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Judge sets aside some restrictions on sonar

January 18, 2008|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge in Los Angeles on Thursday temporarily set aside some of the tough restrictions on upcoming naval exercises off Southern California that employ a type of sonar linked to the injury and death of whales and dolphins.

The decision by Judge Florence-Marie Cooper defers to President Bush, who moved earlier this week to exempt the Navy's exercises from environmental laws that formed the basis for a long-running court case between the Pentagon and environmentalists.

But Cooper granted only two concessions to Bush and the Navy, signaling that she will consider arguments next week from conservation groups that are urging her to hold her ground on more stringent safeguards.

"We are pleased," said Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Navy spokesman. "This ruling means that the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group will be able to start the exercise next week without two restrictions that threatened the realism of our training."

The Navy says it must train personnel to detect quiet diesel-powered submarines that are deployed in global hot spots such as the Persian Gulf.

Although lawyers for the Navy have vigorously protested nearly all of Cooper's safeguards, they asked her to temporarily set aside the two they considered the most intrusive: requirements to shut down sonar if a marine mammal ventures within 2,200 yards of a sonar device, and to reduce sonar power under certain sea conditions that allow powerful sonar blasts to travel farther than normal.

After months of inquiry, a visit to Navy ships and analysis of scientific literature, Cooper ruled Jan. 3 that these and other measures were needed to safeguard whales from the potentially debilitating effect of the powerful sound waves.

Under her order issued Thursday, the Navy will have to comply with other safeguards, such as staying away from the waters between Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands as well as those within 12 nautical miles of the coast. These are areas known for their abundance of marine mammals.

To comply with the order, the Navy will also have to step up its surveillance for whales before and during exercises, deploying specially trained spotters aboard ships and aircraft.

It will have to reduce power when marine mammals are spotted within about 1,000 yards and shut down if the mammals come within about 200 yards.

Meanwhile, conservation groups began working on legal arguments they hope will convince the judge that Bush has not followed the law in waiving environmental law on the grounds of national security and an urgent need to train sailors.

"We remain optimistic that we will prevail in opposing the waivers," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's an abuse of the term 'emergency' and flatly inconsistent with the National Environmental Policy Act."

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ken.weiss@latimes.com

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