NOAA Tinkers with acoustical standards to appease industry

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Some improvements were recently made to the acoustical standards but most were “academic” and just promised to remove some of the ambiguity from the regulations. But a troubling component was the somewhat arbitrary tinkering with the Low Frequency exposure thresholds – substantiated with outdated and narrowly focused science – and apparently to the benefit of industry.

1969-cuyahoga-river-fireWhile conservation concerns have been with us in America since the arrival of some (few) of the more sensible Europeans here 300 years ago, it was only during the Nixon Administration – when the public had finally become fed-up with the results of centuries of US policy driven by “what is good for business is good for America” that the regulatory environment changed. The culmination of catastrophes like Love Canal, the burning of the Cuyahoga River, the Stringfellow Acid Pits, and the Santa Barbara oil spill – all under the toxic skies and along the polluted riverbanks of any American industrial city drove a tipping point whereby the unfettered industrial use of our common air and waterways for the waste and effluents of manufacturing became unacceptable.

In an overwhelming legislative response to public outrage environmental law shaped up in the US under the rubrics of The Endangered Species Act (ESA – 1973), The Clean Water Act (1972) , the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA – 1972), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA – 1969).   All (with the exception of MMPA) were consolidated under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA – 1970).

While those in the conservation community see this watershed period of environmental regulation a bulwark against the degradation and eventual destruction of our living habitat, industry by-and-large reacted to these regulations and regulatory agencies as impediments to business. So there has been a continuous festering conflict between conservationists and industry stakeholders ever since.

Artifacts of this contention pop up any time a NEPA mandated “Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS) is released for public review. In fact much of what we and other conservation reviewers do with these is keep a watchful eye out for where they fall out of bounds and stop accurately reflecting the impacts that the proposed action will impose.

So with this in mind it was not a surprise to find an industry-sourced answer to a question we posed in our recent critique of the NOAA Acoustical Guidelines submitted for public review. While some improvements were made in these acoustical standards over the previous standards, most were “academic” and just promised to remove some of the ambiguity from the regulations. But a troubling component was the somewhat arbitrary tinkering with the Low Frequency exposure thresholds – substantiated with outdated and narrowly focused science.

Our question was “If NOAA Fisheries is going to create arbitrary guidelines, why not make them favorable to their stated conservation mission?”

The answer to this question has been hovering around our work for the last year or so. But after we submitted our Acoustical Guidelines comments a colleague sent us a newsletter from the International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC) – an organization that represents the global seismic survey industry.

In an article titled “IAGC Successful in Influencing Revision of Acoustic Threshold Guidelines” they crow about how “The proposed guidance is significantly more favorable to the industry than the thresholds currently used by the U.S. regulatory agencies.” Uh huh. I see…

The big problem many of us in the conservation community have with seismic surveys is the high energy, low frequency pulses they kick out – which in some cases can be heard thousands of kilometers from the source. If industry gets a 10dB “free pass” in this low frequency regime they can use ten times the energy that would otherwise be attenuated through a “non-tinkered,” scientifically substantiated exposure guideline.

The public comments on the Acoustical Guidelines are being simmered by NOAA at the moment. We’ll see if they took any interest in revising their tinkering to more accurately reflect the “best available science.”

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