Facebook is in hot water with the state of Oregon after abandoning drilling equipment, broken piping, and thousands of gallons of drilling fluids offshore following an accident that occurred while it was constructing an undersea telecommunications cable—and then failing to notify the appropriate agencies for nearly two months.
On Thursday, Oregon Live first reported, Oregon’s Department of State Lands (DSL) sent a letter to Facebook subsidiary Edge Cable Holdings, informing the company that it had 30 days to reach an agreement with the state on damages owed for the mess, and 180 days to remove the equipment or obtain a permit to leave it there.
Facebook’s garbage has been languishing 40 to 70 feet below the seafloor since April 28, when an Edge Cable drill pipe snapped roughly 500 feet from the spot where the so-called Jupiter cable is slated to emerge from the ground in the rural community of Tierra del Mar. The Jupiter cable is a high speed fiber optic system set to transmit data from the United States to Japan and the Philippines. Its development is being led by a consortium of companies including Facebook and its subsidiaries, Amazon, SoftBank, and several others. Facebook owns a portion of the cable, including a terminal in Oregon.
Now, the state has put Facebook on notice that if it wants to complete the project, it’s going to have to deal with this junk. Local opponents, meanwhile, see this as more evidence that the cable never should have been approved in the first place.
Earlier this year, its subcontractors began horizontally drilling, or fracking, a subsea borehole that would house the cable’s final stretch from sea to land. Trouble arose, however, during the final days of the drilling operation. As an Edge Cable lawyer informed county officials on May 5, the drill pipe snapped on April 28, two days before an allotted construction period was set to end. As a result, the company will need to return in 2021 to complete the job, according to the May 5 letter.
What that letter failed to mention is that Edge Cable abandoned a significant amount of drilling trash on site.
The DSL, which oversaw permitting in this section of the seafloor, only learned about the discarded equipment on June 17 during a meeting with project representatives, spokesperson Ali Ryan Hansen told Motherboard in an email. According to a July 24 email Hansen shared with Motherboard, the delayed notification “eliminated any potential options” for recovering the equipment
That equipment includes a 1,100 feet section of drill pipe, a drill tip, a gyro module, a steering tool, and 6,500 gallons of bore gel, a clay-based lubricating fluid, which currently remains contained. In an email to Motherboard, a Facebook spokesperson said there was nothing to worry about here.
“Working with an independent environmental specialist and other experts, we determined that marine retrieval was unadvisable and that no negative environmental or public health impact would result from the drill head remaining under the seafloor,” the spokesperson said. Facebook did not respond to a request for additional details on its assessment or why it decided it was “unadvisable” to retrieve the equipment.
The state of Oregon sees it differently. Hansen said the DSL has requested that Edge Cable provide an analysis of “potential health, safety, and environmental impacts due to the presence of the equipment, as well as a geotechnical survey.” In addition, the company must remove the equipment in 180 days without causing environmental harm or obtain an “encroachment easement” to leave it there.
Oceanographer Ian MacDonald of Florida State University said that he was “suspicious” of Facebook’s statement that removing the equipment was a bad idea, while adding that “recovering drilling muds is never going to be an easy task.” A big dump of drilling fluids, were that to occur, could impact seafloor fauna, he said. Even if the mess remains contained below the seafloor, there could be impacts on the natural environment.
“There are chemosynthetic [microbial] communities and gas hydrates along the Oregon coast—either of which would be potentially impacted by abandoned equipment,” MacDonald said.
Cameron La Follette, executive director of the Oregon Coast Alliance, says that the abandoned equipment only poses no hazard “in a narrow interpretation of the phrase.”
“It appears the bore gel is not currently leaking, and the abandoned equipment is inert—for the time being,” La Follette wrote in an email to Motherboard. “But it is abandoned in a dynamic, invisible environment under the sea; it is trash; and even if it stays inert, it still contributes to the industrialization of the sea and the corollary—increasing the human trash in the sea. This is bad however one considers the issue.”
La Follette’s group has opposed the project from the get-go, arguing that locals would be unlikely to see any benefits from the Jupiter cable while its construction would amount to a severe disruption within this rural community. In wake of the recent fiasco, the Oregon Coast Alliance and Surfrider Foundation, another coastal organization, are calling on the state to withdraw all of its permits for the project.
“Oregon Coast Alliance and Surfrider do not think the state agencies tasked with protection of our beaches and nearshore ocean can or should allow Facebook and its subcontractor Edge Cable to initiate the project a second time,” reads a letter the organizations sent to state officials in late July. “The company has made it clear that they are unreliable, careless, environmentally thoughtless and incompetent.”