Sonar laws apply to Navy, judge rules
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A federal judge in Los Angeles ruled yesterday President Bush cannot exempt the Navy from environmental laws limiting sonar training that environmentalists argue is harmful to whales.
The case is similar to one filed last year by Hawaii environmentalists against the Navy.
The Navy is not "exempted from compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act" and a court injunction creating a 1- nautical-mile no-sonar zone off Southern California, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper said.
A spokesman said the White House disagreed with the ruling.
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LOS ANGELES » President Bush cannot exempt the Navy from environmental laws placing strict limits on sonar training that environmentalists argue is harmful to whales, a federal judge ruled yesterday.
The Navy is not "exempted from compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act" and a court injunction creating a 12 nautical-mile no-sonar zone off Southern California, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper wrote in a 36-page decision.
"We disagree with the judge's decision," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said. "We believe the orders are legal and appropriate."
A Navy spokeswoman at the Pentagon said last night the Navy may comment on the ruling after lawyers have reviewed it.
In Hawaii, environmentalists led by Earthjustice filed a similar suit against the Navy last year. The federal lawsuit seeks to compel the Navy to adopt steps that would protect marine mammals when sailors practice hunting submarines off Hawaii.
In the Southern California case, the president signed a waiver Jan. 15 exempting the Navy and its anti-submarine warfare exercises from the injunction. The Navy's attorneys argued in court last week that he was within his legal rights.
Environmentalists have been fighting the use of sonar in court, saying it is harmful to whales and other marine mammals.
"It's an excellent decision," said Joel Reynolds, attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is spearheading the legal fight. "It reinstates the proper balance between national security and environmental protection."
The Navy wrapped up a training exercise last week by the carrier strike group of the USS Abraham Lincoln in which sonar was used. There are currently no task force training exercises off the coast of California using sonar.
When he signed the exemption, Bush said that complying with the law would "undermine the Navy's ability to conduct realistic training exercises that are necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups."
"I've always felt that the president's actions were illegal in this case and the judge has affirmed that point of view with the decision today," said Reynolds.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco had been expected to rule on the future of the Navy exercises last month. But after Bush's decision, the appeals court sent the issue back to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to consider.
Associated Press Writer Chelsea J. Carter in San Diego and Star-Bulletin reporter Gregg K. Kakesako contributed to this report.