Associated Press – 2008-03-01 21:33:11
LOS ANGELES (March 01, 2008) — The Navy must abide by limits on its sonar training off the Southern California coast because the exercises could harm dozens of species of whales and dolphins, a federal appeals court ruled.
The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday night rejected the Navy’s appeal of restrictions that banned high-powered sonar within 12 miles of the coast and set other limits that could affect Navy training exercises to begin this month.
Also on Friday, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a similar ban for that state’s coastline.
In the California case, the three-member appellate panel let stand most of a lower court injunction that set the limits but did alter two restrictions that the Navy argued could harm the readiness of its ships for potential combat duty.
Conservation groups that had sued to block the Navy’s use of high-powered sonar said the decision was a victory for their side.
“The court is saying that neither the president nor the US Navy is above the law,” Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Saturday.
“The court found that the Navy must be environmentally responsible when training with high intensity sonar, and that doing so won’t interfere with military readiness,” he said.
The Navy said it may seek a review of the ruling.
Southern California’s coastal waters are home to dozens of species of whales and dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Nine species are federally listed as endangered or threatened.
In its ruling, the appellate court said the Navy has acknowledged that high-powered sonar may cause hearing loss and other injuries to marine mammals. The court said the Navy has estimated that its Southern California exercises would expose more than 500 beaked whales to harassment and would result in temporary hearing loss to thousands of marine mammals.
A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled in January that despite a waiver from President Bush, the Navy is not exempt from environmental laws. The judge issued a preliminary injunction that, in addition to the 12-mile ban, required the Navy to limit the decibel levels of its sonar under certain ocean conditions and to stop using it altogether when a marine mammals is detected within 2,200 yards of a sonar source.
The Navy said those restrictions would limit its ability to conduct anti-submarine warfare training and possibly prevent certification of some naval strike groups preparing to deploy to the Persian Gulf.
The appellate court upheld the preliminary injunction but issued a stay that altered the two disputed measures. The sound-level reductions during certain ocean conditions were staggered and tied to the proximity of a marine mammal.
The court also said the Navy can continue to use sonar – although at a lower sound level – when a marine mammal is within 2,200 yards if the sonar is being used “at a critical point in the exercise.”
The decision is good for 30 days to allow the Navy time to seek a review of the ruling.
The Navy was “heartened” by the decision because it “at least temporarily provides us some relief from the district court’s overbroad injunction,” spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Cindy Moore said Saturday.
However, the lower court ruling still places “significant restrictions on our ability to train realistically,” she said, and the Navy is considering asking for more review, possibly by the US Supreme Court.
“We’re a country engaged in two wars. When we send America’s sons and daughters into harm’s way, we must ensure they have the best possible training,” she said.
The Navy undertakes “extensive measures” to protect marine mammals during training, she added.
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