By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006
The civilian agency in charge of marine issues has sharply challenged the Navy's plans to build an underwater sonar training range in the Atlantic Ocean, saying that the military significantly underestimated the danger posed to whales and other marine mammals and that the science the Navy used to reach its conclusions is flawed.
In a technical letter to the Navy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said the Navy had neglected to address the likelihood that its mid-frequency sonar would kill some whales and that the highly endangered right whale makes its annual migrations near the proposed site off North Carolina and could be threatened. But most telling, the NOAA letter said that the Navy had used a measure for allowable noise 100 times as high as the level recommended by the agency.
The sonar testing range is a high priority for the Navy, which says that it needs an Atlantic Ocean site to train sailors to detect foreign submarines that come near American shores. But it is trying to get the project approved at a time when scientists have become increasingly convinced that the loud blasts of active sonar have caused whales to strand themselves and die.
The NOAA letter, which is a formal comment on the Navy's environmental impact statement regarding the sonar range, is the most public indication so far of what agency insiders have described as friction between NOAA and Navy officials regarding the sonar issue. In the past, NOAA has generally supported the Navy's plans with reservations, but the most recent letter makes little effort to hide significant disagreements.
NOAA, for instance, wrote that the Navy predicted only lower-level "harassment" of whales by the sonar, despite recent fatal and near-fatal mass strandings in Hawaii and elsewhere that many scientists think were caused by Navy sonar.
"NOAA believes the Navy should seriously reconsider the potential for mortality of [whales] due to strandings related to activities" in the proposed sonar testing range, the letter said.
NOAA officials did not respond yesterday to requests for comment about the specific issues raised in the letter, which was sent on Jan. 30. A Navy official said the service would like to respond, but that it could not until the letter was reviewed and a formal response prepared.
A representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group which has sued the Navy over its sonar programs, said that the NOAA letter was remarkable, given the pressure the civilian agency was known to be under.
"What the NOAA letter does is confirm that the Navy analysis is fundamentally flawed," said NRDC lawyer Michael Jasny. In the past, his organization has accused NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service of minimizing the effects of sonar on whales, but he said that this time, the agency stood by the evolving science.
"They're an agency with their own institutional integrity," Jasny said. "No doubt NOAA -- like other agencies -- can bend. But here the Navy is asking them to snap."
"The NOAA letter is truly unbelievable," said Kyla Bennett of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national whistle-blower organization that supports government workers who come into conflict with policymakers and elected officials.
"It takes an amazing amount of courage for a federal employee to take this kind of strong stance against the Navy under the Bush administration," she said.
The NOAA letter was a formal comment on the Navy's draft environmental impact statement for the proposed sonar testing range, which the Navy wants to set up about 40 miles east of Camp Lejeune, N.C. The 500-square-nautical-mile range would be used for submarine warfare exercises, and would include a large array of sonar buoys and sound detection devices.
In an e-mail statement, Navy press officer Lt. William Marks said the Navy is reviewing all comments about its proposed sonar range, that NOAA "is a cooperating agency with the Navy" regarding the project, and that the Navy and NOAA will meet to discuss their differences. He said the Navy expects to have a final environmental impact statement ready by the fall.
As the NOAA letter made clear, however, the two sides have been meeting for years on the subject and have deep disagreements about both science and policy regarding sonar and whales.
Much of the letter was taken up with a technical discussion about how much noise a whale can stand before it changes its behavior and suffers harm. The Navy relied on tests involving whales in captivity and concluded they would generally not be harmed by sound below 190 decibels. But NOAA argued that whales and other marine mammals in the wild are likely to react differently to noise than captive, trained animals and said that studies of animals in the oceans supported their view. It recommended a maximum allowable noise level of 173 decibels, which is more than 100 times quieter than the 190 decibel standard.
In the letter, the NOAA officials said they had communicated their views to the Navy numerous times.
The letter is not currently on the NOAA Web site but is available from the agency. It was made more broadly public by NRDC.
Researchers began focusing on the potential effects of active sonar on marine mammals after 17 beaked whales stranded in the Bahamas immediately following a Navy exercise in 2000. The Navy later concluded that its mid-frequency, active sonar was the likely cause of the stranding.
Since then, strandings have been reported after American and international naval maneuvers with sonar off the Canary Islands, Hawaii, Washington state and North Carolina. The 2005 stranding and deaths of 37 whales, including three different species, along the North Carolina shore remain under investigation by NOAA. The animals died near where the Navy wants to build the sonar training range.