ATLANTIC CITY - A federal appeals court cleared the path Monday for seismic testing off the coast of New Jersey that will blast the floor of the Atlantic Ocean with loud noises as part of a climate change research project.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected New Jersey's request to block the testing off Long Beach Island, which aims to use acoustic research to examine sediment dating back tens of millions of years. The barrier island stretches along the central New Jersey coast for about 18 miles.
Environmentalists, fishing groups, and some officials oppose the work, saying it could harm or kill marine life, including dolphins, turtles, and whales. But the groups planning the research say they will do everything possible to minimize disruptions to marine life, including stopping the project when animals are seen nearby.
"Needless to say, we are extremely disappointed with this ruling and the fact that the federal government is pushing it at this time of year," said Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which sought a court order to block the testing.
"There are too many risks and uncertainties with moving forward with a project like this, particularly in the summer when marine life is most abundant and active," he said. "We believe this testing will disrupt and harm marine life and fishing, posing a risk to our commercial and recreation fishing industries."
With the ruling, testing could begin any day. It is not expected to be a safety concern for people using the beaches.
Rutgers University, the University of Texas, and the National Science Foundation want to do research on sediments that have been deposited on the ocean floor as global sea levels changed over 60 million years. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has signed off on the request.
The plan is to complete a three-dimensional map of part of the ocean floor that may offer clues as to what could happen as the ocean rises.
"This is a very disappointing decision for marine life and for those who depend on a clean and healthy ocean," said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, which has led opposition to the plan. "It is upsetting that the blasting of our ocean be allowed to continue during the legal challenge."
She said New Jersey might prevail if it pressed a legal challenge further.
"However, that decision will come too late to save a single creature from this project," she said.
Some environmental groups say the study could lay the groundwork for oil or natural gas drilling off New Jersey's coast, which is not currently allowed.