June 23, 2008 / 4:06 PM / 10 years ago

Supreme Court to decide Navy sonar appeal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Monday that it would hear a Bush administration appeal of a ruling that restricted the Navy’s use of sonar off the southern California coast because the training exercises could harm endangered whales and other marine mammals.

Sonar technicians monitor contacts on an AN/SQQ-89V15 Surface Anti Submarine Combat System aboard the guided missile destroyer USS Momsen in an undated photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. Evans

The justices agreed to review a ruling by a U.S. appeals court that upheld a federal judge’s order requiring the Navy to take various precautions during the sonar training to minimize harm to dozens of species of whales and dolphins.

The appeals court ruled for environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council and rejected White House efforts to exempt the Navy from laws intended to protect marine mammals off the California coast.

A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that barred the Navy’s use of powerful submarine-hunting mid-frequency active radar within 12 miles of the coast, protecting a strip of water that is the habitat for the marine mammals.

The injunction imposed other restrictions, including a requirement that the Navy stop using sonar when marine mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards and to reduce sonar decibel levels under certain ocean conditions.

President George W. Bush then intervened, citing the national security necessity of Navy training off the California coast, and exempted the Navy from the environmental laws at the heart of the legal challenge.

COMMON SENSE SAFEGUARDS

Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal program, said his group already has begun to prepare for Supreme Court review.

“It’s clear both that high intensity military sonar can injure and kill whales, dolphins, and other marine life and that the Navy can reduce the risk of this harm by common sense safeguards without compromising our military readiness,” he said.

“Today’s order means that the Supreme Court will now itself consider the matter, and, as we have done repeatedly in this and other sonar cases, we will respond vigorously to the Navy’s appeal,” Reynolds said.

In a separate action, the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality waived Navy compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act by approving alternate guidelines for sonar use along the California coast.

A federal judge in February rejected the White House’s arguments, and the three-judge panel of the appeals court later agreed in upholding the injunction.

The administration appealed to the Supreme Court and said the injunction “jeopardizes the Navy’s ability to train sailors and Marines for wartime deployment.”

“The decision poses substantial harm to national security and improperly overrides the collective judgments of the political branches and the nation’s top naval officers regarding the overriding public interest in a properly trained Navy,” the administration said.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case during its term that begins in October.

Editing by Sandra Maler

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