N.J. sues to block seismic testing research off coast

Staff Writer

Responding to a groundswell of opposition, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration has filed a complaint in U.S. District Court to stop a federally funded research project that critics say would harm marine life and put the region’s coastal economy at risk.

The complaint, filed by acting Attorney General John Hoffman, requests a courtordered injunction against the research project led by Rutgers University and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The project would map seafloor sediment using blasts of compressed air, a process known as seismic testing, to better understand the history of sea level rise. Lawrence Hajna, press officer for the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), said the lawsuit is similar to one that unsuccessfully tried to block the project in 2014.

He said the difference this time is the amount of attention the project has received and the diverse array of opponents that have lined up against it, including elected officials, environmental groups like Clean Ocean Action and the state of New Jersey itself.

“At the very least, we’re hoping that they move this project to a time when it makes more sense,” Hajna said. “This is the time of year when tourism is gearing up. There’s a lot of commercial fishing going on.

Hajna also noted that the ecology is sensitive, with “dolphins out there giving birth.”

The complaint, filed June 5, states that “plaintiffs bring this action on behalf of the state of New Jersey and its citizens in response to defendants’ repeated disregard for the state of New Jersey’s coastal uses and resources and for the state of New Jersey’s rights under applicable federal law.”

Defendants named in the complaint are the NSF, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office for Coastal Management and Marine Fisheries Service, and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory.

Earlier this month, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin sent a letter to the NSF urging the foundation to reconsider the project, scheduled to begin off the coast of Long Beach Island.

“The N.J. DEP strongly condemns the seismic study scheduled to begin this week off the coast of New Jersey,” the letter, dated June 2, reads.

“This study is taking place at the worst possible time of the year … [and] puts at risk, for no valid scientific reason, New Jersey’s billion-dollar commercial and recreational fishing industries during the height of the fishing season.

“While the department opposes any seismic testing off New Jersey’s coast, the department deeply regrets that the NSF decided not to agree to our reasonable and modest request to move the time for the study until later in the year, when the disruption to our coastal economy and resources would have been considerably diminished.”

The NSF referred questions to the U.S. Justice Department, which could not be immediately reached for comment.

The lawsuit is based on the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, which the state argues is intended to vest authority “over the lands and waters in the coastal zone” with the states.

In addition, the complaint cites the National Environmental Policy Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

A lawsuit filed by the DEP against the project last year was defeated in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, but the research project did not go forward due to technical malfunctions.

In filing the lawsuit, the Christie administration joined New Jersey’s congressional delegation in opposing the project.

In May, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez (both D-NJ) joined with Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Monmouth/Middlesex) and state officials in condemning the project as a threat to both the environment and the economies of coastal communities.

“We’ve all been making the case that this makes no sense,” Pallone said in a June 5 interview. “I’ve been objecting to seismic testing not only by Rutgers, but also by the oil and gas companies [for hydrocarbon exploration].”

Pallone echoed the DEP’s concerns that the research project would be conducted during the peak of migratory season and carries economic risks.

Researchers intend to build a 3-D map of the seafloor by sending blasts of compressed air through the water and recording the echoes with microphones. The resulting map would be used to study trends in the deposit of sediment along the seafloor, which researchers believe could lead to insights about the history of sea level rise.

The airguns would be fired every 5.4 seconds during a 30-day period, emitting about 250 decibels of noise each time.

Critics maintain that the blasts would be harmful to marine life and could potentially scatter commercial fisheries, damaging the Jersey Shore’s coastal economy.

However, Rutgers University rejected those concerns, stating that the project complies with federal regulations to protect marine life and emphasizing the need for the data that would be gathered from the research.

“Rutgers is not a party to the suit, but we know that a similar suit was quickly rejected by federal courts last year,” said Carl Blesch, a spokesman for Rutgers.

“This is a NSF project that is already well underway and is aimed at increasing our understanding of sea level changes, which are critically important to all coastal states and especially to New Jersey.”