Did We Not Learn From Star Trek 4? No Whales…Bad News.

Posted: November 18, 2008 in Scifi
Tags: , , , , ,


Before delving into the whale/navy debate article, why are I making this a scifi entry on my blog. The premise of Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home is: “To save Earth from an alien probe, Kirk and his crew go back in time to retrieve the only beings who can communicate with it, humpback whales.” Oops, spoiler alert. In all honesty, while the story had fantastical elements, the theme of protecting whales from extinction and yet, it still has relevance to the issue at hand. 

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices voiced skepticism Wednesday about a federal judge’s limits on naval sonar exercises off Southern California to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.

The case, which pits military against environmental interests, arose because the Navy skipped the usual environmental impact statement for anti-submarine exercises planned from February 2007 to January 2009.

After the Natural Resources Defense Council sued, a district court judge in Los Angeles restricted the Navy’s use of the mid-frequency active sonar, saying it would lead to a “near certainty” of irreparable harm to marine life. A U.S. appeals court affirmed but eased the restrictions on the location and timing of sonar exercises for the strike groups being deployed overseas.

The case tests the latitude for judges reviewing whether military exercises meet the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act and the ability of an administration to resist a judge’s order.

President Bush has asserted that the Navy should be able to undertake sonar exercises without the usual environmental-rules compliance.

Justices’ comments during the vigorous hour of arguments suggested they might be narrowly divided. Chief Justice John Roberts and other conservatives appeared poised to secure a majority to find that U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper failed to account for the urgency of the Navy’s exercises.

Liberal justices, including John Paul Stevens, voiced greater concern that the administration lacked grounds to forgo environmental procedures.

U.S. Solicitor General Gregory Garre said “the ability to locate and track an enemy submarine” is “critical to the nation’s own security.” Garre said Cooper’s declaration about harm to mammals is “utterly belied by” a preliminary environmental assessment and by naval sonar exercises conducted there for more than 40 years.

Garre said any injuries to dolphins or whales would be temporary, for example to their feeding or breeding patterns. He added that Judge Cooper discounted “vital public interests.”

Richard Kendall of the Natural Resources Defense Council said “beaked whales have (been) stranded repeatedly around the world” by sonar.

Sonar works as vessels emit a loud noise underwater and listen for whether the noise bounces back off a submarine. Kendall likened the sound for marine mammals to that a jet engine would make in the courtroom “multiplied … by 2,000 times.”

Several justices focused on whether Judge Cooper had fully weighed the Navy’s interests.

“Is Judge Cooper an expert on anti-submarine warfare?” Justice Samuel Alito asked.

Chief Justice Roberts said Cooper apparently failed to assess, for example, how harm to mammals might be offset by the Navy’s effort to ensure a North Korean submarine could not approach Pearl Harbor undetected.

Yet Justice Stevens questioned how the Navy could know the extent of potential harm. “The very fact that you need an (environmental impact statement) is because you don’t know what environmental consequences may ensue,” Stevens said.

A ruling is likely by June.


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