A federal judge in Los Angeles on Monday rejected the Bush administration's attempt to exempt Navy sonar training from key environmental laws, saying that there's no real emergency to justify overruling court-ordered protections for whales and dolphins.
U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper also suggested that President Bush's effort to maneuver around an earlier federal court order was "constitutionally suspect," although she made no ruling on that issue.
The 36-page order means the Navy will have to follow Cooper's previous injunction forbidding the use of powerful submarine-detecting sonar in areas where whales are abundant, such as within 12 nautical miles of the coast and between Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands.
That January order also will require the Navy to shut down sonar when whales or other marine mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards of vessels or under certain sea conditions that allow the sonic blasts to travel farther than usual. This type of sonar has been linked to mass deaths of whales in the Bahamas, the Canary Islands and elsewhere, although never off Southern California.
"We are aware of the ruling and reviewing it," said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Navy spokesman. He declined to say whether the Navy would appeal.
Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission, said the federal courts have supported the panel's assertion that the Navy can implement needed safeguards for marine mammals without compromising its training missions.
"I don't know what it's going to take for the Navy to get it," Douglas said. "The courts have said over and over that the Navy must follow the law."
The Navy maintains that the lives of its sailors depend on being properly trained to detect vessels operated by China, Iran, North Korea and other potentially hostile nations.
"The Navy's current 'emergency' is simply a creature of its own making, i.e., its failure to prepare adequate environmental documentation in a timely fashion," Cooper wrote.
Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, applauded the ruling.
"It properly rejected the president's attempted end run around the will of Congress and an order of the federal court," he said. "The court confirms that we don't have an imperial presidency in this country."
© 2008 The Los Angeles Times