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Ruling Ends Ban but Limits Tests of New Sonar

November 16, 2002|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge on Friday lifted a worldwide ban on the U.S. Navy's powerful new sonar, allowing tests for the submarine detection system in areas of the western Pacific that have fewer whales.

U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth D. LaPorte in San Francisco signed a temporary agreement between Navy and environmental lawyers that permits limited tests until the court resolves a federal lawsuit. The suit claims insufficient restrictions were placed on the sonar system to avoid harassing or killing whales.

The area approved for testing is in deep waters of the western Pacific, east and south of Japan, stretching south to the Philippines. This large area avoids migration routes of whales, as well as their breeding and feeding areas, marine scientists concluded. The area excludes a narrow strip--roughly 70 miles wide--placed off-limits to protect sea life around the Mariana Islands.

"This is an indication of the environmental community and military negotiating an agreement that serves all interests," said Joel Reynolds, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a clear indication that environmental protection and national security are not necessarily at odds."

Maureen Rudolph, a Justice Department attorney representing the Navy, declined comment other than saying that Navy tests and training missions with the new sonar can continue across "a fairly large area."

The Navy had planned to cover about 14 million miles of the North Pacific with low-frequency active sonar, called the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System, between now and mid-August. The Navy has developed the system to protect warships against super-quiet diesel submarines, owned by Russia and other nations.

But last month LaPorte blocked Navy plans, ruling that the deafening sounds could cause irreparable harm to whales and other marine mammals with sensitive hearing.

She sided with environmentalists who have grown increasingly concerned about the impact of military sonar, which has been blamed for the mass die-off of whales in the Bahamas and the Canary Islands.

Intense bursts of sound, scientists have discovered, can tear apart delicate air-filled tissues in the ears and brains of whales. The mammals suffer from internal bleeding and then wash ashore dead, necropsies show.

The Navy points out that its low-frequency sonar has never been implicated in these mass strandings. Instead, Navy officials acknowledge, a different, mid-frequency sonar system was to blame. That system does not have the extended reach of the low-frequency system.

Trying to balance environmental concerns with national security, LaPorte approved a temporary injunction sought by environmentalists, but she also ordered both sides to work out acceptable places where the Navy could use the sonar in readiness training for antisubmarine warfare.

Lawyers and scientists met repeatedly during the last two weeks behind closed doors to identify areas that would minimize encounters with blue and gray whales, humpbacks, sperm whales and other types that migrate along the coasts or crisscross the Pacific.

Environmentalists were particularly concerned with Navy plans to operate in whale-abundant waters of the China Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk near Kamchatka and the Sea of Japan.

All of those areas were excluded, as was all of the eastern Pacific, including waters around Hawaii and off the coast of California and Mexico. The agreement left portions of deep "blue" ocean, which generally lack the upwelling of plankton that attract fish and marine mammals.

"The Navy wanted 14 million square miles, an area four times the size of the United States," Reynolds said. "Since they were talking about testing and training, we thought this could be done in a more focused area."

The smaller area designated, he said, "minimizes exposure of a long list of endangered and depleted species."

Ultimately, the Navy wants to comb 75% of the world's oceans with low-frequency active sonar that can "light up" enemy submarines with acoustics, much the way a floodlight can illuminate an intruder in a darkened backyard.

The shipboard system consists of an array of 18 speakers capable of releasing 215-decibel bursts of low-frequency waves that can travel hundreds of miles before dissipating.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in July decided that the sonar would have "negligible impact" on any marine species so long as it operated at least 12 miles from shore and was immediately turned off if sailors spotted any whales.

In permitting the sonar, the fisheries service granted the Navy an exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act to harass or injure up to 12% of any species of whales, dolphins or other protected marine mammals.

Environmentalists filed suit, claiming that the permit violated a number of federal laws.

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