WASHINGTON – President Bush exempted the Navy from an environmental law so it can continue using sonar in its anti-submarine warfare training off the California coast — a practice critics say is harmful to whales and other marine mammals.
The White House announced Wednesday that Bush had signed the exemption Tuesday while traveling in the Middle East.
The Navy training exercises, including the use of sonar, "are in the paramount interest of the United States" and its national security, Bush said in a memorandum.
"This exemption will enable the Navy to train effectively and to certify carrier and expeditionary strike groups for deployment in support of worldwide operational and combat activities, which are essential to national security," the memo said.
The decision drew immediate criticism from environmentalists who had fought to stop the Navy's sonar training.
"The president's action is an attack on the rule of law," said Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "By exempting the Navy from basic safeguards under both federal and state law, the president is flouting the will of Congress, the decision of the California Coastal Commission and a ruling by the federal court."
NRDC spokesman Daniel Hinerfeld said the group would be filing papers with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later Wednesday or Thursday to challenge Bush's exemption.
A federal judge in Los Angeles had issued a preliminary injunction earlier this month requiring the Navy to create a 12-nautical-mile, no-sonar zone along the Southern California coast and to post trained lookouts to watch for marine mammals before and during exercises.
Sonar would have to be shut down when mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards, under the order.
The court found that using mid-frequency active sonar violated the Coastal Zone Management Act and Bush exempted the Navy from a section of that act.
Complying with the environmental law would "undermine the Navy's ability to conduct realistic training exercises that are necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups," Bush said.
The Natural Resources Defense Council had sued to force the Navy to lessen the harm of its sonar exercises. In November, a federal appeals court said the sonar problem needed to be fixed.
Scientists say loud sonar can damage marine mammal brains and ears. Sonar may also mask the echoes some whales and dolphins listen for when they use their own natural sonar to locate food.
But much is still unknown about how sonar affects whales and other marine mammals. For example, the sound can hurt some species while not affecting others, and experts don't fully understand why.
In an argument that has been going on for years, the Navy has continually argued that the exercises are vital for training and that it works to minimizes the risk to marine life.
A statement from the Defense Department said the new exemption covers the use of mid-frequency active sonar in a series of exercises scheduled to take place off the coast of California through January 2009 and that the Navy already applies 29 measures to mitigate the effects.
In a separate development, the Pentagon statement said, Navy Secretary Donald Winter signed a memo Tuesday agreeing to greater public participation and better reporting on the issue while officials complete an environmental impact study for Southern California.
Use of sonar "is part of critical, integrated training that must be done in the Navy's operating area off the coast of San Diego to take advantage" of features there related to water depth as well as extensive ranges, airfields and other infrastructure needed for training, the Pentagon statement said.
About half the Navy's fleet will receive "its most critical, graduate level training" there before it deploys its forces around the world, it said.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead said that exercises with sonar train sailors to detect quiet submarines that might threaten its ships.
"We cannot in good conscience send American men and women into potential trouble spots without adequate training to defend themselves," said Roughead.
"The southern California operating area provides unique training opportunities that are vital to preparing our forces, and the planned exercises cannot be postponed without impacting national security," he said in the Pentagon statement.