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U.S. Supreme Court OKs Navy use of sonar

November 12, 2008 |  2:58 pm


Times staff writer David Savage reports that the U.S. Supreme Court has had its say about sonar and whales:

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a defeat to environmentalists today and cleared the way for the Navy to use high-powered sonar 12 miles off the Southern California coast even if it poses a threat to whales and other marine mammals.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts said the Navy needs to train its crews to detect enemy submarines, and it cannot be forced to turn off its sonar when whales are spotted nearby. "The public interest in conducting training exercises with active sonar under realistic conditions plainly outweighs" the concerns voiced by environmentalists, he said for a 5-4 majority.

Roberts faulted judges in California for "second-guessing" the views of Navy leaders. "Where the public interest lies does not strike us as a close question," he said.

Roberts also questioned whether whales have indeed been harmed by sonar. He said the Navy had been operating off the California coast for 40 years "without a single documented sonar-related injury to any marine mammal."

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups strongly disagreed. They say studies conducted around the world have shown that the piercing underwater sounds cause whales to flee in panic. These studies said some whales have beached themselves and have shown signs of bleeding in their ears as a result of high-powered sonar.

Today's ruling lifts a Los Angeles judge's order that required the Navy to turn off its sonar when whales or marine mammals were seen within 1.2 miles of a ship. The ruling left in a place several measures to protect the whales, including a 12-mile zone along the coast where the Navy may not use its sonar. These were not challenged in the Supreme Court.

The Bush administration had urged the court to take up this case and rule quickly so the Navy could conduct training exercises scheduled in the next few months.

Photo: Dennis Fujimoto/Associated Press

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