The new Navy Undersea Warfare Training Range (USWTR), being planned for off the coast of northern Florida, has hit a roadblock that’s been fairly visible since the location was announced last July: environmental groups are challenging the permitting process that allows construction to commence before the Navy completes its environmental assessment of future operations there. The USWTR will encompass 500 square miles, beginning 50 miles offshore, while a key winter birthing and nursing ground for North Atlantic right whales extends out to 20 miles offshore.
UPDATE, 10/2013: Court sides with Navy, USWTR plans continue forward
While the Navy released its final EIS in July (see AEI summary), including its proposed operational and mitigation measures to protect whales, it became clear soon after that the Navy was only applying for permits from NOAA related to construction activities; the Navy said it would apply for permits to allow actual Navy training activities in 2012 or 2013, in advance of planned opening of the range in 2014. (Update, 2015: the USWTR website now estimates that operations will commence in 2019; no operations permits filed yet.) The EIS indicates that the range will be heavily used: up to 480 anti-submarine mid-frequency active sonar exercises per year, including 100 ship-based events (2/week on average, lasting 3-4 hours each).
From the start, NRDC and other environmental groups questioned the Navy’s legal standing to commit to $100 million in construction costs before receiving National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) permits that would approve their plans for operations, including safety measures to protect marine life. The new lawsuit alleges that the Navy and the NMFS failed to fully study the environmental impacts of building and operating the training range at this location, especially consideration of more protective alternatives. “The Navy decided to construct the range now, even though it acknowledges that more research needs to be done on the range’s environmental impacts before operations can begin,” the groups contend. In documents filed with the court, the groups argue that the agencies must first address the impacts from operating the range before deciding to construct it.
“The Navy’s decision to shoot first and study the environmental impacts of using this facility later simply makes no sense,” said Sharon Young, field director of The Humane Society of the United States. “The Navy is playing Russian roulette with one of our most imperiled wildlife species.”
The USWTR would be the Navy’s third “instrumented range,” with others already in operation in California and the Bahamas. These ranges have bottom-mounted hydrophones and other instruments, which allow much more complete monitoring for the presence of animals, as well as detailed feedback and assessment during and after training missions. In delaying the process of applying for permits for operations, the Navy and NMFS acknowledged the need for more study of environmental impacts, though it is unclear whether the intention is to create a formal Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement or to simply apply more current science to the future operational proposals and permit conditions. It is likely that we will have better information in a couple years (ongoing research on both population distribution and effects of sonar are steadily adding to our understanding), so in that way, the Navy’s approach makes sense. It is also likely that the Navy’s currently flawed “risk function curve”, which likely under-estimates behavioral impacts at medium and long ranges – especially relevant to considering impacts in and around the Right whale critical habitat that sits 30 miles from the range – will be revised by then. In addition, just this month, NOAA announced a multi-pronged effort to improve its own sonar impact assessments, and indicated that setting some areas off-limits may be the most effective way to protect whales. All this may be behind NOAA’s willingness to separate the construction and operational permits; nonetheless, the approach does appear to put the cart before the horse, and may well, as claimed in this lawsuit, violate Endangered Species Act provisions that require consideration of a full range of alternatives before the “irreversible and irretrievable commitment of resources” on construction.