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From Draft NOtices, April-June 2007

Navy Versus Marine Mammals

— Kathy Smith

The Navy is refusing to mitigate the harm to marine mammals when it uses sonar for training exercises off the coast of Southern California. The Navy contends that Coastal Commission restrictions are not valid because their training takes place more than three miles off shore, beyond the scope of the commission’s authority.

Joel Reynolds, an attorney in the Los Angeles office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, stated that “the Navy’s rejection of the common sense protective measures . . . is an attack not just on whales and other marine life off our coast, but on the commission itself.”

The issue at hand is the decibel rate of sonar, which commission officials want lowered because whales can be harmed by sonar transmissions that the Navy generates. The Navy’s use of sonar has caused the beaching of whales and dolphins because they surface (breach) too fast and suffer decompression sickness. A congressional report was released last year stating that the Navy’s sonar exercises were responsible for six cases of mass death and stranding of whales in the past decade. The Navy counters these facts by saying that pollution and starvation can cause marine animals to breach.

In response to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups led by the NRDC, the Navy asserted the “state secrets” privilege. Navy Secretary Donald Winter, in a court filing submitted March 19, said that they would not disclose information as it “could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security.”

This year the Pentagon exempted the Navy for two years from a law protecting whales so they could continue sonar use during training.  The NRDC will now challenge the “state secrets” contention used by the Navy to not hand over information on the training exercises.

The Navy’s action is a follow-up to Pentagon moves to derail the lawsuit. The NRDC and other environmental groups say sonar used in routine training and testing not only kills marine mammals but violates environmental laws as well.

In addition to the suit filed by the environmental groups, the Navy is also being sued separately by the California Coastal Commission. The basis for that suit is that federal law gives the commission power to limit the Navy’s sonar exercises to comply with a state law that protects coastal and marine resources. The commission is seeking a preliminary injunction against future sonar drills until the Navy agrees to the commission's limitations. Sara Wan, California State Coastal Commissioner, asserted that “the Navy’s unwillingness to comply with the restrictions left the state with no choice but to file the federal lawsuit.”

In response to the situation, Vice Admiral Barry Costello, Commander of the U.S. Third Fleet in Honolulu, stated: “We’re disappointed with the decision to pursue litigation on this . . . but we’re doing our training that’s essential to the Navy to support our armed forces and we’ll go forward and work with all the appropriate players on these lawsuits.” The Navy’s periodic sonar drills are conducted over a widespread area, including the Gulf Coast, East Coast, Hawaii, the Pacific Northwest, and the coast of California.

Information sources: San Diego Union-Tribune, February 14, 2007 (p. B4); Reuters News, March 21, 2007; “Lawsuit: Navy Failing to Protect California Marine Life,” 10 News.Com, March 23, 2007.

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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