Navy can use controversial sonar
The service is exempt from a law protecting whales and dolphins
The Defense Department yesterday exempted the Navy from complying with the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the next two years so sailors may practice tracking submarines with sonar.
Environmentalists swiftly denounced the move, saying the Navy wasn't doing enough to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals from the harmful effects of the underwater sound technology.
Navy officials said they need the exemption, allowed for under the 2004 National Defense Authorization Act, to give them enough time to conduct environmental impact reviews for sonar use at major underwater training ranges.
The studies required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act will take about two years to complete, Navy officials said.
The ranges are located off Hawaii, Southern California and the East Coast.
"We cannot stop training for the next two years," Don Schregardus, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for the environment, told reporters. "That would put our sailors in the Navy at considerable risk."
Sailors use active sonar by pumping sound waves through the ocean and listening to the echo as it bounces off underwater objects. Navy leaders have made practicing sonar techniques a top priority as other nations have bought more advanced diesel submarines, which are quieter than earlier models and harder to find by listening passively to underwater sounds.
But environmentalists say sonar can harm whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. They cite incidents of marine mammals that have died or been stranded en masse on beaches after being exposed to sonar.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which is suing the Navy in an attempt to force it to adopt more aggressive protection measures for marine mammals, criticized the exemption.
"The Navy has more than enough room in the oceans to train effectively without injuring or killing endangered whales and other marine species," said Joel Reynolds, the organization's senior attorney. "Because the Navy trains with this dangerous technology in some of the richest underwater habitat on earth, it is legally obligated to take simple, common-sense steps to protect marine life."
Navy officials said they're claiming a two-year exemption because a federal judge in California ruled last year that the Navy needed to do more detailed analysis of the effect its sonar training would have on the environment.
Last year, the Navy sought permission from the National Marine Fisheries Service to practice with sonar off Hawaii after an analysis that took about six to seven months to complete.
The fisheries service provided the permits, only to have the judge say the Navy's training off Hawaii might "kill, injure and disturb many marine species."
"The courts have ruled we probably will need to do the full analysis," Schregardus said. "Our first goal is to comply with the law and get the permits we need under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as we found ... this is pretty much our only recourse."
Navy officials first claimed a national defense exemption for sonar last July for six months but decided this year it needed more time to do the environmental studies.
The Navy says the new exemption will allow sailors to go ahead with 40 separate exercises over the next two years.
The exemption also allows the Navy to use what the Pentagon called "a new sensor that uses small explosive charges." The device is dropped from airplanes into the ocean, where it releases sounds to try to track underwater objects. The sensor enables sailors to search wider areas of the ocean because it is released by plane and is not mounted on ships like many other sonar devices.
Cara Horowitz, another lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there were many common-sense measures the Navy could adopt immediately to protect marine mammals and that there's no reason for the Navy to delay.
She said the Navy could adopt a larger safety zone around its ships, reduce the power of sonar at night when marine mammals are harder to see and thus protect, and avoid training in rich marine mammal habitats.
The Navy has argued there isn't enough scientific evidence to mandate all the measures the council and other groups are demanding.
Horowitz said the council would continue to pursue its lawsuits against Navy sonar.