U.S. Navy, Conservationists Reach $16 Million Sonar Settlement

LOS ANGELES, California, January 5, 2009 (ENS) – After years of litigation, the U.S. Navy and marine mammal conservation groups have reached a settlement agreement to resolve a worldwide challenge to the Navy’s testing and training with mid-frequency active sonar.

The settlement agreed on December 27 resolves a lawsuit filed in 2005 by five groups and one individual, challenging the Navy’s lack of environmental review prior to deploying mid-frequency active sonar during training exercises carried out around the world. The Navy uses sonar to detect the presence of submarines.

The Navy acknowledged that this type of underwater sonar can be deadly to marine mammals, causing permanent injury and temporary deafness. Mid-frequency sonar can emit continuous sound above 235 decibels, an intensity roughly comparable to a rocket at blastoff.

“This agreement commits the Navy for the first time to a program of environmental review and public transparency in its sonar training in an effort to shield whales and other vulnerable species from harmful underwater noise,” said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the marine mammal program conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the plaintiff groups.

“While it does not resolve disagreements with the Navy over operational safeguards required to reduce sonar’s risk to whales and other marine life,” said Reynolds, “it sets in place a process for negotiation between the Navy and this environmental coalition that we hope will reduce the need for future litigation.”

Reflected in a ship’s porthole, U.S. Navy Seaman Tanya Sylvester stands watch as part of medium frequency active sonar mitigation measures aboard the Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS Howard in the Pacific Ocean. April 2008. (Photo by Mass Communications Specialist Benjamin Brossard courtesy U.S. Navy)

The settlement requires disclosure of previously classified information regarding the Navy’s sonar use and commits the Navy to fund $14.75 million in new marine mammal research designated by NRDC and co-plaintiffs.

Other plaintiffs include the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Cetacean Society International, League for Coastal Protection, Ocean Futures Society and its founding president Jean-Michel Cousteau.

The Navy also agreed to pay $1.1 million dollars in attorney’s fees for settling both the 2005 lawsuit and a 2006 lawsuit regarding sonar use around Hawaii.

“The Navy is pleased that after more than three years of extensive litigation, this matter has been brought to an end on favorable terms,” said Frank R. Jimenez, general counsel of the Navy. “The Navy welcomes an approach that relies more upon scientific research than litigation.”

“The settlement essentially adopts the long range program for environmental analysis and research that the Navy undertook in August 2005, months before this lawsuit was originally filed,” Jimenez said. “The Navy will continue to implement a variety of protective measures previously developed in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agreement does not require any additional mitigation measures,” he said.

The settlement sets out a schedule for the Navy to prepare and issue environmental statements for sonar exercises and ranges around the world.

The settlement does not address mitigation measures or training limitations at issue in Winter v NRDC, recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the Navy.

In that case, the Supreme Court ruled in November 2008, that the lower court abused its discretion in imposing sonar shutdown and power-down requirements on the Navy during mid-frequency active sonar training exercises off the coast of southern California. The Supreme Court reversed and vacated those portions of the lower court’s injunction.

However, the newly agreed settlement does require public disclosure of previously classified information on sonar, including information that had been covered by protective order in Winter v. NRDC.

The Navy also agrees to provide plaintiffs a series of briefings on sonar compliance and mitigation-related issues.

The settlement establishes a cooling off period to permit negotiation between plaintiffs and the Navy when future sonar disagreements arise.

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