A federal judge temporarily blocked the Navy on Monday from using active sonar during a major multi-nation exercise off Hawaii until it could negotiate with environmentalists who say the sound waves would harm whales.
On Friday, the Department of Defense invoked a six-month national security exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act to thwart a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, sitting in Los Angeles, ruled that the exemption did not cover the National Environmental Policy Act cited in the lawsuit.
"This ruling underscores that no one, not even the U.S. military, is above the law," said Joel Reynolds, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Navy had planned to use sonar during the Rim of the Pacific exercise, which began last week off Hawaii with 40 surface ships and six submarines -- three from the U.S. and one each from Korea, Japan and Australia -- scheduled to participate. The sonar portion of the monthlong exercise was to begin Wednesday.
The judge's order blocks the Navy's use of sonar until a July 18 hearing, when Cooper is to consider making the ban permanent. Cooper gave the two sides until July 12 to meet and discuss a possible settlement.
In a seven-page ruling, she said the environmentalists had submitted "considerable convincing scientific evidence that the Navy's use of ... sonar can kill, injure and disturb many species, including marine mammals."
The Navy, in a statement after the ruling, said sonar was "the only effective means we have to detect and quickly target hostile submarines and keep sea lanes open," and that sonar operators needed training at sea "to protect our nation's ships, shores and allies."
Navy scientists have denied that sonar hurts whales. The National Marine Fisheries Service has said scientific evidence is mixed; in recent months, the agency concluded that sonar used during a similar exercise in 2004 had likely caused 150 melon-headed whales to gather in a shallow bay.
The environmentalists filed the lawsuit last week after the fisheries service issued a permit for the Navy to use sonar during the current exercises.
Fisheries service officials said they were convinced that the mitigation measures that the Navy agreed to -- including posting spotters and creating off-limits areas -- would keep the whales from being hurt.
The sonar use is meant to test whether quiet, diesel-powered submarines like those used by Iran, North Korea and China can be detected.
Adding to the controversy is President Bush's recent designation of an ocean area near the Hawaiian Islands as a nature preserve.
Environmentalists said the fisheries service's decision to issue such a permit contradicted Bush's action.