Supreme Court Sonar Decision a Blow to Environmentalists

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups had sued to stop the Navy from using sonar in its training exercises, saying that the loud sounds harmed whales and other marine mammals. Dolphins, whales, sea lions and other marine mammals live in the area where the Navy conducts its training exercises.

A U.S. district court in California sided with the NRDC in February, issuing an injunction that required the Navy to shut down the sonar whenever a marine mammal was seen within 2,200 yards of a vessel.

But in its first decision of the new term, a split U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision, siding 5-4 with the Navy. Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that the California court had “abused its discretion” by “second-guessing” the Navy’s views.

In his decision, he said that U.S. adversaries have at least 300 diesel-electric submarines that “can operate almost silently, making them extremely difficult to detect and track.”

Sonar, which locates submarines by sending out pulses of sound and tracking the sound’s echoes, is the only way to find such enemy submarines, the Navy had argued — and so sonar operators need to learn to use it.

In his decision, Roberts wrote that the Navy had been using sonar off of the California coast for 40 years with “without a single documented sonar-related injury to any marine mammal,” and that “The president — the commander-in-chief — has determined that the training with active sonar is ‘essential to national security.’ […] We give great deference to the professional judgment of military authorities.”

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito agreed with the majority opinion.

In a partial dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer agreed that the California court had abused its discretion, but said that the Navy had been training under the California court’s restrictions since Feb. 29, and said the restrictions should be kept in place provisionally until the Navy could complete an acceptable environmental impact report.

In their dissenting opinion, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter disagreed that the California had abused its discretion. In her opinion, Ginsburg cited research linking sonar to mass strandings of marine mammals, hemorrhaging around the animals’ brains and ears, changes in their nervous systems and lesions in vital organs.

“In my view, this likely harm […] cannot be lightly dismissed, even in the face of an alleged risk to the effectiveness of the Navy’s 14 training exercises” she wrote.

In a press conference, an NRDC spokesman aimed to minimize the importance of the decision, saying the ruling was a narrow one.

“I don’t think it establishes a bright line rule,” said Joel Reynolds, director of NRDC’s marine mammal protection program, according to the Associated Press. “The court acknowledged that environmental interests are important, but in this case that the interest in training was greater, was more significant than interest in the environment.”