Navy Hit with Lawsuits after Rejecting Coastal Commission Safeguards for Massive High-Intensity Sonar Exercises off Southern California Coast

California Coastal Commission, Environmental Coalition Aim to Defend State Authority to Protect Coastal Waters
LOS ANGELES (March 22, 2007) -- The California Coastal Commission and an environmental coalition led by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) today filed separate lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over fourteen major training exercises scheduled for waters off Southern California. The naval exercises include plans to blast high-intensity sonar sound waves repeatedly into some of the richest marine habitat in the country, including waters around the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
The Navy recently decided to go ahead with the exercises despite concerby the commission that the sonar poses significant risk to marine life in the region and should not proceed without appropriate safeguards. High-intensity, mid-frequency sonar has been proven to disturb, injure, and even kill marine species, including marine mammals.
“The solutions are so easy to implement, and they haven’t shown us any evidence that they can’t do them,” said Patrick Kruer, chair of the California Coastal Commission. “By rejecting simple measures the Navy is challenging the jurisdiction of the entire Commission and undermining the Coastal Act and federal coastal protection laws that apply to all coastal states. That has implications way beyond this case.”
The Navy has not prepared an environmental impact statement about the exercises nor has it properly assessed impacts on endangered and threatened species as required by federal law. The lawsuit filed today by NRDC cites violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. This is the fifth time NRDC has sued the Navy over sonar, but the first time such a lawsuit has been brought by a state agency. The commission’s lawsuit affirms that the federal Coastal Zone Management Act gives it the authority to review military activities that affect California’s coastal resources.
“The Navy’s rejection of common sense protective measures needlessly endangers whales and other marine life off our coast,” said Joel Reynolds, Senior Attorney and Director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at NRDC. “It defies California’s authority, grounded in the Coastal Act, to safeguard the unique and irreplaceable natural resources along our coast.”
Among the mitigation measures suggested by the commission that the Navy refuses to adopt are: seasonal restrictions to avoid grey whale migratory routes; monitoring for marine mammals thirty minutes before training begins; avoidance of areas with high numbers of whales and/or dolphins; larger safety zones to protect marine mammals and sea turtles in the vicinity of training activities; and lower sound levels during times of low visibility. The lawsuits seek to require that the Navy implement these and other mitigations.
“Safeguards like these can make a big difference in the risks to whales and other marine life,”
said Richard Kendall, a senior litigation partner at the Los Angeles law firm of Irell & Manella, co-counsel with NRDC in the lawsuit
. “It is indefensible for the Navy to ignore their potential to minimize or avoid harm to these magnificent animals during dangerous sonar training exercises.”
The mid-frequency sonar systems the Navy plans to use generate underwater sound loud enough to flood thousands of square miles of ocean with dangerous levels of noise pollution. Among the rich marine life found in the target area are five endangered species of whales, including a globally important population of blue whales, the largest animal ever to live on earth, and as many as seven individual species of beaked whales, which are known for their particular vulnerability to underwater sound.
Whales around the world have been found dead or dying following encounters with mid-frequency military sonar. In 2004, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission -- the preeminent international body of scientists studying whale populations -- reported that the evidence connecting mid-frequency sonar to whale mortality “is very convincing and appears overwhelming.” Scientists are also concerned about the potential for long-term, cumulative effects from repeated exercises in the region.
Last July, with ships of several nations off Hawaii poised to begin one of the Navy's largest international training exercises, a federal judge in Los Angeles temporarily halted the use of mid-frequency sonar. The Navy was allowed to proceed with the exercises only when it agreed to take significant, common-sense measures to protect whales and other marine species, such as staying away from the newly designated Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.
NRDC was joined in today’s lawsuit by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Cetacean Society International, League for Coastal Protection, Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau.