January 22, 2008

NRDC v. Winter — Green Trumps the Blue and Gold — National Security Takes a Back Seat to Natural Resources

Posted on January 22, 2008 by ACOEL Admin


On January 3, 2008, a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California imposed substantial restrictions on the U.S. Navy’s use of mid-frequency active (MFA) sonar in waters off the California coastline.  Although details of the restrictions and their immediate impact on the Navy can readily be discerned by reviewing the judge’s order, the reverberations of this order may have a much broader impact that could further enhance the role of environmental lawyers.

Until recently, few might have predicted the success of an environmental challenge to military operations — especially given our country’s current military operations abroad.  The California court’s much-anticipated order is the latest word in an ongoing debate over MFA sonar operations in potentially close proximity to marine mammals, an activity decried by environmental groups and vigorously defended by the Navy.  The U.S. military has generally been able to defend questionable practices by emphasizing the overall importance of those practices to national security.  As the Supreme Court noted twenty years ago, “unless Congress specifically has provided otherwise, courts traditionally have been reluctant to intrude upon the authority of the Executive in military and national security affairs.”[1]

[1] Dep’t of Navy v. Egan, 484 U.S. 518, 529 (1988).



In March 2007, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and several other environmental groups filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against both the U.S. Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), seeking to enjoin sonar operations scheduled between February 2007 and January 2009 as part of fourteen training exercises in the Southern California Operating Area (SOCAL).  The Navy defended its operations by emphasizing their importance to national security, an argument it has made with considerable success in the past, but this time the court found the national security argument less compelling than the competing concern about MFA sonar’s impact on the marine environment. The court based its decision on the following findings.


a. NEPA 

Because the Plaintiffs presented evidence sufficient to raise substantial questions about whether the proposed activities would have a significant impact, they demonstrated a probability of success on their claims that the Navy had committed several NEPA violations.  First, although the Navy prepared an Environmental Assessment (EA) prior to commencing its naval exercises in the SOCAL, the court disagreed with the Navy’s subsequent decision to issue a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).  Based on the court’s review of facts available to the Navy, the court agreed with Plaintiffs that the proposed sonar operations would likely have a significant impact, triggering NEPA’s requirement that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be prepared.  Alternatively, because the court considered the Navy’s self-imposed mitigation measures to be inadequate and incapable of preventing the significant impact anticipated, the Navy had no basis for issuing the FONSI. Second, the court found that “[the Navy’s] EA failed to consider reasonable alternatives or cumulative impacts.”[1]  The court noted that the Navy disregarded mitigation measures recommended by the California Coastal Commission (CCC), the state agency that administers California’s Coastal Management Plan (CCMP), and it also elected not to implement more restrictive mitigation measures previously used by the Navy and its allies in similar training exercises that employed MFA sonar.  Although the Navy’s EA did conclude that the proposed activities “would not have any significant contribution to the cumulative effects on marine mammals,”[2] the court held that, absent detailed and quantifiable information supporting that conclusion, the statement was merely aspirational and lacked the substantive analysis traditionally required by the Ninth Circuit. 


When a federal agency’s proposed activity will “affect[] any coastal use or resource,”[3]the CZMA requires the federal agency to submit a Consistency Determination (CD) to the applicable state agency.  In its analysis of the Navy’s alleged violations of the CZMA, the court identified two deficiencies in the CD that the Navy submitted to the CCC.  First, the Navy neglected to mention that it intended to conduct sonar operations.  The Navy defended the omission by arguing that the sonar operations would not have an effect on the coastal zone.  Just as the court disagreed with the Navy’s determination that its sonar operations would not have a significant impact on the marine environment, so too did the court disagree with the Navy’s similar conclusion that MFA sonar would not affect the coastal zone.  Second, the CD did not incorporate mitigation measures that the CCC required pursuant to the CCMP.  The CZMA required the Navy to ensure that its sonar operations were “consistent to the maximum extent practicable with the enforceable policies of [the CCMP],”[4] and the Navy failed to satisfy its burden of proving the inapplicability of the mitigation measures required by the CCC.


In support of its finding that the proposed MFA sonar operations would create a possibility of irreparable harm to the environment, the court relied not only on evidence provided by Plaintiffs but also cited a Navy study that “conclude[d] that the SOCAL exercises . . . [would] cause widespread harm to nearly thirty species of marine mammals, including five species of endangered whales, and [might] cause permanent injury and death.”[5]

Having identified the possibility of irreparable harm, the court then considered the appropriateness of an injunction to prevent that harm.  After weighing the competing concerns of national security and environmental protection, the court concluded 

that the balance of hardships tip[ped] in favor of granting an injunction, as the harm to the environment, Plaintiffs, and public interest outweigh[ed] the harm that Defendants would incur . . . if prevented from using MFA sonar, absent the use of effective mitigation measures, during a subset of their regular activities in one part of one state for a limited period.[6]


Based on the findings above, the court issued a preliminary injunction of potentially indefinite duration on August 7, 2007, because it would have prohibited all MFA sonar use “until the Navy adopt[ed] mitigation measures that would substantially lessen the likelihood of serious injury and death to marine life.”[7]  


On August 31, 2007, the Ninth Circuit stayed the district court’s sweeping injunction, pending an appeal by the Navy.[8] On November 13th, the Ninth Circuit adopted the district court’s findings and vacated the stay, but it remanded the matter, chastising the district court for having imposed such an overly broad preliminary injunction. The Ninth Circuit instructed the district court to narrow the scope of the injunction by using its findings to craft mitigation measures uniquely tailored to fit the Navy’s MFA sonar operations in the SOCAL.[9] 


On January 3, 2008, the district court finally issued its much-anticipated order in which it laid out the following mitigation measures applicable to future MFA sonar operations in the SOCAL:

1. 12 Nautical Mile Coastal Exclusion Zone.  “The Navy shall maintain a 12 nautical mile exclusion zone from the California coastline at all times.”[10]  Although Plaintiffs sought to enjoin MFA sonar operation within twenty-five miles of the California coastline, the court, though agreeing with Plaintiffs that a twenty-five mile exclusion zone would ensure maximum protection of marine habitat, deemed the zone unduly burdensome to the Navy.  The court noted that the Navy had previously operated under a twelve mile exclusion zone and that such a zone struck the best balance between protection of marine habitat and the Navy’s need to train “to detect submarines in the very bathymetry in which submarines are likely to hide.”

2. 2200 Yard MFA Sonar Shutdown.  “The Navy shall cease use of MFA sonar . . . when marine mammals are spotted within 2200 yards . . . .”[11]  Designed only to prevent the most damaging consequences of exposure to MFA sonar, the court concluded that a 2200 yard zone of protection for marine mammals imposed a minimal burden on the Navy.

3. Monitoring.  For sixty minutes prior to conducting MFA sonar operations, the Navy “shall monitor for the presence of marine mammals,”[12] using lookouts on vessels and one dedicated aircraft to monitor the entire operating area.  If a marine mammal is spotted, the Navy must suspend sonar operations until it establishes the requisite 2200 yard buffer.  Once sonar operations have begun, the Navy must continue visual monitoring efforts by posting two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)- and NMFS-trained lookouts in addition to using one dedicated aircraft, and Navy vessels must also listen for the presence of marine mammals using passive acoustic monitoring.

4. Helicopter Dipping Sonar.  Helicopters must monitor the area for ten minutes prior to employing active dipping sonar and, after spotting a marine mammal within 2200 yards of the helicopter, must cease active dipping sonar operations until reestablishing the 2200 yard safety zone.

5. Surface Ducting Conditions.  “[W]hen surface ducting conditions are detected . . . in which sound travels further than it otherwise would due to temperature differences in adjacent layers of water . . . the Navy shall power down sonar by 6dB”[13] to minimize the sonar’s greater intensity and range.

6. Choke Points and the Catalina Basin.  “[T]he Navy [shall] refrain from employing MFA sonar in the Catalina Basin,”[14] an area located between the Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands that provides habitat to a large population of marine mammals.

7. Continue National Defense Exemption (NDE) II Mitigation Measures.  Since 2002, the Navy has worked with NOAA and NMFS to ensure the compliance of its operations with all federal laws, and it has adopted various mitigation measures to achieve that goal of compliance.   The district court explained that its mitigation measures were to be implemented in addition to those measures either already adopted or currently under review by the Navy pursuant to its ongoing collaboration with NOAA and NMFS.


On Tuesday, January 15, 2008, President Bush signed an exemption authorizing the Navy’s continued use of MFA sonar in its SOCAL exercises.  In the exemption, the President stated that the sonar exercises “[we]re in the paramount interest of the United States” and that compliance with the mitigation measures would “undermine the Navy’s ability to conduct realistic training exercises that [we]re necessary to ensure the combat effectiveness of carrier and expeditionary strike groups.”[15] The exemption “claim[s] that the Navy exempt from the [CZMA] and . . . [NEPA],”[16] and it formed the basis of the Navy’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit late on Tuesday night. The Ninth Circuit remanded the case to the district court on Wednesday, and on Thursday, January 17th, the district court responded by temporarily lifting the requirements that the Navy maintain a 2200 yard zone of protection for marine mammals and that it power down its sonar during surface ducting conditions.[17] More developments are expected within the next several days.  


NRDC v. Winter is not likely to be an isolated event in the history of environmental law.  At a minimum, the California court’s January 3rd order represents an historic victory for environmental groups and a staggering blow to the U.S. military; however, the broader implications of this order will be the ones worth watching. The White House’s recent involvement in the case has ignited the controversy and captured the media’s attention, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown between proponents of national security and advocates of environmental protection. 

Though merely conjectural at this point, it seems plausible that NRDC v. Winter might spawn an explosion of environmental litigation, giving rise to an even greater abundance of work for environmental lawyers.  The case may give environmentalists renewed confidence to challenge the environmental records of their most formidable adversaries.  At the same time, it may also make many regulated entities more conscious of their own environmental vulnerability and prompt them to begin seeking the best legal representation available.  By prevailing against the U.S. Navy, the NRDC and its fellow plaintiffs have not only inspired other environmental groups around the country, but they have also issued a stern warning to the entire regulated community that no organization is immune from liability in this new era of heightened environmental awareness. 

Contact information: jim.farrell@butlersnow.com or (228) 575-3048

Jim Farrell is an associate in the law firm of Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, and a member of the firm’s environmental law practice group. Mr. Farrell graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1999 and served for five years as a naval officer prior to attending law school. He received his JD from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 2007. In the summer of 2006, Mr. Farrell served as a law clerk in the U.S. EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC, is a full-service law firm with more than 150 attorneys representing regional and national clients from offices in Jackson, Miss., on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Memphis, Tenn. and Bethlehem, Penn.  For more information, visit www.butlersnow.com.

[1] Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, No. 8:07-cv-00335-FMC-FMOx, slip op. at 8 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 3, 2008) (order issuing preliminary injunction).

[2] Id.at 10.

[3] Id.at 11 (quoting 15 C.F.R. § 930.32(a)(1)).

[4] Id.at 10-11 (quoting 16 U.S.C. § 1456(c)(1)).

[5] Id.at 12. 

[6] Id.at 12-13.

[7] Id.at 3. 

[8] See Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, 502 F.3d 859 (9th Cir. 2008). 

[9] See Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, 508 F.3d 885 (9th Cir. 2008).

[10] Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, No. 8:07-cv-00335-FMC-FMOx, slip op. at 14 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 3, 2008) (order issuing preliminary injunction). 

[11] Id.at 15.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.at 17.

[14] Id.at 17-18.

[15] Activists Vow to Push Fight Against Navy Sonar, http://www.msnbc.com/id/22683062 (last visited Jan. 21, 2008). 

[16] Daniel Hinerfield & Hamlet Paoletti, Sonar Case Remanded to District Court, http://www.nrdc.org/media/2008/080116c.asp (last visited Jan. 21, 2008).

[17] See Natural Res. Def. Council v. Winter, No. 8:07-cv-00335-FMC-FMOx, slip op. at 2 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 17, 2008) (order for temporary partial stay and setting briefing schedule).

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