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Crimes Against Nature: Seismic Testing and Proposed Drilling Off Virginia Beach

By Tench Phillips, Co-Owner, Naro Cinema

I walk my dogs on many early mornings along the beach and often watch the bottlenose dolphins right offshore cavorting and playing in the waves. These peaceful and intelligent creatures who inhabit another world will soon be needlessly harmed by corporate and government powers unconcerned with their wellbeing. Nor with yours.

When the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig blew in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 and the bad news was broadcast day after day for the following months, many thought that this catastrophe would signal the end of offshore exploration and extraction. It was only too obvious that the devastation of living oceans and wetlands was not worth the risk. The “drill, baby, drill” chorus was silenced and the Obama administration put ocean oil exploration on hold for a time.

But big money rules the day in America and media stopped covering the crisis, BP bought advertising to greenwash themselves, and we were told that the spill had been cleaned up. We are presented a much different up-to-date narrative in the upcoming acclaimed documentary The Great Invisible showingon Wed, Jan 28.

Virginia politicians fought back with a vengeance to overturn the moratorium off the Atlantic coast. Republican Congressional Rep Scott Rigell along with Democratic Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Gov. Terry McAuliffe are brothers-in-arms when fighting to turn the waters off Va Beach into a smaller version of the industrialized Gulf. Rigell said industry improvements, particularly since the Deepwater Horizon accident, convince him that drilling and production can be done safely and without harming the environment. "All we're asking for, in a reasonable way, is for the federal government to get out of the way," Rigell said.

And it looks like Rigell and our other corporate funded politicians may soon get their way. The Obama administration and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, announced in July that it would open the East Coast to offshore exploration with underwater sonic cannons. Nine companies will dispatch ships towing air guns that will shoot loud blasts of compressed air into the ocean floor, reflecting back information about coveted oil and gas deposits. Seismic blasts can reach more than 250 decibels (a jet engine is around 140 decibels) and travel great distances underwater. They can be pulsed out at intervals of every 10 seconds and the mapping will continue nonstop for weeks on end.

This is extremely bad news for whales and dolphins whose capability to hear is a matter of life or death. Marine mammals rely on their acute hearing to find food, communicate, and reproduce. The impacts of seismic air guns include hearing loss, abandonment of habitat, disruption of mating and feeding, and even beach strandings and death. In addition these blasts kill fish eggs and larvae and scare away fish from important habitats. The catch rates of cod and haddock declined by 40 to 80 percent in an area of thousands of square miles directly following these seismic surveys.
As if these catastrophic effects weren't bad enough, seismic mapping will impact the migration and breeding of the last remaining Atlantic right whales on Earth. There are less than 500 of these gentle giants left alive after some two centuries of massive indiscriminate slaughters by commercial whalers.
Glen Besa, the Director of the Virginia chapter of Sierra Club is emphatic when he states “Seismic air gun blasting, by the Federal government’s own estimates, will injure and kill more than 138,000 marine mammals. Doubly disastrous is the fact that these pursuits of dirty fossil fuels occur in areas most impacted by climate change. If we stand any chance of thwarting our present collision course with increasing severe storms, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification, we must abandon plans to pull from the ground any more dirty fuel.”
Europe is leading the way in their transformation from dependency on hierarchal dirty energy to laterally distributed renewable energy. Germany is striving to be completely off carbon fuels within 30 years. The state of California has also mandated deadlines to convert from a carbon-based economy to renewables.
But here in Virginia where Dominion Power and Big Coal control the legislature, independent solar generation is actually penalized by the utility. The coal and fossil fuel behemoth has yet to invest in any renewable energy projects in the state. The utility did procure the offshore rights to implement wind power off Virginia but it appears to be dragging out the development process for as long as it can.

East Coast seismic testing and drilling could be stopped before the damage is done but it will take a last-ditch organized effort on the part of many of us. Catherine Kilduff is a lawyer defending marine mammals who is now living in Norfolk and on the staff of The Center for Biological Diversity. Her organization will continue to file lawsuits against the government in an attempt to protect marine life at every step of the ongoing process. She will speak about her work following the showing of The Great Invisible.
The testing already began off North Carolina for a short period this past fall by the U.S. Geological Survey who stealthily gained a permit by characterizing the survey as “research”. They must have learned something from the Japanese whalers who have used a loophole in international law to be able to continue their slaughter of whales in the name of scientific research.

A suit by environmental organizations against the federal government for irreparably harming endangered Atlantic right whales by seismic blasts was just recently settled but conveniently for the oil companies the restrictions won’t be enforced until 2016. In the meantime the soon-to-be-released five year development plan from BOEM will spell out when and where the testing begins.

The whales are singing ancient songs if only we could hear them. They may be communicating that we must consciously evolve now before it’s too late. A great awakening of mankind would mean the reclamation of democracy and the reappropriation of power generation away from the death grip of the ruling establishment. For too long we’ve been locked out of the decision-making process but corporate domination is no match for the real power residing in citizen activism. If we listen closely to the message of the gentle giants then we might once again find our rightful place in the planetary web of life.

Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema

FirstLook Film Forum The winter season of this subscription series is now underway with 10 Sunday mornings of film premieres, discussion, and brunch. Go to for more info.

ART AND CRAFT Academy Award Shortlist for Best Documentary. Mark Landis is one of history’s most prolific art forgers. Born here in Norfolk, his impressive body of work spans thirty years. The copies could fetch impressive sums on the open market, Landis isn't in it for money. Posing as a philanthropic donor, he has given away hundreds of works over the years to unsuspecting museums across the U.S. Post-film discussion led by Susan Leidy from Chrysler Museum and Jungian psychiatrist Tim Sanderson. Shows Wednesday, Jan 14.

ROSEWATER The film marks the directorial debut of "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, and stars Gael García Bernal. Rosewater follows the best-selling memoir of Tehran-born Maziar Bahari, a broadcast journalist with Canadian citizenship. Bahari returned to Iran in 2009 to interview the prime challenger to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During the election, he endured personal risk by sending footage of the street riots to the BBC. Bahari was arrested by police, led by a man identifying himself only as "Rosewater," who tortured and interrogated him over the next 118 days. Shows Wednesday, Jan 21.

THE GREAT INVISIBLE The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico still haunts the lives of those most intimately affected, though the story has long ago faded from the front page. At once a fascinating corporate thriller, a heartbreaking human drama and a peek inside the walls of the secretive oil industry, The Great Invisible is the first documentary feature to go beyond the media coverage to examine the crisis in depth through the eyes of oil executives, survivors, scientists, and Gulf Coast residents who were left to pick up the pieces while the world moved on. Presented by The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity. Shows Wednesday, Jan 28.

FOOD CHAINS There is more interest in food these days than ever, yet there is very little interest in the hands that pick it. Farmworkers, the foundation of our fresh food industry, are routinely abused and robbed of living wages. In this exposé, an intrepid group of Florida farmworkers battle to defeat the $4 trillion global supermarket industry through their successful organizing which partners with growers and retailers to improve working conditions for farm laborers in the U.S. The Fair Food Program asks supermarkets and fast food restaurants to pay just a penny more per pound of tomatoes and to refuse to buy tomatoes from farms with human rights violations. This new movement is now spreading to support other workers in Napa Valley and beyond. Presented with The Sustainable Living Fair. Shows Wednesday, Feb 4.


REMOTE AREA MEDICAL During the long U.S. debate about healthcare reform, the media has failed to put a human face on what it means to not have access to healthcare. The non-profit Remote Area Medical (RAM) produces three-day clinics throughout the Appalachia for hundreds of rural people desperate for healthcare. The film follows the stories of patients who spend hours in line waiting for the limited amount of tickets to be able to be treated. The dysfunctional state of health care in America and the imperative for Medicaid expansion in Virginia has never been better illustrated. Presented by EVMS and Virginia Organizing. Shows Wednesday, Feb 11.

PELICAN DREAMS Filmmaker Judy Irving (The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill) follows a wayward, starving California brown pelican from her “arrest” on the Golden Gate Bridge into care at a wildlife rehabilitation facility, and from there explores the pelicans’ nesting grounds and their Pacific coast migration. The film is about wildness: How close can we get to a wild animal without taming or harming it? Why do we need wildness in our lives, and how can we protect it? Sometimes referred to as “flying dinosaurs”, pelicans have an ancient magic about them. Their near-extinction in the seventies, their recovery, and now their most recent die-off parallels our human relationship to the environment. Shows Wednesday, Feb 18.

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