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Navy seeks permit for training areas off Hawaii, California

mine training areas (US NAVY/Released)

The Navy is requesting permission for the installation and maintenance of mine training areas off Hawaii and Southern California.

The Navy is preparing to conduct an environmental review of its Pacific training operations around Hawaii and California and is soliciting public feedback until the end of January.

The service has an operating permit for what it calls the Hawaii-California Training and Testing Study Area that expires in 2025, and is required to submit an environmental impact statement as part of the renewal process. The Navy is moving forward at a time when the military considers the Pacific to be its top priority theater amid tensions with China.

Under the new permit, the Navy is requesting a “special use ” airspace in Southern California, an expansion of an underwater training range near San Clemente Island and the installation and maintenance of mine training areas off Hawaii and Southern California.

“The Proposed Action is needed to ensure U.S. military services are able to organize, train, and equip service members and personnel to meet their respective national defense missions in accordance with their Congressionally mandated requirements, ” the Navy said in a statement. “Proposed training and testing activities are similar to those analyzed in previous environmental impact analyses and are representative of activities that have been conducted off Hawaii and California for more than 80 years.”

The Navy said it “would continue to employ appropriate marine species protective mitigation measures when conducting these activities.”

But in Hawaii the Navy is facing increased scrutiny of its environmental record as it continues cleanup operations at its underground Red Hill facility, a World War II-era fuel farm that sits just 100 feet above a critical aquifer most of Honolulu rely on for drinking water.

In November 2021 jet fuel from the facility spilled and tainted the Navy’s Oahu water system that serves 93, 000 people. The military is working to extract the last of the fuel and preparing for remediation and closure operations that are expected to take several years.

“Protecting our environment is in our national interest and can be done while ensuring our national security. It’s not one or the other, ” said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono. “I expect the Navy to fully complete the EIS and to work with the appropriate state and federal agencies to mitigate potential negative impacts of renewing current federal regulatory permits and authorizations.”

Under the existing permit, Navy personnel operating at sea must acknowledge “mitigation zones ” for marine mammals and are instructed that “if marine mammals are observed, Navy personnel must maneuver to maintain distance.” Every ship has a logbook on board, and sailors are supposed to log any sighting of marine mammals spotted near their vessels.

According to a legal notice posted online in September, the National Marine Fisheries Service and Navy explored the idea of new mitigation areas in Hawaii to protect marine mammals, including “consideration of new mitigation areas based on newly identified (biologically important areas ), ” but the Navy concluded establishing those areas would be “impracticable given overlap with critical Navy training areas in the (Hawaii Range Complex ).”

The U.S. Pacific Fleet hosts the biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercise—the world’s largest naval war game—in the Hawaiian islands, and has been stepping up training year-round with allied countries in the Pacific. As a result, Hawaii is becoming seen as an increasingly important operations hub.

But island residents and environmentalists have long expressed concern about the impact of those operations, in particular regarding loud sonar under the water and combat exercises where the Navy sinks decommissioned ships.

Wildlife impacts Sonar and other noise associated with the training has been known in some cases to adversely affect marine wildlife.

“We do know that sonar use is very detrimental to whales, ” said Jonee Peters, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii. In 2015, the council took the NMFS to court, charging that it has allowed the Navy “to conduct training and testing exercises even if they end up harming a stunning number of marine mammals, some of which are endangered or threatened.”

Research suggests beaked whales are particularly vulnerable to sonar.

In March 2022, when a beaked whale stranded in Honaunau Bay, bystanders intervened to turn the animal off the rocks, allowing it to swim back out to sea on its own. Local residents reported hearing a siren or alarm-type of sound underwater on the same day and spotted a Navy vessel nearby the following day.

The Navy later confirmed that it used continuous active sonar within 27 nautical miles and 48 hours of the time of stranding, though officials said the stranding has not been definitively linked to the sonar.

“Just being mindful of not doing sonar testing or using sonar during whale season is a good answer, ” Peters argued, but she added that there should be more research into how sonar effects other marine life.

Environmentalists have also raised concerns about vessels hitting and injuring marine animals, especially whales.

The NMFS authorizes the Navy an “incidental take “—a calculation of the number of times the government believes Navy operations could result in marine life getting harassed, injured or killed in a certain area even if sailors are working to mitigate the impact.

The Navy’s current operating permit allowed up to three large whales to be killed in “ship strikes “—fatal collisions at sea. As of 2024, the Navy has hit that limit through incidents off Southern California.

In 2021, the Navy announced it would review its policies after an Australian navy destroyer crew participating in a U.S.-led multinational exercise off California unknowingly dragged two dead fin whales under their ship’s hull into San Diego, where the animals had to be dislodged from the vessel.

Navy officials had long contended that sailors aboard a ship would know if they had fatally struck a whale, but the 2021 incident indicated there could be more impacts than they had known. The Endangered Species Act requires the government to reevaluate its data if new information or factors it hadn’t considered come to light.

It’s not just military ships moving through the Pacific. The ocean is bustling with commercial, scientific and recreational vessels that constantly move through Hawaii’s waters and have at times collided with wildlife.

“When it comes to mitigating the impact of human activity on the natural environment more can always be done, ” said Hirono. “Ideally with enough research and technology development we can get to zero whale strikes, but unfortunately we are not there yet. It’s important the Navy ensures it is doing everything in its power to minimize these strikes.”

Last year the Navy said it would provide extra training to prevent whale strikes as a result of the incident. But the Navy also requested that the NMFS retroactively amend its operating permit for Hawaii and California to allow for more fatal collisions with large whales, from three to five.

A Pacific Fleet spokesperson told the Honolulu Star-­Advertiser that the Navy had requested to amend the permit “is predicated on a revised summary of the probability of future ship strikes in the approximately two years remaining in the (Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing ) authorizations following the Navy ship strikes in the California portion of HSTT during 2021 and 2023.”

Peters said she’s disturbed by what she thinks is a lack of accountability given that Navy can simply ask to change the regulations. “We shouldn’t be changing limits for their convenience, I don’t think that’s pono, ” she said.

Deep sea mystery Several groups have also raised concerns about military sinking exercises that the Navy calls SINKEX. The Navy has conducted the exercises for decades to give sailors the opportunity to practice using their weapons on real targets—something the Navy doesn’t have the opportunity to do as often as other branches.

Before they’re towed out to sea, the decommissioned vessels must be defueled and scrubbed of potential toxic chemicals in a series of costly procedures laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s more expensive to sink a vessel than to scrap it. But critics argue that there hasn’t been enough study of what happens after the ships sink to the ocean floor.

The Navy imposed a moratorium on SINKEX training in 2010 while it conducted a review of the program weighing its benefits, costs and potential environmental impacts. In 2011, the Sierra Club and other groups filed a lawsuit against the EPA alleging that it failed to prevent the SINKEX program from exposing the ocean to toxic chemicals, specifically polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

The training resumed in 2012 with three decommissioned vessels sunk off Kauai during that year’s RIMPAC. The plaintiff groups dropped their complaint in 2013 due to a lack of funding, but their criticism of the training has not subsided.

The Navy has argued that the shipwrecks turn into reefs and habitat for undersea life like other shipwrecks have, and that there is little adverse environmental impact. But when it comes to tracking the exercises and their environmental impact in Hawaii, the military has little data. The Navy has been unable to provide an exact figure of how many ships it has sunk in and around Hawaii, though it sinks an average of two ships during RIMPAC years.

In Hawaii sinking exercises are required to be conducted at least 50 nautical miles from shore and in waters at a depth of at least 6, 000 feet. While Navy officials insist the exercises are environmentally sound, they also admit they haven’t monitored the wrecks because the depth of the shipwrecks “precludes them from long-term monitoring.”

After RIMPAC 2022, the Navy said in a statement to the Star-Advertiser that in 2014 the EPA determined the training “does not pose an unreasonable risk of injury to human health or the environment ” and that long-term monitoring of SINKEX hulls is not required as they are selected from a list of Navy-approved vessels that have been cleaned in accordance with (EPA ) guidelines.”

“SINKEX is an important and unique training tool for our Navy and I expect it to be conducted in accordance with all relevant environmental regulations, ” said Hirono. But when it comes to studying the sunken ships the Navy has left across the ocean floor around the islands, she said, “the benefit of exploring these vessels should be considered in the context of the significant costs and resources that would be necessary to do so.”

Environmentalists argue, however, that it’s vital that there be studies of the wrecks to see if the Navy’s assertion that they have become reefs is true. Peters said that those areas are habitats for deep sea corals and other creatures that scientists are only now starting to understand.

“Some of them take hundreds of years to grow, and if they’re sinking ships out there it could potentially destroy some of those corals, ” she said. “How are they knowing this is a good thing to do if they’re not monitoring ?”


(c) 2024 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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