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Groups appeal letting Navy train near whales

Jan. 30, 2013 - 08:12PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 30, 2013 - 08:12PM  |  
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SAVANNAH, Ga. Environmental groups asked a federal appeals court Wednesday to overturn a judge's ruling that cleared the Navy to build a $100 million undersea training range off Georgia and Florida in waters that conservationists fear would put warships and submarines too close to endangered right whales.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed its appeal brief with the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta. It asked the court to schedule oral arguments in the case.

The law center represents about a dozen conservation groups opposing the Navy's plans to install a web of cables on the ocean floor about 50 miles offshore to allow sailors from nearby bases in both Georgia and Florida to train with a mix of submarines, surface ships and aircraft. The undersea array would include about 300 sensors covering an area of about 500 square miles.

Conservationists sued in 2010, saying war games in that area would pose a risk to right whales, which migrate each winter to the coasts of Georgia and Florida to give birth to their calves. Experts say only about 400 of the whales remain, and each death brings the species a significant step closer to extinction.

"The construction and operation of the (range) will expose right whales, as well as other threatened and endangered marine mammals and sea turtles, to threats from vessel collisions, entanglements, and other intensive anti-submarine warfare activities," attorney Catherine Wannamaker wrote in the environmentalists' legal brief.

U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood disagreed in a ruling last September. She concluded the Navy took a "hard look" at the potential risks to right whales and reasonably concluded they would be minimal.

Wood's ruling also cited case law that says judges should give "great deference" to military commanders on issues dealing with training, readiness and national security.

The Navy wants to begin installation of the undersea range next year and has agreed to suspend construction during the calving season from November to April. However, the military refused a request to halt training at the site during the same months, saying it would undermine readiness. Wood ruled the Navy considered and "rationally rejected" the precautions requested by conservationists.

In the appeal, environmental attorneys argue the judge erred by allowing the Navy to commit to building the undersea range before it finished studying whether operating the range would put whales and other endangered species at risk.

Wood in her ruling agreed with the Navy that it had appropriately studied whether the location of the range posed a risk to whales. Further studies to determine whether certain activities on the range, regardless of location, might be harmful to endangered animals could be completed later, the judge ruled.

After Wood ruled in September, the Navy said evaluations conducted since the lawsuit was filed only reinforced its conclusion that right whales would be at minimal risk.

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