Judge: Navy Not Exempt from Sonar Ban

Whether Navy sonar training exercises are harmful to marine animals has long been a point of conflict. On Monday, a federal judge in Los Angeles said President Bush cannot waive environmental laws that require the Navy to take special steps to protect whales.

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A judge has stepped into a long-running fight over Naval training exercises. The training involves the type of sonar that might be injuring marine mammals. And in Los Angeles, a district court judge has said the president cannot waive environmental laws that require the Navy to take special steps to protect whales.

NPR's John Nielsen has more.

JOHN NIELSEN: The Navy uses high-frequency or mid-range sonar to hunt for submarines equipped with extremely quiet electric engines. Rear Admiral Lawrence Rice, director of the Navy's Environmental Readiness Division, says at least 300 of these silent submarines are currently owned by more than 40 foreign countries.

Admiral LAWRENCE RICE (U.S. Navy): Not all of them friendly to the United States. And it's not only the fact that it's running on electric power. If you go to Web sites, you'll notice they're covered with rubber tiles to make them even quieter, to make them hard to detect.

NIELSEN: For years now, the United States has been running training exercises off the coast of Southern California in which U.S. versions of these silent submarines try to sneak up on fleets of U.S. warships. The warships hunt for the subs by firing blasts of sound out of the sonar arrays. Last fall, the Natural Resources Defense Council asked a court to sharply limit these kinds of war games. Lawyer Joel Reynolds of the NRDC argued that the sound blasts could harm marine mammals.

Mr. JOEL REYNOLDS (NRDC): This is a technology that's been definitively shown to cause whales to strand and die, not just a couple of times but repeatedly around the world. And so it makes sense, particularly in an area as rich biologically as the waters of the Southern California coast, to expect that the Navy would test and train in an environmentally responsible way.

NIELSEN: Late last year, District Court Judge Florence Marie Cooper bought those arguments and imposed tough new restrictions on the Navy. One of the restrictions required that the sonar devices be turned off whenever marine mammals swam within a 12-mile zone surrounding the arrays. Rear Admiral Rice says those restrictions made it difficult to train the sonar operators properly. Not long afterwards, he says the Navy asked the White House for an emergency exemption from all relevant environmental laws so that sonar operators on a carrier group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln could be trained.

Admiral RICE: Because for the Lincoln strike group that's getting ready to deploy, that's 7,000 young Americans that are getting ready to go in harm's way. And if we put their lives in danger, I think there's 7,000 parents that would say that is an emergency.

NIELSEN: A new round of training exercises started last month after President Bush signed the emergency waiver. But the NRDC immediately challenged the waiver. At a hearing, Reynolds of the NRDC called the waiver unconstitutional and a terrible legal precedent.

Mr. REYNOLDS: If the president can conclude that an adverse court decision is an emergency, then any time a court rules against an executive branch agency it can turn around and ask the White House for a waiver based on the claim that there's an emergency. This could happen in the case of oil drilling off our coast. It could happen in the case of timber harvesting in our national forests.

NIELSEN: Yesterday, Judge Cooper handed the NRDC another legal victory, dismissing the waiver as constitutionally suspect. Reynolds of the NRDC said he thought the ruling struck the proper balance between national security and environmental protection. Spokesmen for the Navy's Pacific fleet said they were studying the decision. The current round of training exercises has ended, but it is expected that the Navy will appeal anyway.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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