June 23, 2008

Navy Appeals Supreme Court Ruling Over Sonar Use In California

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal on a Bush Administration ruling that restricted the Navy's use of sonar off the southern California coast. Environmental groups said the training exercises could harm endangered whales and other marine mammals.

A ruling by a U.S. appeals court that upheld a federal judge's order requiring the Navy to take various precautions during the sonar training to minimize harm to dozens of species of whales and dolphins will be reviewed by the justices.

The appeals court ruled for environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council and rejected White House efforts to exempt the Navy from laws intended to protect marine mammals off the California coast.

A preliminary injunction was issued by a federal judge barring the Navy's use of powerful submarine-hunting mid-frequency active radar within 12 miles of the coast. The injunction would protect a strip of water that is the habitat for the marine mammals.

Other restrictions imposed by the injunction included a requirement that the Navy stop using sonar when marine mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards and to reduce sonar decibel levels under certain ocean conditions.

The Bush administration intervened, citing the national security necessity of Navy training off the California coast, and exempted the Navy from the environmental laws at the heart of the legal challenge.

Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Marine Mammal program, said his group already has begun to prepare for Supreme Court review.

"It's clear that high intensity military sonar can injure and kill whales, dolphins, and other marine life and that the Navy can reduce the risk of this harm by common sense safeguards without compromising our military readiness," he said.

Reynolds said they would respond "vigorously" to the Navy's appeal.

In a separate action, the White House's Council on Environmental Quality waived Navy compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act by approving alternate guidelines for sonar use along the California coast.

In February, a federal judge rejected the White House's arguments, and the three-judge panel of the appeals court later agreed in upholding the injunction.

The administration appealed the Supreme Court ruling, saying the injunction "jeopardizes the Navy's ability to train sailors and Marines for wartime deployment."

"The decision poses substantial harm to national security and improperly overrides the collective judgments of the political branches and the nation's top naval officers regarding the overriding public interest in a properly trained Navy," the administration said.

Beginning in October, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case.


On the Net:

U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Navy

Natural Resources Defense Council

Protecting Whales from Dangerous Sonar