Sonar training can coexist with laws to protect marine life
The Supreme Court will decide whether the administration can blunt laws that protect marine mammals from sonar.
THE Navy's application for a new permit for sonar training exercises in Hawaii waters could be the last time it will need to go through the process, depending on a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Should the court agree with the Bush administration's assertion that it has the authority to override laws that protect the environment and marine mammals, the Navy would no longer be required to seek the permits designed to minimize harm to ocean species.
The court is not expected to focus on a continuing dispute between the Navy and environmental organizations about the level of injury sonar causes to marine mammals.
Instead, justices will decide whether the administration, with the support of the military, can set aside enforcement of well-established law. The administration argues that protective conditions put in place by federal courts jeopardize "the Navy's ability to train sailors and marines for wartime deployment."
The claim is belied by the fact that the Navy has been able to conduct training while mitigating harm.
The case involves naval exercises off the Southern California coast in which a federal judge restricted mid-frequency sonar use and required it to be shut down when a marine mammal is sighted within 6,600 feet. In a similar ruling in Hawaii, federal Judge David Ezra established several guidelines, putting the range at 5,000 feet. The different requirements have frustrated the Navy, but they are due to variations in coastal waters and marine mammal populations.
While the California case was proceeding through the appeals court, President Bush exempted the Navy from the Coastal Zone Management Act. At the same time, an executive branch agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, granted an exemption of the National Environmental Policy Act, claiming an emergency situation. The Defense Department had previously claimed an exception for "military readiness activity," as allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Through these laws, environmental groups have been successful in establishing restrictions, showing evidence that sonar soundings have injured or led to the deaths of whales. Navy studies have shown probable harm, disturbance or death to 175,000 marine mammals. The Navy also says only 37 whales have died from sonar since 1996, but doesn't mean that others haven't been killed without their carcasses being found.
The administration's crafty argument, however, is aimed at defining the scope of executive authority, which might be a gamble because the court has not been sympathetic to Bush's attempts to stretch presidential power.
A ruling will have implications in Hawaii, where the Navy's permit for sonar exercises will expire in January. Until the court's decision in its next term, the public has an opportunity to weigh in with the argument that training can be conducted effectively while reducing the risk of harm to animals in the sea.