DOINews: BSEE Diver Protects Heritage

Last edited 09/05/2019
BSEE diver Chris Horrell seated behind a desk and looking at underwater images on a computer screen.
Chris Horrell, a federal preservation officer with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement's Environmental Enforcement Division,helps fulfill BSEE's responsibility to ensure that significant archaeological sites are not adversely affected by oil and gas exploration and development. BSEE photos in this story show Horell at work.

Underwater photo of BSEE diver Chris Horrell at work

It is estimated that there are more than 10,000 shipwrecks scattered across the seafloor of the federal Outer Continental Shelf, with thousands more in state waters closer to shore. Some of these shipwrecks are more than 400 years old and tell the tales of European explorers discovering a new world. More common are shipwrecks from the last two centuries, such as privateering, merchant, naval, and fishing vessels that represent the collective maritime history of the United States.

These shipwrecks are important historical sites protected by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. They offer snapshots in time that provide a broader understanding of our history and the generations that came before us. When archaeologists study these shipwrecks, they gain a greater understanding of human behavior, history, and culture enabling researchers an opportunity to document the past. It is through this study of the past that we are better able to understand who we are today.

Christopher Horrell, federal preservation officer with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement's Environmental Enforcement Division, is on the front lines of these important archeological discoveries. He serves as the senior marine archaeologist, diving safety officer and tribal liaison officer. Through these many roles he is able to help fulfill BSEE's responsibility to ensure that significant archaeological sites are not adversely affected by oil and gas exploration and development.

The federal Outer Continental Shelf has a rich history that helps us better understand our heritage, and Horrell works together with other government agencies, the oil and gas industry, and private partners to ensure that our maritime history is preserved.

Preserving history is part of the offshore energy process

Under the National Historic Preservation Act, BSEE and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management must take steps to ensure the preservation of sunken historic and archaeological resources. As part of these preservation efforts, oil and gas industry companies, (offshore operators) must follow BOEM guidelines for conducting surveys of the seafloor using remote sensing instruments. Using tools such as side-scan sonar and magnetometer, these surveys must be conducted before the operator is permitted to undertake activities that disturb the seafloor. As a result of intense oil and gas exploration in the northern Gulf of Mexico, thousands of potential and confirmed shipwrecks have been identified through these required surveys.

Upon discovery of a potential shipwreck or shipwreck site, BOEM notifies the oil and gas company that they may either avoid the site or conduct an archaeological investigation. BOEM coordinates with BSEE informing the Bureau that the site exists and how the operator must protect it. BSEE monitors and enforces protection of these sites. If impacts are documented or suspected, Horrell and SCAMP conduct onsite investigations using remote sensing surveys, diver visual inspections, and in the case of deep water, Remotely Operated Vehicles.

Seafloor Compliance Assessment and Monitoring Program

The SCAMP consists of a group of scientists who apply a ‘Science-Based Compliance” philosophy to preserve and protect resources such as marine mammals, corals, essential fish habitats, air, water and of course historical and archaeological sites on the OCS. In addition, the SCAMP aids BOEM scientists in their work and studies to ensure that the two bureaus share information, ensuring the best management practices for these resources. SCAMP works out of the Gulf of Mexico office in New Orleans and responds nationally to preserve sites everywhere from the Arctic and the Pacific to the deep waters of the Gulf and Atlantic.

When it's possible the historical site is impacted, BSEE reviews each situation and confers with the operator. In instances of minimal impact, BSEE will issue an Incident of Non-Compliance and require an explanation of what happened and what corrective action is planned; including how the company will avoid causing these impacts again. In more extreme cases BSEE might launch an investigation, which may result in civil or criminal penalties. BSEE's main goal is to ensure that industry is in compliance with the environmental regulations and stipulations of the permits they receive to conduct their work on the federal OCS.

BSEE works with operators to ensure that protecting shipwrecks, archaeological sites and other natural resources do not become a deterrent to developing our nation's energy portfolio. Through coordination and science-based compliance, BSEE ensures responsible underwater development to not only our natural resources, but also our nation's submerged cultural heritage.

Underwater photo of BSEE diver Chris Horell and the American flag.

By: Dan Wright, BSEE Public Affairs

July 18, 2013

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