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Environmentalists Concerned About Proposed Sonar-Training Site

Posted July 20, 2006

— The USS Nitze carries more than 350 sailors, stretches longer than a football field and packs plenty of firepower.

"We have the capability to carry 96 missiles," Ensign Chase Ackerman said.

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    All About Sonar

    Several levels below deck, in the Combat Information Center, WRAL had the rare chance to see the technology that makes the ship one of the Navy's most advanced destroyers.

    It's called active sonar, the Navy's tool for detecting enemy submarines.

    Active sonar

    is the Navy's way of using sound to see into the ocean. A sailor will put out a pulse and wait for the echo to paint a picture of what's actually out in the water.

    "It's like an underwater radar," Navy sonar expert Jene Nissen said, adding that the device can be difficult for sailors to master.

    "It takes a lot of skill to understand how your sound is moving through the water," he said.

    So, the Navy is considering creating a 660-square-mile training range about 50 miles off the coast of North Carolina, near Camp Lejeune. Other proposed sites include Florida and Virginia.

    "There may be some environmental effects," Nissen said. "But we don't believe there will be any significant effects caused by the training."

    Environmentalists, however, disagree.

    "They didn't do their homework in selecting this particular area," said Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Michelle Nowlin, who is leading the charge in dispute of the Navy's analysis of the North Carolina site.

    "The level of inaccuracies, the levels that they didn't explore -- certain issues are inexcusable," Nowlin said.

    For example, she said, the Navy overlooked critical items, including how construction could deplete the fishing community. Naval marine biologists have admitted their fish-behavior study could have been more complete.

    The impact sonar can have on local whales is also on environmentalists list of concerns. In 2000, the sonar sound-pulse caused a mass whale stranding in the Bahamas.

    And in 2005, more than 30 whales beached themselves on North Carolina Outer Banks. Scientists said some evidence indicates Navy sonar is to blame, but nothing has ever been proven.

    A report said fisheries services investigators did not find common injuries that would indicate a single cause for the beaching, such as sonar, and that other factors, such as severe weather, were also a possibility.

    The Navy has promised that steps will be taken to keep marine mammals out of the site.

    "A marine mammal would need to be within 33 feet of the ship to receive that sound level," Nissen said. "We should see them before then."

    The Navy will issue its final proposal later this year or early 2007.

    Environmentalists have vowed to watch the Navy's every move and have said that legal action is possible if the Navy does not address all their concerns.

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