August 2, 2008

Navy May Do Away With Live Bomb Tests

By Anna Ferguson, The Brunswick News, Ga.

Aug. 2--The southern Georgia and northern Florida coastline could see fewer live bombs if an environmental safety document wins the approval of the U.S. Navy.

If the Jacksonville Range Complex Environmental Impact Statement gets the go-ahead from the Navy, live explosions would be replaced with non-explosive bombs.

That would be good news for boaters and marine life. It would equate to fewer disturbances on the water and less risk for endangered marine mammals such as the Atlantic right whale and spotted dolphin, both of which have had cases of deafness linked to the live explosion training exercises.

Public comments on the statement were made during a four-day public hearing tour that started in Charleston Monday and ended Thursday in Jacksonville.

Last year, the Navy dropped 60 live bombs off the coast for training exercises.

Live bombs would be replaced with more non-explosive, underwater bombs, taking that number from 560 to more than 800 a year.

Upon hearing news of the pending ordinance, the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources complied a list of recommendations and reactions to the measure.

"We understand the position the Navy is in, in order to meet its needs for fleet readiness," said Clay George, marine wildlife biologist with the DNR. "Without the Navy's funding, we would not be able to have the aerial survey system we are able to use.

"However, we have issues with this ordinance and the impacts it could have on right whales."

Of the numerous recommendations the DNR suggests, several deal with slower vessel speeds to avoid collisions with endangered right whales, which accounts as the No. 1 cause of whale mortality. The recommendation seeks to lower maximum speeds to just over 11 mph when vessels are in transit and not in training.

The DNR also is asking the Navy to consider not conducting bomb training exercises during right whale calving season, from Nov. 15 to April 15, and to update research it had previously conducted with NOAA regarding whale safety zones. The last whale survey conducted between the two groups was in 1997.

"We have learned a lot more about whales and calving since that time," George said. "More research between NOAA and the Navy would be a good idea to help protect these endangered mammals."

Strant Colwell, field supervisor at the Brunswick office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, said it might be too soon to comment on the measure. He did note, though, that he did not expect it would have any major impact on the animals covered by the agency.

"I don't really see any change for our species and what we cover," Colwell said.

The Jacksonville Range Complex is the principal training base for air, surface, and submarine units and plays host to activities for research, development, testing, and evaluation of emerging maritime and combat technologies, according the complex's Web site.

The public has until Aug, 11 to respond to the proposal.

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