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Judge OKs offshore Navy training site
Saying the risk to endangered right whales would be minimal, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled the Navy may build a $100 million offshore range off the Georgia coast for submarine warfare training.

Wood's ruling, made late last week, was a blow to environmental groups who sued to block the project, saying the site 50 miles off the coast was too close to the area where right whales give birth to their calves.

Scientists estimate there are only about 400 right whales in existence, and the submarine warfare range could further endanger the animals.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, which argued on behalf of environmental groups against the Navy's plans, said whales face possible collisions with ships, entanglement from cables attached to Navy buoys and potential harm from sonar.

Catherine Wannamaker, a lawyer who argued the case on behalf of the law center, said the ruling was disappointing.

"We're reviewing the decision and discussing our options," Wannamaker said. "We're all very concerned about the future of right whales."

The ruling clears way for construction of the 500-square-mile training range to begin in 2014 and open in 2018. Navy officials say scrutiny from the lawsuits filed on behalf of environmental groups shows whales won't be at risk.

The judge also ruled the Navy will not have to comply with federal speed limits imposed on private and commercial ships. The Navy argued speed limits would interfere with its ability to train effectively and maintain readiness.

Navy officials said the Undersea Warfare Training Range will be used an estimated 480 times a year, from one to six hours at a time. An impact study by the Navy concluded the risks of strikes would be minimal because few right whales come near the training site. The Navy posts lookouts on boats during calving season to ensure there are no collisions.

But environmental groups argue it's nearly impossible to see a right whale swimming just below the surface. And in 2010, they said a right whale gave birth to a calf 10 miles from the site where the range will be built.

Environmentalists also argued whales don't have to be close to sonar to be affected. They said sonar can disrupt whales feeding and in some cases cause the animals to beach themselves.

The Humane Society of the United States President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said the federal government is trying to make Americans choose between national security and a healthy ocean environment. He called the options "a false choice." Pacelle said past sonar exercises have injured or killed marine mammals.

"According to its own environmental impact statements, the Navy estimates that the planned exercises would kill up to 2,000 marine mammals, including a large number of animals from endangered species, such as right whales," he said. "Thousands of others would suffer permanent lung damage. An additional 16,000 would be permanently deafened, and 5 million would be temporarily deafened by the exercises."

Vessels from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay near St. Marys and Naval Station Mayport in North Florida will be participants in many of the training exercises, along with surface vessels from other bases.

Alex Kearns, a member of St. Marys Earthkeepers, expressed disappointment with the ruling.

"Not only will the range be constructed but, apparently, the Navy has refused to suspend training from November to April (migratory season to the calving grounds) or to comply with offshore speed limits," she said. "With approximately 400 right whales remaining, this could well result in the extinction of the species."

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