Supreme Court lifts limits on Navy sonar near whales
The justices said restrictions off the coast of southern California jeopardized national security.
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In an important caveat, the chief justice added: “Military interests do not always trump other considerations, and we have not held that they do. In this case, however, the proper determination of where the public interest lies does not strike us as a close question.”Skip to next paragraph
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In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the court-ordered mitigation measures were “manageable” and justified. She said the Navy’s own assessments predicted “substantial and irreparable harm to marine mammals.”
Joel Reynolds, a senior NRDC attorney, said the high court left in place undisputed portions of the federal judge’s order concerning Navy training. As a result, the Navy must continue to abide by a 12-mile coastal buffer zone and must continue to avoid the Catalina Basin, an area with a high concentration of marine mammals.
Mr. Reynolds said the NRDC would continue to monitor the Navy’s use of sonar and to push for more safeguards.
He said despite the loss at the high court, the sonar case and other efforts are paying dividends for the environment.
“This case is the most recent in a series of challenges brought by this group in the last 10 years,” Reynolds said. “We’ve seen a definite change in the level of attention paid to environmental impacts on the part of the Navy. They are now in the process of completing environmental impact statements for planned sonar activities, not just off southern California, but off the southeast coast, Hawaii, and off the Washington coast.”
Reynolds added, “We’ve seen significant progress.”
When the case was argued in October, the dispute attracted attention in part because the Bush administration was framing it as a major showdown over the power of federal judges versus the power of the executive branch and the commander in chief.
The justices did not address those arguments. Rather, the court conducted a standard balancing of interests in assessing the lower court rulings.
Where the lower courts sided with environmentalists, the Supreme Court majority sided with the Navy. The majority justices said the ultimate issue in the case was whether the Navy had to complete an environmental impact statement. “A court concluding that the Navy is required to prepare an EIS has many remedial tools at its disposal, including declaratory relief or an injunction tailored to the preparation of an EIS rather than the Navy’s training in the interim,” Roberts wrote. “In the meantime, we see no basis for jeopardizing national security, as the present injunction does.”