Environmental deal struck to allow Navy sonar for war games
A court settlement reached yesterday between environmental groups and the Navy means that the world's largest naval war games will go on as planned, with the 35 warships from the United States and seven Pacific Rim countries allowed to use active sonar.
Marine Mammal Safeguards
Other provisions of the agreement between the Navy and environmental groups include requiring:
» All Navy personnel using passive sonar techniques to monitor for marine mammals and report any detected.
» Aerial surveillance for marine mammals during sonar drills and sightings reported to a marine mammal response officer.
» The Navy to publicize the National Marine Fisheries Services hot line at 888-256-9840 for the public to report the date, time and location of any marine mammal incidents.
» The Navy to have marine mammal observers on every surface sonar vessel during all sonar drills, and to add an additional marine mammal observer during the three exercises occurring in channels between the islands.
On Monday the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations had won a federal temporary restraining order banning the use of active sonar because of the potential harm to whales and other marine mammals. That federal ruling placed a major crimp on one of the major reasons for Rim of the Pacific naval war games: anti-submarine warfare training.
Yesterday, a federal court in California approved a settlement that requires safeguards, including a 25-mile sonar-free buffer zone around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument recently created by President Bush, and significant increases in monitoring for marine mammals during sonar drills.
"This settlement confirms that measures to protect our oceans can and must be part of the Navy's training for submarine defense," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney at NRDC and director of its Marine Mammal Protection Project. "Military readiness does not require, and our laws do not allow, our natural resources to be sacrificed in the name of national defense."
The Navy said it could begin using the sonar as soon as this weekend. The sonar portion of the exercises is intended to train sailors to detect and hunt stealthy submarines.
"It is critically important that we have been able to turn active sonar on for the rest of the RIMPAC exercise," said Rear Adm. James Symonds, director of environmental readiness. "We want to ensure that the U.S. Navy and its partner navies get the benefit of this opportunity to train in anti-submarine warfare."
Vice Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the Navy's 3rd Fleet and the RIMPAC exercise, said not using sonar was like "training with one arm tied behind your back" and meant the exercises would not be as realistic as planned.
The Navy also has said that none of its war games, which began on Wednesday and will last through July 22, would have ventured into the marine national monument.
The legal skirmish was touched off a week ago when the Pentagon, in an effort to ensure the Navy's ability to use the sonar during the war games, granted the service an interim national security exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
But on Monday a federal district judge in Los Angeles, Florence-Marie Cooper, granted the environmental groups a temporary restraining order, declaring that the Navy's failure to look closely at the environmental effects of the sonar was an "arbitrary and capricious" violation of another federal statute, the National Environmental Policy Act.
The anti-submarine exercises will take place in the channel between Niihau and Kauai and Maui and the Big Island.
Some restrictions already applied to a permit the Navy was required to obtain from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Others, such as requiring sonar operators to report the detection of whales and marine mammals, are part of its standard operating procedures, the Navy said last week.
Under the first permit required in RIMPAC's 35-year-history, the Navy must conduct aerial surveys before any anti-submarine exercise, as well as station observers on shore to monitor "unusual and unique" activity by marine mammals during the exercise.
The Navy also is banned from using active sonar within a 14-mile area around the Hawaiian Islands beginning at a depth of 660 feet.
Before yesterday's settlement, the Navy was limited to using only passive sonar operations, in which operators listen for sounds in the water. Active sonar operations involve sending "pings" that bounce off undersea objects.
One of the first exercises this week will be using P-3 Orion subhunter aircraft and helicopters that drop sonar buoys that use active sonar to search for the subs.
The Hawaiian Islands are ideal to practice hunting for diesel subs, Navy leaders have said, because it is similar to areas where the quiet, more advanced diesel subs are operated by China, North Korea and Iran.
"That is where the fight will be in the future," said Costello, referring to the shallow coastal waters that are the favorite hunting grounds for diesel subs.
The Navy estimates there are more than 140 of these quiet diesel subs in the Pacific.
Two years ago more than 150 melon-headed whales were temporarily stranded in Hanalei Bay during a RIMPAC exercise. An April report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said naval sonar might have prompted the whales, normally found in deep water, to seek refuge in Hanalei Bay, but there was no conclusive proof.
The Associated Press and the New York Times News Service contributed to this report.