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Navy Gets Formal OK from NOAA for Sonar Operations in Hawaii

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The Navy took another step on its reformed NEPA compliance path this week, as it received a formal Letter of Authorization to proceed with sonar training missions in waters around Hawaii.  The Hawaii training range was the first of 11 Navy ranges to complete its Environmental Impact Statement; the Navy began planning this step of NEPA compliance in 2006 (belatedly, and spurred on by legal challenges), and received a national security exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act in early 2007 to protect the training from legal challenges until the EISs could be completed.  Two other ranges have released final EISs (Atlantic coast and Southern California), with five Draft EISs recently released (including the Pacific Northwest and an Undersea Warfare Training Range off the southeast Atlantic coast).  It is unclear how sonar training will proceed in these other ranges once the exemption expires in late January; perhaps a shorter exemption will be issued to allow the EISs to be completed, or an agreement will be reached to eschew legal challenges in the interim.

The NOAA authorizations largely affirm the Navy’s current mitigation measures, including safety zones that have been challenged in the past as too small, and refusing (in the name of operational flexibility) to set any areas off-limits to sonar.  While NOAA expects that the Navy’s safety measures should prevent injury, they acknowledge that in some situations strandings have occurred, and the authorizations allow for up to ten deaths of each of eleven species.  (In Hawaii, sonar training has taken place for decades, and none of the clearly sonar-related stranding events have taken place there.)  See below the fold for the AEI News Digest item on this story, with quotes from NRDC and links to the Letter of Authorization.

NOAA Issues Authorizations for Hawaii Range Sonar Training – The Navy has received the necessary authorizations from NOAA’s Fisheries Service to proceed with sonar training missions in the waters around Hawaii. This was the first of the Navy’s bakers’ dozen of traning ranges to complete its Environmental Impact Statement process. The Letter of Authorization comes along with a few additional requirements that go beyond those planned in the Navy’s mitigation plan. Among these is the establishment of a humpback whale cautionary area; in this area off Maui, any sonar training must be approved by the Commander of the Pacific Fleet, and the Navy must report to NOAA the number of hours of sonar use and any observed effects on humpbacks. A Stranding Response Plan is also in place, requiring immediate shut down of sonar if a stranding is reported during a training exercise, and live animals are in the water. Otherwise, the mitigation measures approved are similar to those used by the Navy in recent years, including an outer safety zone (reduce sonar power) of 1000 yards and a shut-down zone of 200 yards. NOAA says that it does not expect any deaths to occur, but they acknowledge that at times sonar can cause strandings, and will allow up to ten deaths of each of eleven species, noting that should this occur, it will not have a significant impact on the populations as a whole. Taryn Kiekow, marine mammal staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has pushed for larger safety zones and putting some biologically rich areas off-limits to sonar, said, “They are recycling protections for sensitive marine mammal species and habitat near Hawaii that courts have repeatedly found inadequate.” NOAA notes that “The Navy has been conducting training exercises, including the use of mid-frequency sonar, in the Hawaiian Islands for more than 40 years.” In recent years, there has been increased scrutiny of sonar training, after a few strandings during naval exercises in several places around the world. In early 2007, as the Navy began the process of writing Environmental Impact Statements, it received a national security exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect it from lawsuits while completing the EISs; at the same time, the Navy formally implemented the safety measures it has used since that time (with, according to the Navy, no strandings occuring while using these measures). The exemption expires at the end of the month, making the new LOAs essential to continued training. It is unclear what will happen in the training ranges that have not completed their EIS yet; two other final EISs have been released, with several drafts also complete, and more on the way this year. Sources: Honolulu Advertiser, 1/13/09 [READ ARTICLE] NOAA Press Release, 1/12/09 [READ PRESS RELEASE] ENS, 1/12/09 [READ ARTICLE] Federal Register Notice, containing final rules, 1/12/09 [READ NOTICE]

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