Facebook Proposes Undersea Cable Landing in Tierra del Mar

Tierra del Mar Aerial Photo. Courtesy Ed Ruttledge.

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 means, in practice, up to six months of continuous, very loud, drilling, with industrial machinery less than fifty feet from existing homes, and more “if contingency measures are required” – in other words, if there is a frac-out.

Edge Cable needs a conditional use permit for this proposal from Tillamook County. Though TDM is zoned for rural residential use, highly industrial projects like this one are allowed with a conditional use permit, which both ORCA and the neighbors find very disturbing. The purpose of Oregon’s land use system is to segregate uses that do not belong together, and surely this industrial cable project is an activity that does 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.” The hearings for the Tillamook County permit will begin in late August 2019.

This cable project would most definitely substantially impair the regular uses – especially as Edge Cable has stated they plan to add new cable as need or opportunity arises. Other landing sites have often had 4-5 additional instances of drilling. This brings up the larger question of whether the project fits the policies of the Tillamook County Comprehensive Plan. This is an unresolved question.

The Edge Cable project needs several permits. 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, if and when it becomes necessary

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. OPRD pointed out that there was no “adequate justification” for the speculative permit, nor benefit to the public, but found there was justification for approving installation of the Jupiter system. Why? To help meet the demand for internet services worldwide. The OPRD decision led to three separate appeals, from TDM residents and from ORCA. The proceedings will likely begin in September 2019.

ORCA opposes this project for several reasons. First, an increase in Facebook’s capacity to Asia is likely to benefit the citizens of Tillamook County very little, if at all, and only indirectly. 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, will guarantee that similar disruptions of coastal neighborhoods for submarine cable installations will happen in future, anywhere the companies can get approval from compliant county 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 clearly needs examination and revision.

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