A federal judge on Thursday temporarily lifted some restrictions on the Navy's use of high-power sonar during training exercises near Southern California after President Bush got involved in the case.
The order allows the Navy to continue sonar use when whales or other mammals are spotted within 2,200 yards, and its ships do not have to reduce power during conditions when temperatures cause sound to travel farther than it would otherwise.
The Navy still must maintain a 12-nautical-mile, no-sonar zone along the coast as part of a preliminary injunction issued earlier this month when U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ruled that using mid-frequency active sonar violated the Coastal Zone Management Act.
The president exempted the Navy from that environmental law on Tuesday, but it remained up to court to allow the anti-submarine warfare training to go forward because the injunction.
The use of high-frequency sonar remains controversial. Scientists say loud sonar can damage marine mammal brains and ears.
But much is still unknown about how sonar affects whales and other marine mammals. For example, the sound can hurt some species while not affecting others, and experts don't fully understand why.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco had been expected to rule on the injunction on Friday, but after Bush's action, the appeals court sent the matter back to the district court.
"We are pleased with the District Court's decision," said Cmdr. Jeff A. Davis, a Navy spokesman. "This ruling means that the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group will be able to start the exercise next week without two restrictions that threatened the realism of our training."
The Navy has said the exercises are vital and that it works to minimizes the risk to marine life. A statement from the Defense Department said that the Navy already applies 29 measures to mitigate the effects.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been fighting the Navy's sonar training, has said it was determined to oppose the matter.
Cooper asked the Navy and the NRDC to file arguments next week for her to consider.
Cooper did not put a specific time frame on the temporary stay.
Still, "It's a very limited partial stay for a brief period of time," said Joel Reynolds, a senior attorney and director of the Marine Mammal Protection Project with the council.
Conservationists and politicians have sharply criticized Bush. U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, called it a "misguided decision."
"Once again the Bush administration has taken a slap at our environmental heritage, overriding a court that was very mindful to protect marine wildlife, including endangered whales, while assuring that the Navy's activities can continue," she said.