Coastal agency goes after Navy for high-powered sonar use

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Posted by on March 22, 2007 at 18:23:30:

The California Coastal Commission today filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy for rejecting its recommendations for additional safeguards to protect whales and other marine mammals from high-power sonar used by ships in training exercises planned for Southern California waters.

The lawsuit, and a separate suit filed today by environmental and animal welfare groups, sets up a legal battle in federal court in Los Angeles that pits the state's right to enforce environmental protections against the U.S. Navy's contention that it can be exempted from environmental rules in the interests of national security.

The issue has surfaced because of increasing scientific evidence linking the powerful sonar to panicked behavior and even mass die-offs of whales and dolphins in the Bahamas, the Canary Islands and elsewhere after naval exercises.

Although the Navy has been conducting exercises for 30 years in Southern California waters, the Navy sought the Coastal Commission's blessing for exercises as part of internal guidelines to ensure that major training exercises meet all environmental requirements.

The commission in January decided not to challenge the war games, but set a dozen additional conditions, such as avoiding high concentrations of whales and turning down the volume at night when whales cannot be easily spotted. The commission has some authority under the Coastal Zone Management Act, a federal law ensures that federal activities don't violate state environmental programs.

But last month the Navy rejected the additional safeguards, saying that the commission has no authority to tell it what to do. Furthermore, it said its sailors already take sufficient precautions to protect marine mammals, such as posting lookouts on deck and powering down sonar when whales or dolphins venture too close.

The training exercises have also been the target of lawsuits by the Natural Resources Defense Council, including the suit filed today. The NRDC, in that lawsuit, was joined by the International Fund for Animals Welfare, the Cetacean Society International, the League for Coastal Protection and the Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society.

The Pentagon has responded, in part, by granting the Navy training exercises a two-year exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, saying it needs more time to work out safeguards. Earlier this week, it refused to disclose in court the location and time of the planned exercises, saying it needed to avoid disclosing classified or sensitive national security information.

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