Supreme Court Sides With U.S. Navy in Dispute Over Sonar Use, Whale Safety

Justices: National security outweighs alleged harm to marine mammals from sonar.

ByABC News
November 12, 2008, 10:37 AM

Nov. 12, 2008— -- The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the U.S. Navy's need to conduct realistic training with active sonar outweighs the concerns of environmentalists that the sonar could damage marine life.

The decision means the Navy can go forward with exercises off the coast of Southern California and does not have to sharply limit sonar use.

Chief Justice John Roberts began the opinion by quoting George Washington: "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."

"This case was vital to our Navy and nation's security, and we are pleased with the Supreme Court's decision in this matter," the Hon. Donald C. Winter, Secretary of the Navy, said Wednesday. "We can now continue to train our sailors effectively, under realistic combat conditions, and certify our crews "combat ready" while continuing to be good stewards of the marine environment."     

But Roberts, who was joined in full by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, also wrote, "Of course, military interests do not always trump other considerations, and we have not held that they do. In this case, however, the proper determination of where the public interest lies does not strike us as a close question."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which brought the case, pointed out that the ruling is narrow enough that it leaves several principles in place to protect the animals from the effects of the sonar.

"The Supreme Court eliminated two of the injunction's mitigation measures out of deference to the Navy's claims that they would impinge on training," Joel Reynolds, NRDC's marine mammal program director said in a statement. "The court did not upset the underlying determination that the Navy likely violated the law by failing to prepare an environmental impact statement."

Environmentalists had conveyed fear that the court's decision could set a dangerous precedent, affording the government a blank check for the use of sonar, but NRDC attorney Richard Kendall, who argued the case before the Court, expressed some measure of relief.