Sun-kissed and sandal-clad, the people who assembled at the Dare County Government Center in Manteo Thursday night wore the calm demeanor of those who fall asleep to the murmur of the sea and wake up to resplendent sunrises.
They arrived to try to protect that way of life on the Outer Banks. This life is not the gaudy carnival of Myrtle Beach (although there is a Dirty Dick’s Crab House in Avon), but that of a fragile national seashore. A mere sandbar jutting into the ocean, the Outer Banks is home to marshes, estuaries, inlets, sounds, porpoises, whales, sea turtles, all manner of birds and marine life, plus the tourists who flock here to enjoy them and the residents who would rather be nowhere else.
The threat of offshore drilling, which many here thought had been put to rest once and for all when the Obama administration reversed itself, has re-emerged as a possibility. The current leasing plan, which excludes the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf and thus, North Carolina, could be replaced by a new version proposed by the Trump administration.[bctt tweet=”This is a national seashore. It’s a sacred place.” username=”NCPolicyWatch”]
If the plan, managed by the federal Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, clears all the hurdles — and it’s unclear if the proposal will — oil rigs could sit just three miles off the North Carolina coast. A spill — considering the weather conditions in the “graveyard of the Atlantic,” so named because of the number of shipwrecks there — could sully the beaches for decades. There would be seismic air gun testing, sonic blasts that harm, even kill marine life, from the top of the food chain — whales — to the bottom — plankton.
For an hour and a half, 34 residents of the Outer Banks — commercial fishers, ocean scientists, small business owners, environmental advocates and dolphin naturalists — told state environmental officials that under no circumstances should offshore drilling be permitted near the North Carolina coastline.
The public hearing was the third hosted by the NC Department of Environmental Quality, the other two being in Morehead City and Wilmington earlier this week. The agency will forward the comments, which includes support from the NC Petroleum Council and opposition by Gov. Cooper, to BOEM.
The Outer Banks business community isn’t biting on the financial chum the fossil fuel industry is dangling before them. No amount of oil and gas royalties, which are not even guaranteed under federal law, would compensate for the $1 billion that tourists spend every year in Dare County. Elected officials in Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Dare County government, along with the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce, “vehemently” opposed the plan. “Do we want to risk destroying a national treasure?” said Susie Walters, mayor pro temp of Nags Head.
“I’m deeply concerned and dismayed by the specter of offshore drilling,” said Luke Mahler, a longtime resident of Kitty Hawk. “We recently saw the consequences of simple human error for our community. As bad as the power outage was, it would pale in comparison to an oil spill. We have a pressing moral obligation to oppose it.”[bctt tweet=”We have a pressing moral obligation to oppose it” username=”NCPolicyWatch”]
The most compelling testimony came from people who had walked on oil-strewn beaches in other parts of the country, the result of spills and accidents. In Alaska, said Jan Deblen, oil from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, is still present along the shore, just 20 inches down. If that happened on the Outer Banks, she said, “you couldn’t even build a sand castle.”
Jennifer Alexander, who was born and raised in southern California, remembered walking on a beach in the 1980s and “getting oil on my feet from a spill in 1969.”
Kathryn Fagan lived in Houston for four years. She recalled taking her children to a beach in Galveston, which is on the Gulf of Mexico. “It was gross. You’d get out of the water and there would be jugs of stuff to use to take the oil off your body before you got in the car. One day we were engulfed in oil.
“I’ve been in the water my whole life,” Alison Ross of Kill Devil Hills told NC DEQ officials. “This is a national seashore. It’s a sacred place.”
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