Monday, May 21, 2001

Feds still open
to questions on
Navy sonar

The coment period has been
extended through May 31
on the controversial system

Star-Bulletin staff

It's not too late to comment on Navy plans to use a controversial new sonar system.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has extended until May 31 a comment period on whether it should issue a permit for the sonar system.

The agency is poised to issue the Navy a permit to "take" -- meaning kill or injure -- a limited amount of sea creatures as a side effect of its new surveillance towed array sensor system low-frequency active (SURTASS LFA) sonar.

Under the Navy's proposal, up to four ships deployed over the world's oceans would detect enemy submarines by emitting low-frequency sounds up to about 215 decibels -- a sound equal to or louder than a jet engine.

Opponents of the system say its effects on whales and other marine life will, at minimum, cause the mammals to be disoriented and confused and could cause severe injury or death.

The Maui County Council passed a resolution Friday opposing the sonar.

The resolution, introduced by Councilwoman Jo Anne Johnson, said the sound could cause an indefinite number of marine-mammal casualties. It asked the fisheries service to hold public hearings about the project in Maui County.

Much of testimony at an April 28 hearing in Honolulu was against allowing the Navy to use the sonar. Other hearings were held in Los Angeles and Silver Springs, Md.

The number of written comments has not been counted yet, but "this has been a big one," said Donna Wieting, chief of the Marine Mammal Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources for NMFS.

Most of the comments are "a form-letter type of thing," but some ask extensive questions, she said.

The fisheries service is required to take any substantive questions into consideration as it decides whether to issue a permit, Wieting said. Responses to issues raised should be included in the final decision, she said.

Wieting said her division will probably take at least a month to sort through comments, then "we'll make a recommendation, and it will have to go up through a number of layers of clearance" in the fisheries service and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"There will be notice of the final rule in the Federal Register and a public notification plan," she said.

Though additional hearings on the matter were requested by some -- including U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink (D-rural Honolulu and neighbor islands) -- none are planned, Wieting said.

Those wishing to comment may send their testimony to Donna Wieting, Chief, Marine Mammal Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring, MD 20910-3226.

Comments must be postmarked no later than May 31. Comments submitted via e-mail will not be accepted.

For further information, contact Kenneth R. Hollingshead, NMFS, (301) 713-2055, ext. 128.

E-mail to City Desk

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