Bush adds more fuel to legal fires over sonar training drills
The president has exempted the Navy from two major environmental laws in an effort to relieve it from rulings limiting the exercises.
IF President Bush thought his exemption of Navy sonar drills from environmental laws would shut down legal challenges, he was wrong. The broad-stroke exemption raises further issues for lawsuits and imposes questionable executive authority over the federal courts. Moreover, the exemption cut off an avenue for compromise that could have accommodated both training and protection of whales and other marine mammals, many of them endangered species.
Bush earlier this week brushed aside judicial rulings, issuing a directive aimed at nullifying court decisions that required some limits on sonar training in waters off Southern California.
The exemption attempts to release the Navy from complying with the Coastal Zone Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, two laws under which an environmental group and a California agency brought suit. But though the first has provisions to allow exemptions of certain federal activities, the second does not give the administration distinctive authority.
While Bush's order forced a federal judge to set aside some restrictions on the range of sonar activity, which were put in place to protect marine mammals, the Navy still will have to convince the courts that his exemptions are legal, prolonging the legal battles that he hoped to eliminate.
In Hawaii, Earthjustice, on behalf of several environmental groups, has a similar suit pending before U.S. District Judge David Ezra, seeking to require the Navy to take steps to lessen harm to marine mammals. In addition to the two laws cited in the California case, the Hawaii groups also seek appropriate consideration under the endangered species and marine sanctuary acts.
Bush's override of the environmental policy law is based on what he claims is an emergency, but this foundation might be the exemption's undoing. First, the Navy's sonar-training exercises are conducted as a matter of routine and could continue despite the restrictions. In addition, through the nearly year-long court battle, the Navy never raised the issue of urgency or the threat to national security, as Bush balefully warned.
The Navy's own studies showed that the sonar soundings in coastal waters, the natural environment for large populations of marine mammals, would cause widespread injury and death. The Navy has been willing to minimize the harmful effects of training, though it is often legal challenges that prompted mitigating measures. The exemption attempts to eliminate reasoned opposition to government activities, arguably an even greater threat to the nation's security.
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