Seismic testing ship

A seismic survey ship operates offshore.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is currently accepting public comments regarding a new application for seismic testing off the South Carolina coast from WesternGeco LLC.

Previous applications have been approved by DHEC on the condition the seismic surveys are not done during sea turtle nesting season. Coastal communities up and down the East Coast have been resisting efforts by the Trump administration to expand offshore drilling in Atlantic waters.

Erin Pate with the Coastal Conservation League said seismic testing is done to “search for oil and gas and then sell the resulting data to offshore drilling companies.”

In addition to the potential for oil drilling off the coast, opponents of seismic surveys believe the noise can damage marine life up to the point of death. Of particular concern are whales and nesting sea turtles. Seismic surveying utilizes high-powered “airguns” to create loud sounds underwater incessantly every 10-15 seconds. The sounds are generally in the 225-260 decibel range.

According to Yale University, humans can sustain hearing loss at 80-90 decibels and will begin to feel pain at 125 decibels. Although the sounds are underwater and cannot be heard by humans on the coast, the effect of intense sound levels on marine life is a concern for many.

Jeffrey Payne, Director for NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management, said seismic surveys “would have reasonably foreseeable effects on coastal uses or resources of South Carolina’s coastal zone.” In addition to potential reductions in commercial fishing catches there is also the potential for conflicts with other vessels. WesternGeco’s application said they plan to tow airgun lines over 6 miles long. However, Payne also said that seismic survey operations are not necessarily incompatible with fishing.

Jean Marie Neal, Spokesperson for Stop Oil Drilling in the Atlantic, said WesternGeco had a permit that was denied in 2017. The current application is for a “certification of consistency” from DHEC, which is basically a blessing to do the work. Neal also said the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management allows for a certain amount of damage to sea life, admittance that seismic surveys cause harm to marine creatures.

“SODA is strongly opposed to seismic testing,” she said.

Neal stressed the importance of public comments because it gives support to state politicians such as Gov. Henry McMaster, Attorney General Alan Wilson and Congressman Tom Rice who publicly oppose drilling for oil off the South Carolina coast.

Pate said, “DHEC should find the company’s plan inconsistent with our coastal protection program for three reasons.”

She said seismic testing hurts marine species like North Atlantic right whales, loggerhead turtles and species that support commercial fishing. It will also risk jobs on the coast, specifically the $23 billion tourist industry. Furthermore, Pate said South Carolinians are overwhelmingly opposed to it.

Christine Ellis, Executive Director for the Winyah Rivers Alliance said, “Winyah Rivers Alliance stands in solidarity with our local, statewide and national opponents to offshore drilling off our coast. We agree that seismic testing is contrary to protection of our coastline, its aquatic resources and the huge economic benefit our communities derive from tourism.”

As part of the federal consistency review, DHEC is accepting public comments for a 30-day period.

The public comment period will end on July 1 at 5 p.m.

Comments can be emailed to and written comments can be mailed to Dan Burger of the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management at DHEC, 1362 McMilan Avenue, Suite 400, Charleston, SC 29405.

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