Facebook in Tierra del Mar: The Undersea Cable and The Disaster

Facebook/Edge Cable Drilling Site Aerial February 3, 2021

Edge Cable, a fully-owned subsidiary of Facebook, quietly purchased a vacant lot in the unincorporated community of Tierra del Mar in October 2018. About a month later the residents suddenly learned about its proposal to install a high-speed fiber-optic cable system (the Jupiter cable project) capable of providing a large capacity direct link between the U.S. and Japan and the Philippines. The cable would “land” at the vacant lot in TDM. But the submarine cable would require a half-mile of hydraulic drilling, five miles of seafloor trenching and laying cable across the Pacific Ocean, which requires the stationing of massive equipment at the landing site. This includes machinery (such as a huge mud-recycling unit) on the tiny residential lot, necessary to complete the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) for the cable, better known as fracking. This meant, in practice, many weeks of continuous, very loud, drilling, with industrial machinery less than fifty feet from existing homes.

Edge Cable needed a conditional use permit for this proposal from Tillamook County. TDM is zoned for rural residential use, but highly industrial projects like this one are allowed with a conditional use permit, though the purpose of Oregon’s land use system is to segregate uses that do not belong together. Surely this industrial cable project was an activity that did not belong in a rural residential community that lacks even a fire hydrant or a store, and has no cell phone service. A conditional use application is reviewed by several criteria, most pertinently, “The proposed use will not alter the character of the surrounding area in a manner which substantially limits, impairs or prevents the use of surrounding properties for the permitted uses in the underlying zone.” But after extensive hearings before the planning commission and the Board of Commissioners, the BOC granted Edge Cable’s conditional use permit, Commissioner Mary Faith Bell dissenting.

The Department of State Lands granted the necessary easement permits upon application. Edge Cable also applied to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) for two ocean shore permits, in order to drill under the beach to lay cables from TDM into the sea. Edge wanted one permit for this Jupiter Cable project, and a second permit for a 5-inch conduit to accommodate future installation of another fiber-optic cable later. OPRD approved the Jupiter permit, but denied the request for a permit to punch through the beach for a cable at some indeterminate future time merely for speculative purposes. The OPRD decision led to three separate appeals, from TDM residents and from ORCA. But the OPRD decision was affirmed.

All the permits in place, Edge Cable’s subcontractor began drilling in February 2020. Then came the disaster: the company notified Tillamook County that there had been a “drilling accident” on April 28; they stopped all work, and proposed to return in January 2021 to complete the project! It was not until June 17 (some five weeks later) that the Oregon Department of State Lands learned the truth. The drilling accident resulted in Edge Cable leaving a large heap of abandoned equipment sixty feet under the seafloor, including the drill bit, more than a thousand feet of pipe, and at least 6,500 gallons of drilling fluid. Facebook/Edge has never explained why they failed to notify the state of the abandoned equipment for nearly two months.

Incredibly, the Parks Department and Department of State Lands allowed Facebook to try again in January 2021. Parks required a Hazards Report of the company, which, predictably, recommended leaving the abandoned equipment in place under the seafloor. DSL and Edge Cable amended the easement in September 2020. Facebook/Edge agreed to pay DSL a minimal fine of $250,000, and the surety bond was increased to $100,000 — a grossly irrelevant amount should the state need to clean up an accident. DSL now requires Facebook to actually report an accident, and have a “Drill Break Response Plan” in place, which should have been a part of the initial easement. Worst of all, Facebook/Edge applied to DSL for an “encroachment easement,” to leave the abandoned equipment under the seafloor in perpetuity.

In January 2021 Facebook, thanks to state agencies and Tillamook County, massed its equipment again in Tierra del Mar for a second try at laying the submarine cable. Almost immediately the contractors rain into trouble: in late January they reported a frac-out – that is, a release of drilling mud back into the hole they were drilling. Facebook said the release was “only” fifty gallons, but the machinery was pumping at 207 gallons per minute, leading to suspicion that the release was much greater, but perhaps stayed underground or entered the aquifer. The contractors continue to struggle with healing the fracture that caused the breach, using yet more heavy equipment and disrupting the coastal ecology as well as the residents of Tierra del Mar.

ORCA continues to oppose this project. First, an increase in Facebook’s capacity to Asia is likely to benefit the citizens of Tillamook County not at all. Second, Facebook should not be allowed a permit to conduct an industrial-type project in a residential area; this is exactly the kind of mismatch in use the Oregon land use system was designed to prevent. Third, the project, by purchasing a private lot for the landing site, guarantees that similar disruptions of coastal neighborhoods for submarine cable installations will happen in future, anywhere the companies can get approval from compliant county or city governments. Fourth, submarine cable placements have received very little scrutiny in Oregon, neither in the Territorial Sea Plan nor local planning processes; the current strategy of uncritical welcome is clearly a danger to Oregon’s precious marine resources. Especially now that we have a heap of abandoned drilling equipment entombed under the seafloor, forever, off the coast of Tierra del Mar.