Navy Environmental Report Fails to Mention that Dozens of Whales Died Near the Proposed Site Last Year After Sub-Hunting Exercises

LOS ANGELES (January 13, 2006) -- An Undersea Warfare Training Range proposed by the United States Navy would transform the waters off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina into an epicenter for high intensity active sonar, harming whales and other marine life, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Around the globe, marine mammals have been found dead or dying following sonar blasts, and even the Navy has acknowledged sonar's causal role in the mass stranding of whales.

NRDC today filed extensive comments on the Navy's Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed training range, where over 160 high intensity acoustic exercises would be conducted annually (read the comments here; read additional comments filed on January 30, 2006 here). Describing the draft statement as "fatally flawed," NRDC cited numerous factual and scientific errors and called upon the Navy to rewrite the document to meet the National Environmental Policy Act's mandated scientific and legal standards. NRDC also suggested that the sonar range would violate other federal and state environmental laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"The Navy says it needs to train with sonar, but whales and other marine life shouldn't have to die for practice," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney and director of NRDC's Marine Mammal Protection Project. "The Navy's self-serving environmental statement ignores both risks to whole populations of marine mammals, and the simple precautions that could protect these majestic creatures."

Mid-frequency active sonar systems generate sound of extreme intensity to locate objects in the ocean. Marine mammals depend on sound for their survival, and there is no scientific dispute that intense sonar blasts can disturb, injure, and even kill them.

In fact, more than three dozen whales of three different species stranded and died along North Carolina's Outer Banks following Navy sonar exercises in January 2005. The Navy now is proposing a permanent training range just south of this area, along the migratory path of the critically endangered Northern right whale, of which approximately 300 remain. Somehow, the Navy's environmental statement omits any mention of the stranding, and discounts a growing body of scientific evidence that links naval sonar to marine mammal mass strandings and mortalities. Following last year's mass stranding on the Outer Banks, scientists at several major universities, working under federal contract, conducted necropsies and tissue analyses to determine why the whales died. The government, however, has refused to release the scientists' findings despite a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by NRDC in June (see the press release).

Local leaders in North Carolina are suggesting that the Navy's proposal risks severe damage to the State's economy. In a recent letter to the State's congressional delegation, North Carolina Assembly President Marc Basnight predicted the facility "would have long lasting negative impact on our state fisheries and coastal tourism, with no benefit to the citizens of North Carolina."

According to NRDC's comments, the Navy arbitrarily limits its analysis of the proposed training range to impacts within a kilometer of the sonar source even though sonar can injure and kill animals dozens of kilometers away. The statement also fails to examine a host of available mitigation measures, including those employed by other navies. In addition, the Navy based its site selection on convenience without adequately considering the environmental harm or looking at all reasonable alternatives.

In November, NRDC published Sounding the Depths II: The Rising Toll of Sonar, Shipping and Industrial Ocean Noise on Marine Life with new evidence showing that the rising level of intense underwater sound produced by military sonar, oil and gas exploration, and other manmade sources poses a significant long-term threat to whales, dolphins, fish and other marine species.