SAN FRANCISCO - The Bush administration jumped into a long-running legal fray in California on Tuesday, exempting the Navy from a law that environmental groups have used to prevent the use of a type of powerful sonar that is believed to harm
The waiver exempts the Navy from the Coastal Zone Management Act, which allows states a voice in federal activities along their shores. The law had been cited in early January by a federal district judge who issued an injunction against the Navy, stopping it from using the midfrequency sonar in exercises off the Southern Californian coast because of concerns about its effect on certain species of whales.
But on Tuesday, the White House announced that such sonar exercises, used to track enemy submarines, were "essential to national security."
Compliance with the law, the memorandum concluded, "would undermine the Navy's ability to conduct realistic training exercises that are necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups."
The exemption sent Navy lawyers to the federal appellate court in San Francisco on Tuesday to seek an emergency stay of the district court injunction. Environmental lawyers were also scrambling to respond to the White House action, which they said was unprecedented.
Late Wednesday, in the latest volley in the legal battle, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sent the case back to the district court.
That action brought some relief to environmentalists, who have found a sympathetic ear at that level before. But it did little to ease the anger at the White House's actions.
"It is extreme and it's disappointing, but it's not unexpected because the political leadership at the head of the Navy and indeed at the White House is not friendly to the environment, and that's no secret," said Joel Reynolds, a senior lawyer and head of marine mammal protection for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has led the legal fight against the sonar's use.
Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said that the action was "in full compliance with the law and contains stringent and effective requirements by the Navy to avoid potential harm to whales."
The White House decision also brought a sharp rebuke from California officials and politicians, including Senator Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. "This Bush administration action will send this case right back into court, where more taxpayer dollars will be wasted defending a misguided decision," Ms. Boxer, a Democrat, said in a statement.
The sonar in question generates underwater sound using extreme pressure, something marine biologists say can disorient and injure animals, resulting in bleeding, disruption of mating and feeding, and in some cases, death.
But the Navy says that the sonar is necessary to track a new breed of more silent-running submarines, and that its mitigation methods are enough to protect animals from the sonic wake.
The Navy hailed Tuesday's developments, saying that the waters off Southern California were particularly well-suited for war games, both because of the water's depth and its nearness to airfields and other military infrastructure.
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