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Para 15 even failed to note that the Navy routinely lies about it's weapon systems.
Groups, Navy Square Off on Sonar System
By Marc Kaufman
At the same time, environmentalists and oceanographers have grown increasingly worried that the intense sound waves emitted by the new sonar would seriously confuse, injure and eventually kill noise-sensitive marine mammals, and large whales in particular.
Now, with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on the verge of making a final decision on whether to allow deployment of the new low-frequency sonar -- and, if so, with what restrictions -- the Navy and its critics have intensified their competing campaigns to have it quickly approved or permanently sidetracked.
Disputes between the military and environmentalists are nothing new. But the Navy sonar controversy is approaching a climax in what both proponents and opponents say is a new atmosphere created by the Sept. 11 attacks.
The military has been for some time increasingly concerned about environmental "encroachments" of all kinds -- conservation-based restrictions on how training camps and bombing ranges can be used, and now on deploying new technology. Military leaders say the time has arrived to address these concerns, and Congress appears increasingly sympathetic to this viewpoint.
As a result, the Pentagon is circulating within the Bush administration a draft of a proposed bill that would greatly limit the reach of environmental laws on military training and deployment -- formally prohibiting the federal government from placing the conservation of public lands or the protection of endangered species above the needs of military preparedness.
The bill would make it far more difficult to delay projects such as the new sonar system because of concern over its effects on whales. More broadly, it could change how basic pollution-control laws are enforced on military bases, and it would eliminate another environmental challenge that has especially outraged defense officials and some members of Congress. After a federal judge ruled this month that the Navy was violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by using as a bombing range an island in the Pacific with protected birds, officials were incensed that the training might have to stop. Under the draft bill, it would not be affected.
Environmentalists acknowledge that since the September terrorist attacks, it has become more difficult to argue that the environment can be preserved as before without sacrificing national preparedness and security. But they are nonetheless planning for a lawsuit to block the sonar system if it is approved, and for a political campaign to resist the broader legislation that they expect will be introduced soon.
The sonar dispute is especially emotional because it pits the nation's long-embraced goal of protecting whales against the military's essential objective of protecting its troops. It has also escalated because marine biologists have grown increasingly concerned about the dangers of all kinds of noise pollution in the oceans.
Marine mammals, and whales in particular, have a sense of hearing that is far more sensitive than their sight, and they rely on sound to avoid dangers, to find food and to communicate with one another. Yet the growing jumble of sound -- from commercial and military shipping, from underwater gas and oil exploration, from other industrial development and now from "active" sonar -- is threatening those abilities.
"It is absolutely necessary to be worried about sound if we don't want to negatively impact marine creatures," said Darlene Ketten, an auditory specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a member of an ongoing National Academy of Sciences research effort into ocean noise.
Speaking at a recent House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on environmental "encroachments," William Hogarth, assistant administrator for fisheries at the NMFS, went further, saying that "from a marine mammal standpoint, probably the number one issue is acoustics and noise in the marine environment."
But among policymakers, nothing is more important now than security. And the Navy has been arguing for years that it needs low-frequency sonar to protect against submarine threats.
The new sonar, part of the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS), would allow the Navy to detect and track quiet submarines -- which don't create the noise that can be followed through "passive" sonar -- and to do it at a much longer range. The low frequencies are essential to the system because they travel much farther underwater than the higher frequencies now employed.
The Navy says it will forgo use of its low-frequency active sonar in the Arctic and Antarctic, as well as in some especially sensitive regions and coastal areas, and will take broad precautions to make sure whales and dolphins are not nearby when it sends out its blasts. "Quite frankly, a lot of people are taking shots at potential problems, at what they think are gaps in the data, because the actual problems are not appearing," said Joseph Johnson, a civilian project manager for the sonar system. "We've taken a hard look and are comfortable we can do this safely."
But environmental groups are highly skeptical, especially because they contend the Navy conducted secret sonar testing and initiated deployment without preparing a required environmental impact statement. The new system uses 18 sets of speakers to send out sounds -- at decibel levels comparable to those of a jet taking off -- for more than a minute at a time.
"What we talk about with ocean noise and a noisemaker of this intensity is something that can impact a broad range of species, up and down the food chain," said Michael Jasny, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which has led the opposition to low-frequency sonar. "This decision by NMFS is so important because it will determine, to a very large extent, the government's ability to effectively regulate a raft of other systems in the works, too."
Conservationists became especially concerned after an incident in March 2000 in which 17 marine mammals became stranded on land in the Bahamas. The Navy initially said its sonar had nothing to do with the stranding. But after studies showed the fatal trauma in six of the animals was caused by underwater noise, the Navy acknowledged in January that its sonar was in part responsible.
All six animals that died were beaked whales, a smaller species known to be deep divers and therefore very sensitive to noise. But two large Minke whales were also stranded, raising concerns about potentially broad effects from sonar.
Since then, few of the approximately 35 beaked whales normally seen in the area have returned, according to marine researcher Kenneth Balcomb, of the Bahamas Marine Mammal Survey. Only two came back within two years, a disappearance that Balcomb called "unprecedented."
The sonar used by the Navy in the Bahamas was a conventional mid-frequency system, and there has been intense scientific debate about whether the new low-frequency sonar could have the same effects. In its environmental impact statement, issued under pressure, the Navy found no significant harm to marine mammals from the low-frequency sound blasts.
But there were effects. Half of the humpback whales that were tracked temporarily stopped their songs when the loud sonar pings reached them. The Marine Mammal Commission, a federal advisory group, said that observation was worrisome and suggested there could be long-term consequences.
The debate is complicated further by the likelihood that loud and far-reaching sonar is being developed by other countries. Navy officials have said that France and Russia have deployed similar low-frequency sonars, and environmental groups say many other nations are working on them, too. This creates the possibility of wide-scale sonar proliferation, and of whales and dolphins being bombarded by sound waves from many directions.
The NMFS already gave a preliminary restricted approval to the Navy's low-frequency sonar last year, but that was before the Navy's role in the Bahamas strandings was determined. It was also before some of the opposition to low-frequency sonar became apparent. Soon after that decision, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said in a statement, "I am disturbed by the growing scientific evidence that low-frequency active sonar has a devastating impact" on whales and dolphins. Her office said many constituents oppose the new sonar, and that she is following the issue closely.
But the preliminary ruling was before Sept. 11 as well, and Defense Department officials and members of Congress now appear less likely to accept restrictions on how and where the new sonar might be used. The language of the anti-encroachment bill now circulating -- called the Sustainable Defense Readiness and Environmental Protection Act -- gives a greater weight to military concerns over environmental ones.
At the House subcommittee hearing last month, members of Congress made clear they were open to the administration's efforts at "re-balancing" the military-environment equation. "I want protection of our endangered species. I want protection of our wetlands. I want a balance in what we do as a society," said Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) in a typical comment. "But things are very much out of control and out of balance." The subcommittee is expected to have a bill ready later this month.
Environmental groups are equally concerned and are preparing for a
prolonged contest over low-frequency sonar and related military issues
-- probably in court and in Congress. "Whatever [the federal
agency] decides on sonar, I don't think it will be the final word on the
subject," said Jasny of the NRDC.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company