WASHINGTON - The US Supreme Court began hearing arguments
Wednesday into whether national security trumps the well-being of
whales off the coast of California.
At issue is whether President
George W. Bush has the constitutional power to exempt the US Navy from
environmental laws that curb the use of long-range sonar in the North
Pacific Ocean that could bring harm to whales.
The navy uses just
such sonar off California -- operating on a frequency that can
disorient whales and provoke their beaching or death -- to look out for
hostile submarines lurking beneath the Pacific.
Driving the case
is the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a Washington-based
environmental action group that claims 1.2 million members.
case is about achieving environmental protection while maintaining our
important national security standards," Jeffrey Flocken, Washington
director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in an NRDC
"It does not need to be an either-or scenario when it
comes to ensuring our waters are protected and our marine wildlife is
The case has its origins in a US federal court ruling
in January this year that ordered the US Navy to take safety
precautions on the California coast inhabited by five species of
Saying that sonar caused, with "near
certainty," irreparable danger to the environment, it told the US Navy
to reduce the sonar frequency level and to turn it off altogether if a
marine mammal is detected within two kilometres (three miles).
personally responded a few days later by signing an exemption order,
arguing that sonar was vital for military preparedness exercises that
are in the "paramount interest of the United States".
pursued the case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San
Francisco, which in February upheld the federal court's decision --
prompting the Bush administration to petition the Supreme Court.
the nine Supreme Court justices Wednesday, government lawyer Gregory
Carre said the court of appeal's reasoning was "fundamentally flawed,"
not least because it failed to take the public interest into account.
acknowledged that a preliminary navy study found that sonar could
disorient 170,000 marine mammals, and leave 8,000 whales temporarily
deaf. But he defended the sonar level used by the navy as being well
below the danger level for marine life.
For its part, the NRDC
recognized the need to strike a balance between protecting whales and
detecting a hostile submarine. "A simple district judge making a
determination on that? A defense matter?" its lawyer told the court.
environmentalists nevertheless argued that, despite months of
out-of-court negotiations, the navy refuses to make any concessions
vis-a-vis the protection of marine life.
"NRDC's goal is to
encourage the military to use sonar responsibly, not to stop its use
altogether," the group said on its website.