April 9, 2016
Tamara Whittington, Superintendent
Big Cypress National Preserve
33100 Tamiami Trail East
Ochopee, Florida 34141-1000
Subject: Comments on Revised Environmental Assessment for Burnett Oil Company Nobles Grade 3-D Seismic Survey
Dear Superintendent Whittington:
I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,100 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition). Our membership is composed entirely of retired, former, or current salaried employees of the National Park Service (NPS) and includes former employees of Big Cypress National Preserve (BICY). As a group, we collectively represent more than 30,000 years of national park management experience. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System.
The Coalition previously submitted comments dated December 23, 2015 on the original Environmental Assessment for Burnett Oil Company Nobles Grade 3-D Seismic Survey (original EA). This letter provides comments on the Revised Environmental Assessment (revised EA) analyzing the environmental impacts of an oil and gas seismic survey proposed by Burnett Oil Company, Inc. (BOCI) at BICY. Our comments are as follows:
1) Unreasonably Short Public Comment Period. We object to the unreasonably short public comment period allowed for the revised EA, which we believe discourages the thoughtful submission of public comments and is at odds with the spirit and intent of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). According to the NPS, it had previously extended the public comment periods for both the BOCI plan of operations (POP) and the original EA for this project. While true, the disparity between the length of those previous comment periods and the recent comment period on the revised EA is striking. For example, according to the PEPC website for the project, the public comment for the original EA was open from November 20, 2015 through January 1, 2016 (47 days). Yet, the revised EA is only open to public comment from March 25 through April 9, 2016 (16 days).
On March 29, 2016, we submitted a written request that the comment period be extended 30 days, which would make the review period a total of 46 days (similar to the comment period for the original EA). On April 6, 2016, just three days before the comment period ends, we received notification from NPS that our request for the extension was denied. The revised EA contains numerous changes from the original EA. Given the length and complexity of both documents, allowing a much shorter (i.e., 30 days shorter) public review and comment period on the revised EA is neither reasonable nor realistic. Because of the brief review time, our comments on the revised EA are perforce limited.
2) Portions of the Revised EA Are An Improvement Over the Original EA. In the revised EA NPS has addressed a number of concerns about the original EA’s informational content and about some aspects of the proposed action. We believe the following changes, as identified in Appendices D and E of the revised EA, are appropriate: eliminating the five staging areas in the Preserve; modifying Vibroseis source and receiver lines to avoid Important Resource Areas (IRAs) and other sensitive resources; clarifying that the dry season at the Preserve typically extends from November through mid-May; clarifying that NPS approval of the POP would be conditioned upon BOCI agreeing to implement the minimization and mitigation measures; adding a mitigation measure to identify and protect potential Florida bonneted bat nesting or roosting areas; deleting of an inappropriate reference to a court case on p. 6; including information in the revised EA to quantify the number of miles of new vehicle tracks would occur off the established trails under the proposed action; updating Chapter 3 to include eligible and proposed wilderness acreages within the proposed survey area; committing to conducting a formal Minimum Requirements Analysis prior to the actual survey when more information would be available and including the results of the formal Minimum Requirements Analysis in the final approved POP; and expanding mitigation measure # 43 to include ongoing tribal consultation to ensure tribal activities in the survey area are not affected.
3) Ongoing Concerns about the Adequacy of the EA Remain. Despite the above improvements, our primary concerns remain that the potential adverse effects of the proposed extensive use of massive (61,700 pound) Vibroseis trucks, particularly in generating the seismic signal, are not adequately assessed. For example, the revised EA (pp. 20-21) states that Alternative 2’s survey using Vibroseis trucks will be designed “to utilize where practicable existing roads, trails, and other disturbed areas for relocation of vibration source points away from IRAs.” However, it fails to make clear that there are few existing roads/trails in the survey area and the vast majority of the survey will require Vibroseis truck access in off-road areas. The EA states the survey will use a “single pass” where possible; however, a “single pass” apparently means three Vibroseis trucks proceeding together along the same path. Further, while the revised EA notes that the weight of the Vibroseis trucks will be distributed by the wide “balloon” tires when moving across the surface, it does not to address the fact that when producing a seismic signal the full weight of the more than 30-ton vehicles will be lifted and entirely supported by the vibrating metal plates. This combination of vehicle weight and the surface vibration will likely cause effects similar to a commercial soil compactor, resulting is compacted soils and possible damage to the surface duracrust. The result of this operation is that up to 510 miles of new trails traveled by three 61,700 pound Vibroseis trucks will also create thousands of 8 ft. by 4 ft. compacted vibration pads every 82 feet along the way. The EA should consider how this vibration and compaction will affect the surface, particularly the potentially brittle duracrust at or near the surface, along with the ability to restore this surface should some crushing occur from the combination of weight and vibration.
4) Chapter 2: Minimization and Mitigation Measures. The revised EA lists forty-six (46) “Minimization and Mitigation Measures” on pp. 28-33. We believe these measures are appropriate and should be required to limit the duration and intensity of potential adverse impacts related to the proposed action. While page 28 states that “NPS approval of the POP would be conditioned (emphasis added) upon BOCI agreeing to implement the… [measures],” it is unclear what mechanism or procedure, if any, will ensure that is the case. Despite the above statement, which clearly implies that the mitigation measures would be “required” of BOCI, NPS makes inconsistent statements elsewhere in the revised EA that create the impression that the mitigation measures are not “requirements.” For example, page 28 states that there would be “no lasting environmental impacts (emphasis added) that would require (emphasis added) mitigation measures.” But then Appendix D # 17.b. states: “The purpose of the mitigation measures is not to avoid significant impacts but to ‘prevent lasting impacts (emphasis added) and minimize short-term impacts to the Preserve’s resources during seismic survey activities.’” In other words, in one place (p. 28) NPS says there would be no lasting impacts that would “require” mitigation; but in another place (App. D, #17.b.) NPS says the mitigation measures are intended to “prevent lasting impacts.” If this seems confusing, well it is.
It is obvious that NPS is trying to finesse the wording about the mitigation measures to avoid stating the obvious, that the proposed Vibroseis operations must be carefully managed – in essence, regulated and limited by the mitigation measures – in order to prevent significant or lasting environmental impacts. NPS’s inconsistent explanations are confusing and create doubt about NPS’s intent to actually “require” BOCI to implement all 46 minimization and mitigation measures. A more straight-forward and effective approach would be to acknowledge the measures are “necessary” or “required” to avoid or reduce adverse impacts and then fully characterize the measures as “requirements” in whatever NPS decision document is forthcoming. See our comments #8 and 9 below.
5) Range of Alternatives: The EA Lacks Analysis of a Reasonable “Environmentally Preferable Alternative.” The Alternatives described in the EA fail to consider a reasonable alternative that would combine two types of seismic operations to reduce the overall off-trail travel and associated surface impacts. While Alternative 3 in the EA (p.25) “would replace Vibroseis with drilling and use of explosives to generate seismic waves”, it simply replaces the Vibroseis trucks with “drilling vehicles” that would “utilize the same routes as the Vibroseis buggies in Alternative 2.” As described, Alternative 3 does little or nothing to reduce the off-trail impact of the seismic exploration and lacks an adequate description of the drilling method to be used, the drilling depth or shot charges, or a description of the degree to which NPS would limit vehicular use and require helicopter supported foot travel. A better and less environmentally disruptive alternative for NPS to analyze would combine Vibroseis trucks on existing roads/trails with helicopter-portable drilling in off-trail areas, and helicopter supported or walk-across installation of geophone receivers. Heli-portable drilling rigs are available and were used successfully in Preserve for the Calumet seismic survey in 1999, greatly reducing the off-trail impacts of the survey. Such a combination of existing, technologically feasible technologies would minimize the impacts of the seismic testing in the park, particularly in sensitive areas. If this alternative is not assessed, the rationale for not doing so should be explained in the EA.
6) The Revised EA Fails to Take a “Hard Look” at Foreseeable Impacts. As described in NPS Supplemental NEPA Guidance, Preparing Focused and Concise EAs, “In order to demonstrate that the NPS has satisfied the ‘hard look’ requirement, there must be evidence that the NPS considered all foreseeable direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts (emphasis added), used sound science and best available information, and made a logical, rational connection between the facts presented and the conclusions drawn.” Despite this guidance, the impact analysis for Alternative 2 in Chapter 4 fails to adequately acknowledge and assess the likely long-term, localized damage to the wetlands hydrology and soils due to the passage of three large Vibroseis trucks causing compaction, and potential damage to the limestone caprock that would be caused by from the repetitive lowering and vibration of the steel plates on the Vibroseis trucks. The effect of these compacted seismic source pads on the wetland soils and brittle caprock limestone duracrust should be assessed and disclosed in the EA, as well as the effects of the moving vehicle tires. While wetlands damage may potentially be restored, restoring compacted soils will be difficult, and damage to the caprock cannot be reclaimed. Damage to wetlands and soils will be magnified when the Vibroseis trucks get stuck and need to be removed by other vehicles – as occurred during the field demonstration for this proposed NG3-D seismic survey and is likely to occur again during the conduct of the proposed seismic survey. Even a small change in the ground elevation in the survey area could have adverse effects on the surface and near surface geology and surface water sheetflow in the Preserve, which has a very gradual change in the surface gradient from north to south.
7) The Limited Vibroseis Field Demonstration Is An Inadequate Basis for Assessing Potential Impacts. It was helpful to read in Appendix D (#11) of the revised EA that the Vibroseis truck that got stuck and had to be extricated during the April 24, 2015 field demonstration resulted from an attempt to cross a manmade ditch and not from normal passage through dry season wetlands. However, we still believe that such a limited test of the vehicle is inconclusive at best and is an inadequate basis for assessing potential environmental impacts of the proposed level of off-trail use. The incident also raises questions about the operator’s judgment in attempting to drive through an obstacle and suggests the potential for additional problems due to errors in judgment during the proposed Vibroseis field operations. In the revised EA, NPS essentially dismisses the concern about the inadequacy of the field demonstration by indicating that since Vibroseis trucks have been used in other parks the potential impacts are known. Yet, NPS provides no information (such as park names and descriptions of the extent of use and field conditions encountered) to support the comparison between BICY and these other parks, leaving one to doubt if the NPS assertion is valid. If NPS does, in fact, have information documenting the impacts (or lack thereof) of Vibroseis trucks operating in wetland conditions similar to those of BICY, then the information should be provided to support the NPS claims.
8) The Chapter 4 Impact Analysis Regarding Vibroseis Trucks is Based on Circular Reasoning. In the NPS analysis of environmental consequences for Alternative 2, the limited level of environmental impacts attributed to Vibroseis trucks is largely contingent on the avoidance or minimization of adverse impacts due to the expected implementation of the “Minimization and Mitigation Measures” listed in Chapter 2. For example, p. 83 states:
Vegetation impacts from the Vibroseis buggies would be similar to impacts from past recreational ORV use, which was generally characterized as long-term and adverse in the 1992 GMP/EIS (pages 263-268), the 2000 ORV Management Plan/EIS (pages 130-134), and the 2010 Addition GMP/EIS (pages 339-349). See page 7 for availability of these documents. However, there are important differences: 1) the impacts from recreational ORVs mostly result from multiple passes of vehicles over the same trails vs. a single pass of the Vibroseis buggies (Minimization and Mitigation Measures No. 9), 2) the Vibroseis buggies, although heavier than recreational ORVs, would distribute their ground pressure through wide balloon-type tires, thus minimizing rutting (Minimization and Mitigation Measures No. 8 and the 2000 ORV Plan/EIS at page 52, suggesting that wider, high-flotation tires may reduce impacts), 3) Vibroseis buggies would only operate during the dry season (Minimization and Mitigation Measures No. 1) vs. all year for recreational ORVs, and 4) immediate restoration of environmental damage would be required for Vibroseis buggies (Minimization and Mitigation Measure Nos. 18, 22-24) vs. none from recreational ORV use. These minimization and mitigation measures would reduce any impacts to wetlands, habitat, soils, and vegetation to minimal levels.
The various documents mentioned in the first sentence of the quoted paragraph clearly described and documented the potential for off-road vehicle (ORV) travel to cause significant adverse impacts to the extensive wetlands at BICY, which is why ORV use is now carefully regulated and strictly limited to designated trails. If the potential impacts of Vibroseis trucks are indeed similar to ORV’s, as NPS asserts, then the logical conclusion is that Vibroseis trucks would have the same potential as ORV’s to cause significant impacts, if not for the limitations imposed by the “Minimization and Mitigation Measures.” Despite this, in several places in the revised EA, NPS states illogically that “no lasting environmental impacts that would require mitigation measures were identified from the action alternatives analyzed in this EA” (p. 28); and Appendix D, # 17.b. (NPS Response): “The purpose of the mitigation measures is not to avoid significant impacts but to “prevent lasting impacts and minimize short-term impacts to the Preserve’s resources during seismic survey activities” (page 28).” In other words, NPS first compares the potential impacts of Vibroseis trucks to those of ORV’s, which are well documented as “significant.” Then NPS denies the possibility, perhaps even likelihood, that the proposed extensive off-trail use of the much heavier Vibroseis vehicles, along with the concentrated forces generated by the vehicles’ vibration pads, does, in fact, have the potential to causes similar levels of adverse impacts as ORVs. However, the revised EA fails to acknowledge the real potential for significant environmental impacts based largely on the reasoning that such impacts would be avoided through mitigation measures; yet then denies that the mitigation measures are necessary or “required” to prevent the potential for significant or lasting adverse impacts. In contrast to NPS’s convoluted reasoning, the Coalition believes the minimization and mitigation measures are, in fact, necessary to prevent lasting or significant impacts and should therefore be “required.” See comment # 4 above.
9) If a FONSI Is Issued, It Should Be a “Mitigated FONSI.” See section above. Stating the obvious, the reality is that absent the forty-six “Minimization and Mitigation Measures” listed in Chapter 2, the proposed extensive use of 30-ton Vibroseis trucks laying tracks on up to 510 mile across BICY’s wetlands would likely cause significant adverse impacts, similar to those caused by ORV’s. Based on the NPS analysis and responses to comments in the revised EA, it appears that NPS is headed toward issuing a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). If that is the eventual decision, we urge NPS to issue a “mitigated FONSI,” as described in the NPS NEPA Handbook 2015 (p. 69):
A mitigated FONSI can be signed when a project’s adverse environmental effects will be reduced below the significance threshold by the application of specific mitigation measures included in the FONSI. A mitigated FONSI must include a commitment by the NPS to enforce the mitigation measures and to monitor the effectiveness of the mitigation measures. [See CEQ guidance: Appropriate Use of Mitigation and Monitoring and Clarifying the Appropriate Use of Mitigated Findings of No Significant Impact.]
In closing, the Coalition continues to have a number of concerns about the NPS environmental analysis of the proposed BOCI seismic survey that have not been adequately resolved in the revised EA. We do appreciate the opportunity, however brief, to comment again on this important issue.
Maureen Finnerty, Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks