Groups sue Navy for plan to continue sonar training

LOS ANGELES – State coastal regulators and environmental groups separately sued the Navy on Thursday because of its decision to continue sonar training exercises off California without precautions opponents contend are necessary to protect marine life.

Earlier this year, the California Coastal Commission approved the exercises during a two-year period only if the Navy took safeguards to protect marine mammals and sea turtles. Among the restrictions were avoiding coastal waters with a large whale and dolphin population and lowering sonar levels during periods of low visibility, when it’s harder for ship personnel to spot sea life.

The Navy sought the commission’s approval for the training maneuvers, then said the commission lacked the authority to impose the restrictions.

The commission contends federal law gives it the power to limit the Navy’s exercises to comply with a state law that protects coastal and marine resources.

The Navy periodically conducts sonar drills in the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii, along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast to practice hunting submarines in nearshore waters.

Critics say sonar has harmful effects on whales, possibly by damaging their hearing, and other marine mammals worldwide. A congressional report last year found the Navy’s sonar exercises have been blamed for at least six cases of mass deaths and stranding among whales in the past decade.

The Navy has said factors including pollution and starvation can cause marine animals to be beached.

“We’re disappointed with the decision to pursue litigation on this,” said Vice Adm. Barry Costello, commander of the U.S. Third Fleet. “But we’re doing our training that’s essential to the Navy to support our armed forces and we’ll go forward and work with all the appropriate players on these lawsuits.”

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