President Bush exempted the Navy from an environmental law so it can continue using sonar in its anti-submarine warfare training off the California coast — a practice critics say is harmful to whales and other marine mammals.
The White House announced yesterday that Mr. Bush had signed the exemption Tuesday while traveling in the Middle East.
The Navy training exercises, including the use of sonar, "are in the paramount interest of the United States" and its national security, Mr. Bush said in a memorandum.
"This exemption will enable the Navy to train effectively and to certify carrier and expeditionary strike groups for deployment in support of worldwide operational and combat activities, which are essential to national security," the memo said.
The decision drew immediate criticism from environmentalists who had fought to stop the Navy's sonar training.
"The president's action is an attack on the rule of law," said Joel Reynolds, director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "By exempting the Navy from basic safeguards under both federal and state law, the president is flouting the will of Congress, the decision of the California Coastal Commission and a ruling by the federal court."
NRDC spokesman Daniel Hinerfeld said the group would be filing papers with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to challenge Mr. Bush's exemption.
A federal judge in Los Angeles had issued a preliminary injunction earlier this month requiring the Navy to create a 12-nautical-mile, no-sonar zone along the California coast and to post trained lookouts to watch for marine mammals before and during exercises. Sonar would have to be shut down when mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards, under the order.
The court found that using mid-frequency active sonar violated the Coastal Zone Management Act and Mr. Bush exempted the Navy from a section of that act.
Complying with the environmental law would "undermine the Navy's ability to conduct realistic training exercises that are necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups," Mr. Bush said.
The NRDC had sued to force the Navy to lessen the harm of its sonar exercises. In November, a federal appeals court said the sonar problem needed to be fixed.
Critics contend sonar has harmful effects on whales, possibly by damaging their hearing, and other marine mammals worldwide. The council's lawsuit asserts that the Navy's sonar causes whales and other mammals to beach themselves.
In an argument that has been going on for years, the Navy has continually argued that the exercises are vital for training and that it works to minimizes the risk to marine life.