Can't We All Just Get Along?

October 8, 2008 at 5:00 AM

A long-running fight between the Navy and environmentalists over the use of mid-frequency sonar in a training range off the coast of Southern California, and the potential harm it could inflict on whales, found itself before the nine justices of the Supreme Court today. 

According to news reports, the justices seemed split during oral arguments. But Justice Stephen Breyer seemed downright frustrated by the dispute.
“This is -- I want to give you a chance to say what's so terrible about what they're doing,” Breyer told Richard Kendall, the lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued the Navy. “I will express a little frustration. Not your fault. But why couldn't you work this thing out? I mean, ((the Navy is)) willing to give you quite a lot of conditions, and you say, well, we have got to have more conditions. And you are asking us, who know nothing about whales and less about the military, to start reading all these documents to try to figure out who's right in the case where the other side says the other side is totally unreasonable.”
“The Navy is focused on having it its way or no way,” Kendall responded. (Full transcript here -- in .pdf.)
Environmentalists argue that sonar use is harmful to whales, disrupting their feeding and migration and in some cases causing injury or even death by beaching. Meanwhile, the Navy argues that sonar training is critical to the hunt for stealthy diesel-electric submarines. At the heart of the question is whether the courts can force the Navy to adhere to environmental laws when the President has deemed the training a “national security emergency.”
A judgment in the NRDC's favor could have far-reaching implications for the Navy, forcing it to alter the way it conducts training and fleet readiness in the future. For now, in its exercises off the Southern California coast, the Navy must adhere to the U.S. district court's requirement to power down its mid-frequency sonar when a whale is spotted 2,200 yards away.
“Legal experts said the case raises broad questions about the military's obligation to obey environmental laws,” The Washington Post reports.
-- Rebekah Gordon