Lawsuit Seeks to Hold Administration Accountable for Marine Mammal Harm in Gulf

Thousands of Endangered Animals Subjected to Wide-Scale Assaults from Oil and Gas Surveys

NEW ORLEANS (June 30, 2010) – Today several environmental groups filed suit against the renamed Minerals Management Service (MMS) regarding the use of powerful seismic surveys throughout the Gulf of Mexico, known to disrupt marine mammal feeding and breeding and basic communication over vast areas of the ocean. The groups contend that MMS, which is now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, failed to adequately analyze the substantial impacts of seismic surveys on the Gulf’s marine environment before permitting activities there, in clear violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Sierra Club, and the Gulf Restoration Network have filed the suit in federal court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

“The BP drilling disaster is Exhibit A in how the Gulf of Mexico is suffering from the abuses of the oil industry, said Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network. “Even as the eyes of the world are focused on this failure, Exhibit B is the continuing use of seismic surveys throughout the Gulf. This suit seeks to ensure that continuing seismic surveys are not allowed to jeopardize the health of already struggling dolphins and whales.”

Dozens of powerful seismic surveys are conducted each year by the oil and gas industry throughout the Gulf of Mexico’s Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). These seismic surveys use some of the loudest underwater sounds generated by humans to explore oil and gas reserves below the ocean floor. Day and night, for days and months at a time, large swaths of the Gulf of Mexico are inundated with high-intensity sound pulses 250 decibels or more at their source, billions of times more intense than the noise levels known to compromise feeding, breeding, and basic communication in endangered species of whales.

“The Gulf tragedy has exposed a history of gross non-compliance with the law,” said Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst with NRDC. “The animals of the Gulf are losing their habitat to the spill, and on top of that, they have to contend in this brave new world with the industry’s constant pounding—which undermines their ability to feed, breed, and communicate. Here, as with drilling, MMS has failed to meet the most fundamental legal requirements, and it is resulting in yet more intolerable harm to marine mammals in the Gulf.”

Whales and dolphins are known to be highly acoustically sensitive and rely primarily on sound for survival. They are particularly vulnerable to intense underwater noise impairing their ability to feed, breed, nurse their young, and communicate. Serious injuries from underwater noise can lead to permanent or temporary hearing loss, internal hemorrhaging, stranding, and death.

“For years, the oil industry has promised that offshore drilling and exploration were harmless and safe,” said Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director. “The BP disaster in the Gulf has shown how wrong they were. We’re watching the worst environmental disaster in our history unfold as a result of offshore drilling. If ever there were a time to step back and take a hard look at the impacts drilling and exploration activities have on marine life and coastal communities, it is now.”

This sound can travel vast distances under water, sometimes thousands of miles, and according to scientists, its impacts can be severe.  The same wildlife populations contending with the long-term consequences of the Gulf spill will also have to contend with the industry’s seismic surveys. For example, the Gulf’s small population of sperm whales, whose nursery in the Mississippi Canyon has been overrun with oil, must persist amid regular booming from the industry surveys, which appear to impair their ability to feed.

“Right now, pods of sperm whales are swimming through a toxic oil spill, but this is just one of many threats facing the whales from the black gold rush in the Gulf,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for CBD. “Throughout the year whales are disturbed and harmed by blasts nearly as loud as explosives from constant seismic surveys exploring for oil in the Gulf. Just like drilling, the federal government rubberstamps permits for these disruptive surveys and turns a blind eye to the impacts on whales and wildlife.”

The groups are calling for MMS to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement for seismic activities in the Gulf of Mexico OCS, and are requesting an order that rescinds MMS’ inadequate and illegal analysis and compels compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act for all future surveys.