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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy can conduct sonar training exercises off the southern California coast without restrictions designed to protect whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a defeat for environmentalists.
In the most significant environmental case of its new term and its first ruling of the term, the high court threw out a federal judge's injunction that had required the Navy to take precautions during submarine-hunting exercises.
Environmental groups brought the lawsuit and said the intense sound waves can harm or even kill 37 species of marine mammals, including sea lions and endangered blue whales, by interfering with their ability to navigate and communicate.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion for the court's conservative majority, said the overall public interest in the case tipped strongly in favor of the Navy.
He said the Navy's need to conduct realistic training with active sonar to respond to the threat posed by enemy submarines outweighed the interests advanced by the environmentalists.
The court lifted the restrictions in the injunction that the Navy had challenged, including a requirement that it stop using sonar when marine mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards and to reduce sonar decibel levels under certain ocean conditions.
Liberal Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer dissented in part and agreed in part with the ruling, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter disagreed with the entire decision.
The dispute involved 14 training exercises off the California coast that began in February of last year and are scheduled to end in January.
President George W. Bush intervened in the dispute by citing the national security necessity of the training and exempting the Navy from the environmental laws at the heart of the legal challenge.
But a U.S. appeals court rejected the White House's effort to exempt the Navy from the laws, prompting the administration to appeal to the Supreme Court and to argue that the judges should have deferred to the judgment of the Navy and Bush.
In reading part of his ruling from the bench, Roberts agreed with the administration and criticized the judges in California for "second-guessing" the views of the Navy.
The Bush administration argued that there has been no documented case of sonar-related injury to marine mammals in the 40 years of exercises off the southern California coast.
Roberts said the Navy had previously taken voluntary measures to address concerns about marine mammals.
He said the court did not address the ultimate underlying legal claim that the Navy must prepare an environmental impact statement. Such an assessment is expected to be completed early next year.
In her written dissent, Justice Ginsburg cited the substantial and irreparable harm to marine mammals, saying sonar has been linked to mass strandings and hemorrhaging around the brain and ears.
She said the training exercises serve critical interests, but they do not authorize the Navy to violate the environmental laws.
Joel Reynolds of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit, called it a "narrow ruling" and told reporters it would have minimal practical impact as only one training exercise remains.
Editing by David Alexander and Cynthia Osterman