Navy Backs Down On Sonar, Not On DU

Marine mammals won new protection against sonar under an agreement between the U.S. Navy and environmental groups announced October 13. The agreement limits the Navy's peacetime use of a controversial low-frequency sonar system to less than 1 percent of the worlds' oceans. Environmental groups argue that the sonar, known as the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System Low-Frequency Active (SURTASS LFA), can harm or kill marine life.

When the National Marine Fisheries Service gave the Navy a permit to use SURTASS in 75 percent of the world's oceans, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other environmental groups challenged the decision in court. Judge Elizabeth Laporte struck down the permit in August and ordered the parties to come to agreement. The accord, however, allows the Navy to use low-frequency sonar along the eastern coast of Asia, a 1.5 million-square-mile area that includes the waters off Okinawa. This area has been described as “the Galapagos of the East,” and is home to the endangered dugong, a relative of the manatee.

Researchers have also found evidence of “the bends,” a condition experienced by human divers who surface too quickly, in whales found beached in the Canary Islands after a nearby naval maneuver deployed mid-frequency sonar. SURTASS is a lower frequency than the type that is suspected in the May deaths of 13 harbor porpoises in the San Juan Islands, but the agreement is “a good step because low-frequency active sonar travels so far,” said David Bain, a researcher with the University of Washington.

The environmental groups' success in this lawsuit has fueled a push for further limits on the use of sonar. The European Parliament will be addressing a bill introduced last month calling for limits on sonar use by NATO. However, the U.S. Navy is pushing for legislation that would modify the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, exempting it from environmental regulations that the Navy says impede national security. If the changes are passed and the Navy is exempted from these regulations, the sonar victory may be short-lived.

The Navy has also been embroiled in a dispute over its firing of depleted uranium (DU) shells in fishing grounds off the coast of Washington. The Navy has been testing DU munitions since 1977, but the practice was only recently revealed to the public through an investigation by Glen Milner and Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action in Washington and articles in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Although little research about the effect of this radioactive heavy metal on marine life has been done, DU shells fired on land have been shown to release radiation and produce toxic dust that can enter the food chain and are suspected in high cancer rates among U.S. soldiers and Iraqis. Community groups have been organizing in towns such as Port Townsend, Washington, near a DU munitions storage site, to inform people about DU and develop legal means to keep the Navy from incinerating DU or firing it in nearby waters.

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