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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, September 17, 2007

Blanket consent sought for sonar training around Hawaii

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

DRAFT OF NAVY REPORT ONLINE

The draft environmental impact statement is available at www.govsupport.us/hrc.

Today is the deadline for written comments to be mailed to: Public Affairs Officer, Pacific Missile Range Facility, P.O. Box 128, Kekaha, HI 96752. Comments also can be e-mailed to: deis_hrc@govsupport.us

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Today is the deadline for public comment on the Navy's draft environmental impact statement for increased ship and submarine training and testing at what's known as the Hawai'i Range Complex.

The Navy hopes the study will lead to a blanket authorization for sonar training around Hawai'i and do away with the need for case-by-case applications for permits from a federal regulatory agency that monitors harm to whales.

The study calls for increased training and testing over 2.3 million square nautical miles around Hawai'i to include antisubmarine warfare sonar, as well as testing on micro-satellite launches, laser-directed energy and hypersonic vehicles capable of speeds in excess of Mach 4 (around 3,000 mph).

The environmental impact statement now in draft form at about 1,700 pages also lays the groundwork for what the Navy hopes will be a more efficient way of complying with the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the use of active, or "pinging," sonar.

The last environmental impact statement for Kaua'i's Pacific Missile Range Facility was completed in 1998.

The current study comes with the Navy under increasing pressure from environmental groups over its use of midfrequency active sonar and concerns over its effects on marine mammals.

The Defense Department in January exempted the Navy and its use of sonar from the federal marine animal protection law for two years, prompting an outcry from environmentalists.

In May, several environmental organizations sued in federal court to block the Navy from planned exercises using high-volume sonar in Hawaiian waters.

VITAL TRAINING AREA

The high-intensity, midfrequency sonar has the potential to damage several endangered species that frequent Hawaiian waters, including marine mammals such as Hawaiian monk seals and whales, according to the environmental legal firm Earthjustice.

The Navy said it has developed protective measures, including having lookouts for whales and dolphins. When the animals are detected within 450 yards of the sonar dome, ships or submarines reduce sonar transmission levels.

At the same time, the Navy said it considers the Hawai'i Range Complex "a unique and vital area for training sailors before they deploy into harm's way."

In 2006, a six-month exemption granted during biennial Rim of the Pacific, or Rimpac, naval exercises off Hawai'i led to a legal challenge, and a federal judge briefly prohibited midfrequency sonar use during the war games.

PERMIT TO HARASS

The Navy said the latest examination is part of a series of environmental reports to be produced on training plans around Hawai'i, near Guam and the Mariana Islands, and at East Coast and West Coast sea ranges.

Responding to growing scientific evidence that sonar can disrupt, injure or kill whales or dolphins, the Navy for the first time in 2006 sought a federal permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to disrupt or harass the sea creatures when it used midfrequency sonar during Rimpac war games.

When the current environmental study is approved, possibly next May, the Navy hopes the National Marine Fisheries Service, which issues what are called "incidental take permits" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, will instead issue a blanket letter of authorization for all Navy exercises.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.