In March 2000, the U.S. Navy conducted a mid-frequency sonar exercise in the Bahamas, and 16 whales turned up stranded on the beaches. It had been theorized for some years that the intense underwater sounds are responsible for marine mammal deaths, but the strandings provided compelling evidence of that impact. In the years following, the evidence mounted that mid-frequency military sonar was implicated in many more mass whale strandings—including several that occurred in the decades before the Bahamas incident.
Beaked whales are among the species affected by naval sonar.
The issue came to a head a few weeks ago when a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled—in response to a lawsuit led by the Natural Resources Defense Council—that the Navy’s sonar training violates several environmental laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act.
However, the Court did not order the Navy to scrap its sonar system, nor did it demand a halt to all Navy training activities. Instead, the Court simply ordered the Navy to improve its existing measures to protect whales from the harmful effects of its sonar operations.
In a post-9/11 world, sensible people agree that national security is a priority concern. But here, too, there must be limits. What is the military protecting if, in protecting us, it destroys our environment and kills our wildlife? By forcing the Navy to heed both its security interests and its duty to protect the environment, the Court’s ruling was a model of balanced jurisprudence.
But the Navy thumbed its nose at the courts. Rather than work with the plaintiffs and the court on implementing the new restrictions—rather than live up to its rhetoric of being a “good steward of the oceans”—the brass went straight to the White House, asking for an exemption from the nation’s environmental laws.
On Jan. 16, President Bush granted the extraordinary request, in full.
This was a tremendously disappointing example of the Administration acting like it is above the law.
The military must play by the rules. We should not suspend our environmental and marine mammal protection laws simply because the Navy wants it that way.
Congress should now step in, and restore a rational balance between our need to protect our country, and our need to preserve the marine life and the health of our environment.