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Sonar Hearing SF

Mark J. Palmer Earth Island Institute - Dec. 16, 2006

A good turn out of grassroots activists, important public testimony by experts and just plain sperts, plus 2,900 e-mails helped turn the tide against the US Navy before the California Coastal Commission this morning (Friday, Dec. 15th) in San Francisco.

The CCC voted unanimously, much to the Navy's stated annoyance, to refrain from approving a federal consistency finding that the Navy's training exercises in Southern California are compatible with the California Coastal Plan. The CCC instead continued the discussion to their next meeting in January, while asking CCC staff to negotiate better protection with the Navy.

Under the provisions of the federal Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), federal agencies with projects that have an effect on the coastal zone of coastal states must get a consistency approval from the state. The Navy has not done so for many of its activities, and, under threat of lawsuits from environmentalists, they have been working to plug this gap in their planning and environmental review.

However, rather than working to incorporate environmental protection in their training exercises for sailors, the Navy tried today to bulldoze the CCC by claiming their activities are simply activities that have been going on for many decades off the So. Cal. coast and no big deal. The CCC staff accepted this vague claim, unfortunately, but thanks to the work of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in rallying public opposition, the Commission itself rejected the staff recommendation and instead pushed the issue onto the next Commission meeting in January, with a request that CCC staff negotiate better protection and mitigation for whales and other wildlife.

If the Navy refuses, this could set up a violation of the CZMA with the state of California versus the Navy.

NRDC provided a very detailed list of specific questions and mitigations that should be considered by the CCC, and it appears that the CCC will insist on many of them from the Navy.

There were about a dozen speakers at the hearing, evenly divided into representatives of groups (Earth Island, Seaflow, NRDC, In Defense of Animals, StopLFAS) and individuals speaking for themselves. Only one speaker -- an idiot from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce -- spoke in favor of the Navy's position. The Commission staff announced that they had received (as of last night) 2,900 e-mails from citizens via NRDC's online alert system.

Commissioner Sara Wan (as in so many other cases) deserves special mention for her excellent intervention against the staff recommendation, outlining in detail how the proposal by the Navy left the CCC with virtually no information on impacts or on their mitigation proposals. Other commissioners agreed with her, and the decision was unanimous against the Navy.

The Navy hurt its case badly by its very arrogant attitude towards the CCC. They claimed they had only very little activity that would impact the California coastal zone, and claimed that mid-frequency sonars would be used 50-80 miles offshore. Their presentation was by a Rear Admiral Len Hering (full of red herrings, indeed), who even brought two lowly sailors up, saying they represented the "thousands of other men and women in uniform" who would benefit from the training. In answers to the CCC about the use of sonars, he was evasive and also said negotiations were ongoing with the "appropriate federal agency" (National Marine Fisheries Service) to deal with any marine mammal issues, implying that the CCC should be satisfied with that rather than assert their own legitimate concerns with the consistency determination. He even expostulated at one point "We're at war, you know!" The Commissioner questioning him calmly responded, "Yes, we're aware of that." (Score 1 for the whales, 0 for the Navy!)

Rear Admiral Hering insisted that "two battle groups" were already enroute to their training exercises off So. Cal. to do battle training in February. This left the Commission with the next meeting in Long Beach (January 10-12) to re-consider their action. Again, it is not clear what might happen at that meeting if the Navy refuses to cooperate or rebuffs the CCC on mitigation proposals. Environmentalists will need to get a good contingency to attend that meeting, as well, unless the CCC decides to postpone action further.

A big thank you to all who turned out for the hearing and sent e-mails! There was not a bad presentation from our side of the aisle!

Special thanks to Michael Jasny and Cara Horowitz of NRDC for rallying the troops and doing such a great job of outlining strong options for the Commission.

If you would like a copy of the excellent letter prepared by NRDC that outlines the problems with the Navy's proposal and provides detailed recommendations for steps the Commission should take on this issue, contact me or Michael Jasny of NRDC.

This will make a very nice Christmas present for the whales...


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