Navy's sonar training trumps environmentalists' concerns for whales, high court rules in 5-4 vote

November 13, 2008|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,Los Angeles Times


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

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that the Navy needs to train its crews to detect enemy submarines and that 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 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 disagreed. They say studies 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.

The ruling lifts a Los Angeles judge's order that required the Navy to turn off its sonar when marine mammals were seen within 1.2 miles of a ship.

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

In his opinion, Roberts stressed the military threat posed by modern subs. "Modern diesel-electric submarines ... can operate almost silently, making them extremely difficult to detect and track," he said.

Navy leaders had said training exercises were vital, and "we give great deference to the professional judgment of military authorities concerning the relative importance of a particular military interest," Roberts said.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. agreed with Roberts.

The ruling does not prevent the incoming Obama administration from adopting a different policy for future Navy training.

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