SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court has put on hold a lower court injunction blocking the U.S. Navy from using a type of sonar that wildlife supporters say harms whales in exercises off the California coast.
Earlier this month the Natural Resources Defense Council won a federal court’s preliminary injunction against Navy tests using mid-frequency active sonar to detect underwater objects like submarines.
In its Friday opinion, a split three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the lower court had considered only the fate of the whales while ignoring American defense needs.
“The public does indeed have a very considerable interest in preserving our natural environment and especially relatively scarce whales,” Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote. “But it also has an interest in national defense. We are currently engaged in war, in two countries.”
“The safety of the whales must be weighed, and so must the safety of our warriors. And of our country.”
The NRDC claims the sonar, which shoots bursts of sound, is so loud it kills whales. Three tests have taken place off the California coast and 11 more are scheduled through 2009. The Navy said its tests are vital to maintain its military readiness.
“The district court did not explain why a broad, absolute injunction against the use of the medium frequency active sonar in these complex training exercises for two years was necessary to avoid irreparable harm to the environment,” Kleinfeld wrote.
Judge Milan Smith dissented, asking why the Navy had dropped environmental mitigation measures it had used from mid-2006 to January 2007.
“Unlike my colleagues in the majority, I am satisfied that the district court carefully weighed national security and public interest considerations before issuing the preliminary injunction in this case,” he wrote.