Editorial Fiction at the Wall Street Journal

If the Supreme Court decides to review the case of high intensity Navy sonar, as the Wall Street Journal yesterday urged, it will do well to ignore the Journal’s error-riddled editorial (“Judge Ahab and the Whales,” June 19). There is nothing “speculative” about the serious harm caused by sonar, as the Navy itself concedes.  Though the harm that can be reduced by training with common sense safeguards, the Navy has refused, even in the face of overwhelming evidence linking mass whale mortalities to sonar exposure – a link characterized as “completely convincing” by the Navy’s own consultants.

Nor is there anything “activist” in the decisions of every federal court that has considered the Navy’s sonar training practices, concluding without exception that the Navy is not above the law and that, when it tests and trains with sonar, it can and must do so in an environmentally responsible manner.  In the case up for review, the trial and appellate courts found that the Navy has repeatedly violated the law, that its own limited mitigation is “woefully inadequate,” and that the Navy can do a better job of protecting the health of our oceans without in any way compromising the Navy’s sonar training. 

There is no question that sonar can injure and kill whales and dolphins. In fact, according to the Navy’s own conservative estimate, sonar exercises now underway in Southern California waters will significantly disturb or injure an estimated 170,000 marine mammals, including causing permanent injury to more than 450 whales and temporary hearing impairment in at least 8,000 whales – an injury that increases the risks of attack by predators. Again, those aren’t wild accusations by sandal-clad environmentalists – those are the estimates of the U.S. Navy in its official “Environmental Assessment” of the exercise.

Yet when they talk to the press, Navy officials still try to obscure the issue, casting doubt on whether sonar actually harms marine mammals. Take this recent statement by Capt. Scott Gureck, a spokesman for the Pacific Fleet: “There’s no scientific proof that sonar by itself has ever directly killed or injured whales or other marine mammals.”

That’s right: water and ships also were involved, and the direct cause of death was internal bleeding.

Any hope that we could put aside the tortured semantics and focus on a solution went out the window in January when the Navy ran to President Bush for help. As many know by now, the Bush Administration issued two “emergency” waivers, one signed by the President himself, purporting to exempt the Navy from basic environmental laws in the interests of national security.

The irony is that if any emergency exists, it was created by the Navy itself, which month after month stubbornly failed to comply with environmental laws as it planned the sonar training exercises in question. Since when does failure to comply a law excuse one from complying with the law? That just doesn’t make sense. Nor does the President’s attempt to cast this controversy as an issue of national security.

Does the Navy need to train with sonar? We have never argued otherwise because the Navy has determined that mid-frequency active sonar is a critical tool for defending our ships, sailors and marines from underwater threats.

That doesn’t mean national security is jeopardized when a court orders the Navy to train in an environmentally responsible manner. The Army doesn’t train riflemen on crowded city streets, and the Air Force doesn’t practice bombing sorties over national parks. Why shouldn’t the Navy take common sense precautions when training with sonar in rich marine mammal habitat?

To be fair, the Navy has in the past adopted a number of procedures (albeit under legal pressure from conservationists) to reduce harm to whales. But the Navy has inexplicably abandoned those procedures for its southern California training exercises. After being ordered by a federal court to do more, the Navy asked the White House to excuse it from  those common sense requirements -- for example, the requirement that it avoid areas where large numbers of marine mammal are known to be, and temporarily shut down active sonar when marine mammals are detected within 2000 meters of a sonar source.

The alternative, of course, is to knowingly assault these sound-sensitive creatures at close range with ear-splitting, hemorrhage-inducing noise. Whales shouldn’t have to suffer and die for the sake of convenience, and when it comes down to it, that’s really what we’re talking about.

Is reducing sonar harm to whales and dolphins an inconvenience? Perhaps. But the courts have repeatedly ruled that environmental planning to reduce the avoidable infliction of harm to marine life is required by our most basic environmental laws – laws that reflect our collective moral sense that the natural world warrants our respect and stewardship.

It is, after all, our world, too.