Navy Not Exempt From Sonar Restrictions, Judge Rules

Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles
Associated Press
February 6, 2008

The Navy cannot be exempted from a sonar ban off Southern California, a federal judge ruled.

President George Bush signed a waiver in January exempting the Navy and its anti-submarine warfare exercises from a preliminary injunction that created the no-sonar zone. The Navy's attorneys argued in court last week that the president was within his legal rights.

"We disagree with the judge's decision," White House spokesperson Tony Fratto said. "We believe the orders are legal and appropriate."

Environmentalists have fought the use of sonar in court, saying it harms whales and other marine mammals.

(See related story: Sonar Banned in U.S. Navy Exercise to Protect Hawaii Whales [July 6, 2006])

"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 last week wrapped up a training exercise 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 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."

Said Reynolds: "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."

U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper also wrote that she has "significant concerns about the constitutionality of the President's exemption," but that a ruling based on constitutionality was not needed to reinstate the injunction.

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. After Bush's decision, the appeals court sent the issue to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles for reconsideration.

Navy spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Cindy Moore did not say what the military's next legal move would be.

Government attorneys could appeal the decision to the 9th Circuit. They also could ask the appeals court to allow sonar exercises until the appeal is resolved.

Scientists have said that loud sonar can damage the brains and ears of marine mammals and that it may mask the echoes some whales and dolphins listen for when they use their own natural sonar to locate food.

The Navy maintains that it already minimizes risks to marine life and has employed sonar for decades without seeing any whale injuries. The sonar is essential for tracking submarines, it said.

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Associated Press writer Chelsea J. Carter in San Diego contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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