Naval Battle

Marine mammal supporters and others attempt last-minute maneuver to derail Navy's war training plans

| October 28, 2010

Two major decisions this week could very well greenlight the Department of the Navy's plans to expand training exercises, try out new weapons systems and enhance training capabilities within its Northwest Training Range Complex, a vast range of ocean and airspace off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and Northern California, and some land and airspace from Washington into Idaho. Despite the late hour, though, local activists and governmental officials are trying to slow down such plans out of concerns about the impact on wildlife.

On Monday, the Navy issued a record of decision (ROD) to implement its preferred alternative in the final environmental impact statement for the project. And any day now, the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to issue a letter of authorization for the department to "take" a certain specified number of species, and a ruling detailing mitigation and monitoring measures to minimize impacts.

So it all seems pretty much a done deal. Nevertheless, there's been an upwelling protest that continues even to this final hour.

It began on Sept. 10, when the Navy published its final environmental impact statement on its plans for the training range for a 30-day review period. Congressman Mike Thompson quickly persuaded the department to extend comments to Oct. 24. The Environmental Protection Information Center put out an action alert and circulated a petition calling for Congressional hearings. On Oct. 19, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors penned a stern letter to the Navy noting that "the only viable mitigation for our coast is complete avoidance," and demanding another 60 days to comment on the FEIS. Prior to Humboldt's letter, Mendocino County sent even sterner warnings. On Oct. 21, Congressman Thompson sent another letter to the Navy thanking it for extending the comment period, noting his "support for the overall mission of the Navy" but repeating that he had a number of unresolved concerns -- including the increased use of sonar, which is considered the culprit in some mass strandings and deaths of marine mammals, even though research on sonar's effects on marine mammals has not been completed.

A couple of media outlets picked up the cry, including USA Today and the online Daily Kos.

"After widespread and intense opposition to its plans in 2009, the Navy has ignored or dismissed some 1,000 pages of critical comments in issuing its final environmental impact statement for this program," reads the headline for an Oct. 21 action alert posted by Carol Van Strum on Daily Kos. "... Only the U.S. Congress can stop this carnage now. And only intense pressure from constituents and coastal governments will goad Congress into acting."

This and other action alerts urge people to demand not only a delay in the Navy's record of decision (too late), but also that NMFS extend its comment period before it issues its permit to the Navy. But NMFS spokesperson Monica Allen said on Tuesday that the public comment period was late last summer. It's over.

Van Strum, and others, have repeatedly said that the permit the Navy requested from NMFS will allow the take of 11.7 million marine mammals in the NWTRC over the course of five years (the period of the permit). Van Strum and others have attributed it to a letter sent by several legislators earlier this year to the Navy, but that letter was concerning its plans to expand activities on a number of ranges along U.S. coastal waters, not just in the Northwest Training Range Complex.

Navy spokesperson Sheila Murray with the Northwest Region office in Silverdale, Wash., said earlier this week in a phone interview that the Navy anticipates the expansion of its training activities in the NWTRC to result in a yearly take of marine mammals of 129,863 -- a figure that is, indeed, given in the FEIS' section on marine mammals. That would be 649,315 in five years (not 11.7 million). She added that training has been going on in the NWTRC since before World War II, but she didn't know offhand what the yearly allowed take of mammals had been.

Van Strum, in her piece in the Kos, said that "'take' is a legal euphemism for to kill or maim."

Murray objected to the characterization, saying the Navy doesn't anticipate any mortalities nor did it request a permit to specifically be allowed to kill any marine mammals.

"The public doesn't understand what 'take' means," Murray said. "And when I try to explain it to them they think I'm just giving them spin. 'Take' is not a word the Navy would have picked. That's regulatory language."

"Take" includes harassment that could disrupt a creature's behavior. The Navy and NMFS have indicated they don't think such harassment will be significant enough to seriously impact species. But Thompson says the Navy's research is insufficient to make that determination.

Murray, exasperated, said that most of the activity will take place 10,000 feet in the air, and very little sea activity will take place in Oregon and Northern California. (The ROD notes that "activities off the coast of Oregon and Northern California would occur ... greater than 12 nautical miles from the coast for air activities and approximately 50 nautical miles for vessel transits.")

Murray added that there's been ample opportunity for the public to learn about the project since 2007, including a comment period on the draft EIS which was extended three times. There was even the latest "public comment" period, with the Thompson extension, following the FEIS's release, not a normal procedure.

"When the final EIS came out, there was what's called a 'wait' period or a 'cooling-off' period of 30 days [before] the Navy could make a record of decision," said Murray. "It's not a public comment period. But because the public demanded it, the Navy decided to let people comment."

In the ROD, the Navy notes it received 48 comments during this cooling-off period, most regarding issues raised after the draft EIS was released and addressed in the FEIS. The Navy did respond at length to Thompson's comments, however, and noted that among other things, the Navy has consulted with the national agencies who oversee protection of marine mammals and other species.

Amber Jamieson with EPIC said Tuesday afternoon by phone that her group is still urging people to sign their petition and demand congressional hearings.

"Many, many people didn't know the timeline on this," she said. "I would say most people don't even know what it's about."

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