Sonar Settlement

By Rebekah Gordon / December 29, 2008 at 5:00 AM

After years of legal wrangling over whether the Navy had done enough to counter potential harm to whales from mid-frequency sonar used in anti-submarine training exercises, the service and environmental groups announced Dec. 27 that a settlement was reached.

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

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups sued the Navy in 2005, claiming the service had failed to conduct an adequate environmental review before commencing training off the coast of Southern California. Environmentalists have argued that sonar disrupts whale feeding and migration and, in some cases, causes injury, stranding and death.

The settlement is separate from the ruling made by the Supreme Court in November in Winter v. NRDC, which found that the need for realistic training to counter the growing threat of stealthy diesel-electric submarines, as judged necessary by military authorities, is of far greater public interest than environmentalists’ concerns for potential harm.

According to the Navy, the settlement does not require any additional mitigation measures to protect whales and “essentially adopts” the Navy’s program of environmental analysis and research that it had implemented before the lawsuit was filed. The service will continue to implement protective measures it developed in partner with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

According to a statement on the NRDC’s Web site, the settlement requires the Navy to “complete a full schedule of environmental reviews” for major training exercises.

“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,” Joel Reynolds, senior attorney and director of the NRDC’s marine mammal program, said in the statement. “((W))hile it does not resolve disagreements with the Navy over operational safeguards required to reduce sonar's risk to whales and other marine life, 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.”

According to the NRDC, additional terms of the settlement that the Navy agreed to include:

• Funding $14.75 million in new marine mammal research;
• Public disclosure of previously classified information on sonar, including information that had been protected in NRDC v. Winter;
• A cooling off period to allow negotiation when future sonar disagreements arise;
• A payment of $1.1 million in attorney's fees for settling both the 2005 lawsuit and a 2006 lawsuit regarding sonar use around Hawaii.