Published on Wednesday, August 27, 2003 by the Washington Post
Judge Stops Deployment of Navy Sonar
Use of Sub-Detecting System, Which Can Harm Sea Life, Will Be Limited
by Marc Kaufman
A California federal judge ruled yesterday that the Navy cannot deploy a powerful new sonar system to detect foreign submarines because it did not properly follow federal laws when determining whether the sonar could endanger whales and other ocean creatures.
The ruling was hailed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has fought the deployment since the mid-1990s. The group last year sued the National Marine Fisheries Service of the Commerce Department, which approved the Navy's sonar deployment.
"Today's ruling is a reprieve not just for whales, porpoises and fish, but ultimately for all of us who depend for our survival on healthy oceans," Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the council, said in a release. "It recognizes that during peacetime, even the military must comply with environmental laws, and it rejects the blank-check permit that would have allowed the Navy to operate [low-frequency] sonar virtually anywhere in the world."
In a statement, the Navy said that it is reviewing the decision, but initially that it is concerned "about the implications of this decision for national defense and the ability of the Navy to respond to current and future threats."
The Bush administration has been forceful in attacking environmental restrictions that it believes compromise national security and has proposals before Congress to weaken a number of them. Among the laws the administration would like to see curtailed is the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires particular measures to safeguard whales and porpoises and forbids acts that might harm them.
Environmentalists charge that the extremely loud, low-frequency sounds emitted by the new sonar can harm noise-sensitive marine animals -- causing behavior changes and even internal bleeding. Whales, dolphins and porpoises use sound to communicate over long distances, and use frequencies close to that of the low-frequency sonar.
A federal investigation concluded that a mass stranding of beaked whales in the Bahamas in 2000 was caused by mid-frequency active sonar being used by the Navy. In June, a dozen harbor porpoises were found dead off Washington state soon after the Navy tested active sonar nearby, and orca whales were seen changing direction erratically after the sonar sounded.
The law allows the sonar to be used during times of war or heightened threat, but the Navy has argued that it needs to test the system in peacetime.
In her ruling, Laporte concluded that it would be possible for the Navy to begin the testing legally in designated areas, but she prohibited use of the sonar near coastlines and in areas known to be home to migrating, breeding and feeding sea creatures. She said the marine fisheries agency had erred on such issues as determining how many animals might be harmed by the sonar, and by not being specific enough about where the sonar could be used.
"The court recognizes and respects the very important interests at stake on both sides of this case and . . . believes both can be safeguarded," Laporte wrote. "On the one hand, there can be no doubt that the public interest in military preparedness and protection against enemy submarine attacks through early detection is of grave importance. On the other hand, there can also be no doubt that the public interest in protecting the world's oceans and sea creatures that depend upon the oceanic environment to survive is also of the highest importance."
The low-frequency sonar emits sounds of up to 140 decibels -- as loud as a jet engine up close -- and can travel underwater for 300 miles. The Navy has already agreed to some restrictions on where and how the sonar can be used and has committed to monitoring the seas to determine whether marine animals are near ships using low-frequency sonar. But environmental groups say the Navy's proposed restrictions are inadequate.
The Navy says it spent $10 million studying the effects of the sonar on sea animals before deployment and will spend $6 million more this year on the research.
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