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Navy gets 2-year exemption to sonar limits

January 24, 2007|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

The Department of Defense on Tuesday exempted the Navy's sub-hunting sonar from a federal law that protects marine mammals, saying it needs more time to work out safeguards for whales that can be injured by powerful sonic blasts.

The two-year exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act also renders moot one key portion of a federal lawsuit filed by environmentalists in 2005 in Los Angeles. That lawsuit aims to limit how and where the Navy uses midfrequency sonar during shipboard training exercises around the world.

Rear Adm. James A. Symonds acknowledged that in another legal battle with environmental groups last year the Navy had failed to show that its efforts to comply with federal laws protecting marine mammals had met the marine mammal act. A federal judge sided with the Natural Resources Defense Council, blocking the use of sonar until the Navy negotiated stronger protections for whales during its Rim of the Pacific war games off Hawaii.

So now, the admiral said, the Navy seeks a temporary exemption to the federal law so it can keep training sailors to detect quiet submarines, such as those in the naval forces of North Korea and China, while refining its approach to protecting marine mammals in training exercises.

Symonds, the Navy's director of environmental readiness, said the Navy wanted to establish standard procedures to minimize the risk to marine mammals on each of the Navy's oceanic training ranges off Southern California, Hawaii and the East Coast. That would be less cumbersome, he said, than to satisfy legal requirements for each planned naval training exercise.

In the meantime, Symonds said spotters aboard naval ships would watch for whales, reduce the power of sonar when marine mammals came within 1,000 yards of a ship and take other protective measures.

Such measures are inadequate, environmentalists said. They point to a growing body of scientific evidence linking the sonic waves to mass die-offs of whales and dolphins in the Bahamas, the Canary Islands and other sites after naval exercises.

Joel Reynolds, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he would continue to press the lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles, invoking other federal laws to force the Navy to reduce sonar power at night when whales are harder to see and to avoid coastal waters and other areas where whales and dolphins congregate.

The exemption from the marine mammal law, Reynolds said, "is a blatant admission by the U.S. Navy that its current operations violate protective standards for whales, dolphins and other marine life. It's not that the Navy cannot comply with the law. It's that the Navy chooses not to."


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