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Settlement Requires Navy to Reassess Sites for Explosives Tests

May 03, 1994|J. E. MITCHELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three days after a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against a Navy plan to detonate tons of explosives in an undersea area rich with marine life, the Navy and five environmental groups have settled their legal dispute over the tests, officials said Monday.

The settlement, approved Friday by U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson but not announced until Monday, requires that the Navy conduct at least eight days of new aerial surveys of the proposed testing area near the Channel Islands.

Results of the surveys will be compared to others taken 18 miles farther out to sea, an area environmental groups have recommended as a better site for the tests.

The Navy also must prepare a full environmental impact report on the proposed "ship-shock" testing--a federally mandated procedure to test crew survivability and the strength of warship hulls and electronics packages under battle conditions.

To simulate those conditions, the Navy wants to detonate as many as 270 underwater explosives near the ships over a five-year period, with individual charges weighing as much as 10,000 pounds. Navy officials have acknowledged that the tests may kill a small number of marine mammals and harass or injure hundreds of others, some of which are federally listed as endangered.

The settlement effectively puts the full testing program on hold for nine months to a year, as Navy officials prepare the environmental report.

The five environmental groups, led by the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the agreement a victory in their quest to stop or move the testing program.

"(This agreement) serves notice that even the military must respect and preserve our natural resources," said Joel R. Reynolds, a senior attorney for the council.

Save the Whales, the American Oceans Campaign, the Humane Society of the United States and Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay joined the council in a suit that led to the preliminary injunction.

The dispute has focused on whether the tests should be conducted farther offshore in deeper waters where the concentration of marine life is not as great.

As part of Friday's settlement, the Navy received permission to proceed by the end of June with one ship-shock test of the John Paul Jones, one of the Navy's new Aegis-class destroyers. A total of four 10,000-pound underwater detonations will be allowed under the terms of the settlement.

The Navy's testing area is approximately 20 miles southwest of Navy-owned San Nicolas Island and about 85 miles southwest of the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station in Ventura County.

Navy officials said they could live with the terms of the agreement negotiated late Friday.

"We are pleased that a suitable compromise was worked out," said Lt. Cmdr. Frank Thorp, a Navy surface fleet spokesman in San Diego. "What we are not pleased about is some of the characterizations that have labeled us as not caring about the marine environment. The truth is that we have gone to extraordinary lengths and costs to reduce the risks posed to marine mammals during these tests."

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