ATLANTA -- A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday cleared the way for the Navy to build a $100 million undersea training range off Georgia and Florida.
The Southern Environmental Law Center, which represents about a dozen conservation groups, had challenged the Navy's plans, saying war games in that area would pose a risk to right whales, which migrate each winter to the coasts of Georgia and Florida to give birth to their calves. Experts say only about 400 of the whales remain, and each death brings the species a significant step closer to extinction.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday issued an opinion upholding a lower court ruling that said the Navy had appropriately studied whether the location of the range posed a risk to whales. The three-judge panel also agreed that further studies to determine whether certain activities on the range might be harmful to endangered animals could be completed later.
"We're disappointed that the court endorsed construction of a $127 million training range without full consideration of its impacts on the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale and its only known calving grounds," Catherine Wannamaker, senior attorney at the law center, said of the 11th Circuit's ruling.
The conservationists sued in 2010, hoping to halt the Navy's plans to install a web of cables on the ocean floor about 50 miles (80 kilometers) offshore to allow sailors from nearby bases in both Georgia and Florida to train with a mix of submarines, surface ships and aircraft. The undersea infrastructure would include about 300 sensors covering an area of about 500 square miles (1,300 sq. kilometers).
The Navy has said it wants to begin installation of the undersea range next year and has agreed to suspend construction during the calving season from November to April. However, the military refused a request to halt training at the site during the same months, saying it would undermine readiness. The lower court judge had ruled the Navy considered and "rationally rejected" the precautions requested by conservationists.
After the lower court ruling in September 2012, the Navy said evaluations conducted since the lawsuit was filed only reinforced its conclusion that right whales would be at minimal risk.