Activists applaud court decision that stalls Navy's Project ELF
As environmental victories go, it's small and rather late in the game. But those activists applauding a recent federal court decision that temporarily curbs the United States Navy's plans to expand a submarine communications project say they hope to turn the minor delay into a major defeat.Skip to next paragraph
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Project ELF, which may be stalled for as much as a year unless the Navy appeals the ruling, involves a partially built antenna network in the northern woods of Wisconsin and Michigan. Its aim: to send coded signals at an extremely low frequency (ELF) to submerged US ballistic missile submarines. Unlike higher frequency radio signals, which cannot travel far under water, ELF signals would allow the Navy to contact its submarines at their operating depths. Currently, submarines must surface or trail a long antenna to receive messages.
The Navy insists that without the ELF system its subs are more vulnerable. The Navy has said ELF is essential to the security of its Trident fleet now under construction. Critics counter that ELF is outmoded, hazardous to human health and behavior, and effectively steps up the US-Soviet nuclear arms race.
The project has been proposed under other names and on a larger scale since the late 1960s. Mothballed by the Carter administration but given the green light by the Reagan White House in October 1981, its history has been one of uncertain stops and starts. It is expected to cost $370 million, more than one-third of which has already been spent.
Environmentalists - later joined by peace groups - have vigorously fought ELF. ''Stop Project ELF,'' a 2,700-member Madison-based group with a branch in Michigan, has long been at the core of the opposition.
Polls taken over the years suggest most residents of affected areas don't want the project. Their congressmen as well as the current governors and senators of both states - with the major exception of Wisconsin Republican Sen. Robert Kasten - oppose ELF. And a House Appropriations Committee report two years ago concluded, ''ELF is an outmoded concept in search of a mission and should be discontinued.''
Yet Congress has continued to fund the project on a year-by-year basis. Using federal land near Clam Lake, Wis., the Navy built a 28-mile antenna some years back, which has been operating as a test facility. Last December the Navy used federal condemnation power to acquire the right of way to use Michigan state forest land for an antenna that will be twice as big and linked to the Wisconsin system 165 miles away.
It is those plans for Michigan, the two-state linkup, and improvements in the antenna system in Wisconsin that have currently been put on hold by the court's ruling. The state of Wisconsin sued the Department of Defense last July on grounds that the Navy was relying on an outdated (1977) environmental impact statement. The court ordered the Navy to provide an updated statement.
Though project opponents have long argued that exposure to the radiation of ELF transmissions is hazardous to health and behavior, ELF's military role has increasingly come under fire in recent years. Many critics, including Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Anthony S. Earl, argue that ELF is mainly an offensive rather than a defensive system.