SEATTLE – Two environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit against the Navy on Tuesday, saying a training program using underwater explosives poses an unacceptable hazard to marine life in Puget Sound, including protected sea birds and fish.
The training, which has been performed since at least early this decade, involves divers using explosives to blow up dummy mines. According to the lawsuit filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the Navy broke federal law by failing to analyze the environmental effects of the program before starting it.
“The Navy doesn’t need to destroy Puget Sound’s wildlife at the same time they are training to protect us,” Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Duvall-based Wild Fish Conservancy, said in a news release.
The lawsuit takes the Navy to task for failing to perform a wide-ranging environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, and it says the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act by examining the effects of the training program on protected species. It asks the U.S. District Court to issue an injunction blocking further explosions or require measures to protect marine life.
The groups also issued a 60-day notice of their intent to sue the federal agencies for violating the Endangered Species Act.
However, the fisheries service did conduct a review required by the Endangered Species Act and issued a formal opinion on the matter last month. It found that with efforts to reduce the effects of the training – such as by limiting how often and when explosions occur, and by re-creating a 195-acre estuary on Whidbey Island – the Navy’s activities were not likely to harm listed species, including salmon and orcas.
In talks over the past five years, the Navy also agreed to reduce the amount and size of the explosives it uses as part of the training, said fisheries service spokesman Brian Gorman.
“I’d say all in all that while this has certainly been a lengthy process, it’s certainly been a successful one from our point of view,” Gorman said. “The Navy has substantially modified its plans to accommodate our needs and the needs of listed fish.”
In their news release, the environmental groups said the Navy conducts about 60 demolition exercises each year in Puget Sound, usually in the shallows of Whidbey Island’s Crescent Harbor, as well as off Port Townsend and in Hood Canal, using plastic explosives ranging from 2.5 to 20 pounds.
The fisheries service’s biological opinion limits the number of explosions to 32 at Crescent Harbor, four in Port Townsend Bay and four in Hood Canal near the submarine base at Bangor.
Brian Knutsen, a Seattle-based lawyer for the environmental groups, said they were not aware of the biological opinion until Tuesday and that they would review it.