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Navy Releases First EIS for Sonar Training; Hawaii Range Targeted for Continued Sonar Training, Using Current Safety Procedures

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The US Navy has released its first completed Environmental Impact Statement examining active sonar training activities, this one covering training in waters around Hawaii, and proposing to continue current Navy operating procedures, rather than adopting more stringent safety measures. Eleven other regional training ranges are receiving similar scrutiny, with draft EISs released for two, and the final decisions planned for all by the end of 2009. After a catastrophic stranding of beaked whales in the Bahamas in 2000, the Navy began working toward complying with NEPA (which requires analysis of activities that may cause harm to wildlife); after rebuffing discussions with NRDC in 2004 about the effects of mid-frequency sonar (which led to a lawsuit in 2005, not yet heard in court), the Navy began applying for Incidental Harassment permits in 2006, and began the EIS process for all of its training ranges in 2007, receiving a 2-year presidential exemption from NEPA to allow them to complete the EISs without being subject to lawsuits in the meantime. The Hawaii EIS is consistent with the other DEISs already released, proposing to continue sonar training at levels similar to current activity, with safety procedures similar to those the Navy has been using in recent years. The Navy is hoping that its detailed analysis of the effects of sonar on marine creatures will provide a legally defensible foundation for their safety measures, which include shutting down the system when whales are within 200 meters. Environmental advocates, and the states of Hawaii and California, have pushed for much larger safety zones and setting specific biologically-rich areas off-limits to sonar use; two Federal District court rulings have ruled against the Navy, and we can expect that the final EISs will face challenges as well. With some of the procedural challenges now off the table (earlier challenges focused on lack of NEPA and MMPA compliance, and the related lack of legal/scientific justification for the Navy’s current safety measures), it will be interesting to see how far the courts decide to wade into the more strictly scientific arguments about the validity of the Navy’s analysis of current data and of the risk to wildlife. Sources: Honolulu Advertiser, 6/27/08 [READ ARTICLE] Hawaii Reporter, 6/26/08 [READ ARTICLE] AP, 6/26/08 [READ ARTICLE]

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