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Defense Grants Navy Ability to Use Sonar Despite Lawsuit

July 01, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — To trump a lawsuit by environmentalists who say the Navy's use of sonar will harm whales, the Department of Defense on Friday invoked a national security clause that exempts the military from laws protecting marine mammals.

"The Navy will continue to employ stringent mitigation measures to protect marine mammals during sonar activities," said Rear Adm. James Symonds, the Navy's director of environmental readiness.

At issue is a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Los Angeles federal court by the Natural Resources Defense Council that seeks to block use of the sonar, saying whales will be hurt by the sonar training used in the biennial Rim of the Pacific training off the Hawaiian Islands.

"Whales and other marine mammals shouldn't have to die for practice," Natural Resources Defense Council official Joel Reynolds said in a statement Friday after the military exercised its exemption. "The Navy has more than enough room in the oceans to train effectively without injuring or killing endangered whales and other species."

The National Marine Fisheries Service on Tuesday issued an "incidental harassment" permit to the Navy for its use of sonar during the training.

To receive the permit, the Navy promised measures meant to safeguard whales, including posting spotters and establishing "safety zones" where ships will not use sonar.

The Navy had sought the permit amid a controversy about the 2004 RIMPAC exercise in which 150 melon-headed whales apparently spooked by the sonar fled to a shallow bay off Kauai. A federal investigation found that the sonar was the likely cause for the whales' unusual behavior.

A national security exemption was authorized by Congress in 2004. The Defense Department granted the Navy a six-month exemption, during which time it is not bound by requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The RIMPAC exercise involves the naval forces of the U.S., Britain and six Pacific Rim nations. Forty ships, six submarines and 19,000 military personnel are involved. The sonar exercises, set to begin next week, involve tests of whether quiet, diesel-powered submarines like those used by Iran, China and North Korea can be detected.

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