Achieving fair balance
-- one step at a time
In the coming months, Congress will decide on a number of small but important changes to our country's environmental laws. The intent of these changes is to improve the balance between conducting vital Navy training operations and compliance with environmental standards.
Contrary to statements by some environmental lobbyists, the Navy does not want to weaken the laws that protect our maritime environments. On the contrary, the proposed changes will clarify ambiguous language in the laws, and in so doing help the Navy to conduct its training operations more effectively while remaining a steward of the maritime environment.
As a case in point, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is up for reauthorization before the House, contains language that is so broadly open to interpretation that taken in the extreme could challenge the legality of virtually all naval operations (and civil commercial and recreational maritime activities, for that matter).
For example, its definition of "harassment" has been interpreted to imply that the U.S. Navy should obtain special permits from government agencies any time its operations "might potentially disturb or annoy" a marine mammal, regardless of whether the activity results in any actual biological effects. An analogy would be requiring a permit for you to walk through your neighborhood because it might cause your neighbor's dog to bark.
As witnessed by the 1987 attack on the USS Stark that killed 37 sailors, missile attacks pose a significant threat to Navy ships. The need for our sailors and systems to be ready to defend against such attacks is real and present as we engage in the global war on terror. In April 2001, three ships from the USS Carl Vinson Battle Group deployed to the Arabian Gulf with degraded readiness in air defense. The root cause was determined to be an ad hoc interpretation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act by a single federal department, which subsequently prohibited them from conducting their routine pre-deployment anti-missile training. The department defined the missile training as "harassment," citing previous exercises in which they observed what they termed a "startled reaction" from sea lions during the launch of target missiles. Despite the fact that there was no documented harm to the sea lions (who thrive in this particular training range), a liberal interpretation of harassment resulted in three ships that later participated in the first air strikes against terrorists in Afghanistan arriving on station with degraded readiness.
In challenging Navy training operations, regulatory agencies have been liberally applying a term in environmental law known as the "precautionary principle." A "guilty until proven innocent" concept, this principle states that without scientific proof to the contrary, proposed Navy training operations are presumed to be harmful to the environment.
This has placed an extraordinary burden on the Navy to conduct extensive and time-consuming research and survey operations to prove without a doubt that the training in question is not harmful. Imagine that in this time of war, vital Navy training is being delayed, curtailed and canceled as a result of regulatory agencies invoking the "precautionary principle."
The proposed changes to these environmental laws are not only reasonable, they should be considered by everyone to be imperative. This nation demands that its military be second to none. At the same time, we demand that our environmental laws be complied with. For both of these goals to be achievable, our environmental laws must be written in such a way as to be understandable, clearly interpretable and attainable.
The Navy regards itself as a good steward of the maritime environment where it lives and works. At the same time, the Navy is accountable to this nation to be ready for war. Our environmental laws must accommodate both end states. Clarifications in the laws will help achieve that.
Adm. Walter F. Doran is commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet.
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