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Will hunt for oil off Atlantic coast, Florida deafen dolphins?

Hunting for oil and gas deposits off the Atlantic coast with gear that produces underwater sound blasts 100,000 times stronger than a jet engine could harm or kill tens of thousands of whales and dolphins, an environmental group contends in a new report.

The devices, called seismic air guns, are routinely used during offshore geological surveys. Towed behind vessels, they fire intense bursts of compressed air that shoot sound waves and bounce echoes off the sea floor that help pinpoint promising areas for exploration.

But in a report released this week, , Oceana argues the common energy industry practice also can have broad and devastating impacts on daily marine life. The Washington, D.C.-based group is pushing the Obama administration to reject use of the air guns — along with any future oil or gas drilling — in a huge swath of waters stretching from Florida to Delaware.

“We like to point out that a deaf dolphin is a dead dolphin,’’ said Jackie Savitz, a deputy vice president for Oceana, which plans to mimic the noisy annoyance of air guns as part of a demonstration Saturday in Miami Beach.

“They need their hearing to mate, to feed, to communicate and do all the things that animals do.’’

Other environmental groups have echoed the criticism , as have 50 lawmakers, including a bipartisan group of 13 from Florida who signed a letter sent Wednesday to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management asking the agency not to open up much of the Atlantic coast to seismic air-gun testing.

Their letter argues that the federal government’s own draft environmental study, which predicts up to 138,500 injuries to marine mammals and some 13.5 million disruptions of activities like hunting and breeding, actually underestimates the impact by relying on old and flawed data.

Signers included U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, and a number of South Florida representatives, including Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Democrats Joe Garcia, Alcee Hastings, Frederica Wilson, Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch and Patrick Murphy.

In addition, two Republican lawmakers from the Tampa Bay area and three other Democrats from across the state signed the letter.

“These loud air gun blasts can be heard for many hundreds of miles in the ocean and, as a result, can drive whales to abandon their habitats, go silent and cease foraging over vast areas,’’ the letter said. “At shorter distances, it can cause permanent hearing loss, injury and even death for whales, dolphins and fish.’’

David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, an industry trade group, said he read only an excerpt of the Oceana report but he dismissed much of it as “alarmist-type stuff.’’

The seismic work, he said, actually helps limit environmental damage by focusing drilling in the most likely areas.

Survey operators, he said, also can take a number of different steps to reduce impacts on dolphins and whales, which have particularly sensitive sonar systems they depend on to navigate and communicate.

“It does deserve our scientific review and let me say, seriously, that in the industry we care about dolphins ands whales and we care about baby seals, too,’’ Mica said.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, previously known as the Minerals and Management Service before it was reorganized after the BP oil disaster three years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, is considering eight applications to conduct seismic testing in an area stretching from Delaware to Cape Canaveral, with six of those including waters off Florida, said Oceana’s Savitz. Coastal South Florida was kept off the administration’s five-year offshore oil and gas leasing program announced last year, but it could be considered for exploration in the future.

Spokeswoman Connie Gillette, in an email response to questions, said the bureau is consulting with other federal agencies on limiting air gun impacts and expects to complete the environmental study by the fall.

She also said that in order to make “informed decisions” about future exploration, new surveys were needed to update 30-year-old ones.

In an April 15 letter to lawmakers, BOEM Director Tommy Beaudreau said he shared concerns about marine mammals and other species, pointing out that the agency had contributed $40 million on research of acoustic impacts in the marine environment. Environmentalists and scientists have raised similar concerns about certain types of Navy sonar systems as well.

But the bureau also contends that Oceana’s estimated number of injuries, deaths and disruptions — though pulled directly from the draft federal study — represented a worst-case scenario. The high numbers, Beaudreau wrote, “are unqualified because they do not consider the effect that mitigation measures would have in reducing, or in some cases possibly eliminating, the potential for marine mammal takes.’’

Some options proposed in the study, for instance, suggest travel corridors could be created by widely spacing on-going surveys or buffer zones could be created for vulnerable species such as endangered right whales and calves, which every winter move into the warm shallow coastal waters off North Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

Mica said survey crews also must carry spotters and can shut down operations when dolphins or whales are too close. In addition, he said, operators can slowly turn up the sound, giving disturbed marine mammals time to find more comfortable waters.

“It’s not like you just go into an area and start beeping the whales and the dolphins down,’’ he said.

The technology, widely used in the Gulf to place hundreds of rigs, has become much more sophisticated, Mica said, not only providing companies with three-dimensional views of deposits deep beneath the sea floor but also of potential historical or archaeological treasures like shipwrecks.

Critics, citing the BP spill, say the industry has a history of underplaying its environmental risks and argue it is doing the same for sound blasts that would be emitted around the clock every 10 to 12 seconds. Savitz said Oceana has tried but failed to get regulators’ permission to produce noises as loud as the seismic air guns at some 20 demonstrations it plans over the next few weeks, mostly along the East Coast. The 190-decibel level is considered too damaging for human hearing, she said, and difficult to even replicate above ground.

Instead, Oceana protesters plan to use air horns, vuvuzelas and other annoying noise-making devices during a demonstration planned in Miami Beach near 15th Street from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. The group is also pushing an online petition against the testing.

“Ultimately, this is a question about whether we want to be drilling in these areas in the Atlantic,’’ she said. “If we don’t, then why go forward with seismic testing?”