Against a backdrop of working tuna boats and the sound of nailguns building a new seafood restaurant in Port Royal, offshore drilling opponents again sounded an explosive warning this week.
Proposed testing for oil and gas deposits off the S.C. coast could stir up unexploded bombs, other weapons and radioactive waste dumped on the ocean floor, northern Beaufort County mayors said Monday during a news conference in Port Royal on Monday at the town docks on Battery Creek.
Joined by Frank Knapp, a staunch offshore drilling opponent with the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, the group called on the federal government to study the potential effects of seismic testing on the disposed munitions before permitting the work in the Atlantic Ocean.
Knapp called the news conference in part to push back against oil industry representatives quoted in news reports dismissing the concerns as fearmongering.
"The seismic industry is not going to chase us away," Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said. "We are not fearmongers."
Keyserling, Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray and several community members joined Knapp at the docks to continue longstanding opposition to offshore oil activity.
Eight permits to explore the Atlantic for natural resources are under review by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The process uses underwater air gun blasts to probe the ocean floor and is a precursor to offshore drilling.
Local government officials and business and environmental leaders along the East Coast have opposed surveying plans, saying the processes will disrupt wildlife and threaten coastal economies.
"Very simply — is it worth it?" said Bob Bender, curator of Lowcountry Estuarium in Port Royal. "Very simply — no."
The latest warnings about munitions dumps came after Knapp filed an open records request earlier this year for information on the location, dates and materials of weapons dumped in the sea over the years.
A 2009 Department of Defense report notes 33 munitions dump sites off the East Coast — including five off the South Carolina coast — that included a variety of chemical agents. A military report to Congress in 2016 said leaving the disposed weapons in place was safer than removing them and risking the weapons breaking apart and spilling contents or detonating.
Nicolette Nye, a spokeswoman for the National Ocean Industries Association, told the Savannah Morning News last month Knapp's claims that seismic testing risks releasing toxic waste "are patently false."
"This issue has never been a concern anywhere in the world," she told the newspaper. "Seismic surveys have been conducted around the world for eight decades and extensively for the last five decades with no scientific documentation of any sound impacts causing the initiation of explosions or the compromise of storage containers containing chemical or radioactive waste.”
Knapp said assurances from surveying supporters isn't enough without further research. Survey permits shouldn't be issued unless the federal government has tested the effect of seismic blasts on munitions and knows where all the disposed weapons are and has plans to avoid them, Knapp said
"If they're going to do it, they ought to do it safe," he said. "We don't know what these seismic air guns could do to that."