heim said is a flawed system, when “these contractors are on the payroll of the companies [leading the survey]. There’s some question about how effective the contractors will be.”

Plus, he said, the environmental risk multiplies for every surveying company on the sea.

“The information collected by these surveys is propriety. That means it won’t be shared. … It’s sold to the highest bidder,” Heim said.

Seismic tests have been done for beach replenishment and offshore wind farms, but those were much less invasive, Heim said.

As for the fear of oil spills, there is no guarantee of safety. When most eyes were on the Gulf of Mexico from 2011 to 2013, there were still 15 losses of well control and 347 fires or explosions.

For ACT, that’s not worth the estimated 16 months worth of oil and 36 months of natural gas resources (at most) that the U.S. might find in the Atlantic.

“You’re putting a lot more at risk to put this one little drop in the bucket,” Heim said.

BOEM is expected to release a proposed program in February or March. Another public comment period will open then.

According to Mary Ellen Langan of the Fenwick Island Environmental Committee, Fenwick was the 101st town to adopt such a resolution, in a list that includes Lewes, Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach and Ocean City, Md.

In other Fenwick Island news:

• Due to weather, the public hearing and second reading for the hotels/motels moratorium were postponed until Feb. 26 at 3 p.m.

• Fenwick’s new website is coming. The town council approved the switch, joining the many small towns that already benefit from free websites created by Delaware’s Government Information Center (GIC). Fenwick’s current web service is contracted out at $2,500 annually, Burke said.

The built-in search engine will help people find public notices, meeting announcements, old minutes and more, officials said.

• Fenwick Island will be the subject of a student study. Graduate student Katy Maglio was approved to do a GIS study for a class project at Salisbury University.

Geographic information system (GIS) is a system for storing and manipulating geographical information on computer.

“This is a great idea. This is a free proposal. This is going to be done by a student,” Town Manager Merritt Burke said.

She’ll assess Fenwick’s current situation, including how the Town could efficiently utilize GIS in their current system, plus routes for implementation. For instance, Fenwick could someday map a pine beetle infestation, beach access points, non/smoking areas and more.

The only cost is the town officials’ time in meeting with her.

• Several employees received recognition for service to the Town: Cpl. Jennifer Kerin (four-year employee) was noted as having been very productive on highway patrols with DUI and drug arrests; Vaughn McCabe (four years) was lauded as a jack-of-all-trades in Public Works; Tim Ferry (11 years) was described as a noted leader of the beach patrol; and Pat Schuchman (19 years) was deemed reliable and knowledgeable in every facet of the Town Code.

• Holiday-style lights will now hang in the town year-round, in a move that town officials hope will give Fenwick Island visitors a better sense of place. The council approved spending approximately $1,500, which Burke said is available in the budget, to change the old holiday bulbs to white LED bulbs. That is one step in creating a Main Street-style brand for the town.

“We don’t have a Main Street, we have a national highway,” argued resident Lynn Andrews.

Burke said the idea of Main Street will “flush out” as time progresses.

• Fences were the subject of an approved first reading for a proposed change to Fenwick town code Chapter 160-8A(9). It is a housekeeping item regarding spacing that was approved years ago by the Charter & Code Committee and enforced by the Town but was mistakenly left absent from the Town Code.

The public hearing and final vote are scheduled for Feb. 26 at 3 p.m.

• Earth Day will be recognized with town cleanup on Friday, April 22, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. The cleanup includes breakfast refreshments and a drawing for prizes and goodies.

The next regular Fenwick Island Town Council meeting is set for Feb. 26 at 3:30 p.m., starting with the public hearings at 3 p.m.