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Environmental Group Sues U.S. Over Whale Deaths

Action seeks to shut down a seismic research project in Baja California funded by National Science Foundation.

October 19, 2002|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

Claiming that the federal government failed to gauge the ecological impact of its own experiments, an environmental organization filed a lawsuit Friday in an attempt to shut down a Baja California seismic research project recently blamed for the death of two beaked whales.

The Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson and Idyllwild, filed the 16-page complaint against the National Science Foundation, which is paying for the research, in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The environmental organization is hoping for a hearing Monday in front of U.S. Magistrate James Larson, and will seek a temporary restraining order to stop the research project, said Brendan Cummings, an attorney at the center.

"We want to move fast, because this is ongoing right now," Cummings said.

Curt Suplee, a National Science Foundation spokesman, said his agency cannot discuss litigation. Earlier this week, before the lawsuit was filed, he and several others said there is no direct evidence that the whales died because of the research project.

A group of marine scientists revealed this week that they recently discovered two dead beaked whales on the shore of Isla San Jose, an island north of La Paz off the southeast tip of Baja California. The whales were discovered by scientists vacationing nearby.

The scientists used their radio to call a nearby vessel for help. That vessel was the 239-foot research boat Maurice Ewing, operated by Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The vessel was attempting to map a long-developing shift in the Earth's crust through a $1.6-million National Science Foundation grant.

The research calls for the vessel to fire powerful air guns into the seabed. The scientists who found the whales blame the operation for the death of the whales.

The whales are similar to those found dead recently after controversial military exercises in the Bahamas and the Canary Islands. A preliminary analysis of the most recent group of dead whales, which turned up off northwest Africa, indicated that high-intensity sonar caused ear and brain trauma -- and the environmental organizations say the Maurice Ewing's operations caused the same sort of injuries to the whales discovered in Baja.

The Bush administration has attempted to exempt a series of sea-bound operations, including tests of new Navy sonar systems that could affect whales, from environmental review. A federal judge recently rejected those efforts.

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, Cummings said, largely because the laws that apply in the case can be used only to hold federal agencies accountable.

The lawsuit says the research project is operating in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the government to analyze any program that could have significant ecological impact, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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