Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bush vs. the whales

[A dead harbor porpoise in the San Juans, May 15, 2003. Photo by Sandy Dubpernel.]

One of the reasons to pay attention to the Bush administration's towering mendacity in its ongoing attempts to reconfigure the American political system -- particularly in its attempts to claim nearly illimitable executive-branch powers -- is that it doesn't just manifest itself in the prominent, well-noted ways. These include the ongoing claims of executive privilege in shielding itself from congressional investigations, or the White House's assertion of immunity from judicial review in such matters as military tribunals.

No, this madness infects everything this administration does, including its environmental policy. Witness, for example, what is going on this very moment in the administration's intent to deploy new high-tech sonar devices along the Pacific Coast as part of the ongoing "war on terror".

The P-I's Robert McClure, one of the nation's best environmental reporters, notes in his blog that the administration is only allowing two weeks for the public to comment on the use of sonar in Washington state waters:
[T]oday the National Marine Fisheries Service gave members of the public two weeks to get their say-so typed up and shipped in on a five-year extension of a rule allowing the Navy to use low-frequency sonar that enviros insist will harm whales and dolphins.

And note that this comes as many members of the public are on vacation. I wonder how much comment NMFS really wants? The AP story on this fails to mention this short public-comment period as an issue, although the Natural Resources Defense Council, the greenie group that has stayed on top of this issue the most, complained vociferously about it.

This low-frequency sonar is different from the more-common mid-frequency sonar that witnesses said spooked orcas and other marine mammals near the San Juan Islands a few years ago. NMFS said in issuing the proposed rule that one reason it would allow the low-frequency to be used is that it's only going to be on a handful of ships. That's on page 37414 of the Federal Register notice. (Don't worry -- the proposal isn't 37,000 pages long. It's just the Register's arcane page-numbering system.)

One thing I've learned from watching this administration is that when it breaks well-established norms, and then tries to pretend that doing so is normal, it's all a pretense to cover something devious in the offing. Think of the case of the eight fired U.S. attorneys, an action that reflected the White House's now-evident determination to politicize the Justice Department.

In this case, the administration is short-circuiting the normal hearing process -- typically, the public is given 60 to 90 days for comment, not 14 -- because it's self-evident that it is determined to deploy its deadly new sonar in the Puget Sound, the public -- and the wildlife -- be damned. What ulterior motives lie beneath that are hard to discern.

Certainly, its effects on wildlife are likely to be profound. As the Center for Whale Research reported when the sonar was tested in the Sound's canyon walls back in 2003, both orcas and porpoises were profoundly disturbed by the tests. Some 15 harbor porpoises washed up dead in short order. (More details on the tests and their aftermath can be found at the Orca Network).

Scientists and activists alike fired off letters of protest to the Navy, and a federal judge ruled that the tests had to cease because they hadn't gone through the usual environmental processes. The Navy and environmentalists reached an agreement to suspend the tests.

But now it's clear that they are determined to proceed with using this sonar here, regardless of their effect on such endangered species as the southern resident killer whales. The military in Puget Sound is accustomed to having its way, and it's clear that this time it intends to get it.

The only thing that could possibly stop them, or at least slow the process, would be a mass letter writing campaign to protest both the resumption of tests and the extraordinarily short comment period. Unfortunately, the clock is now ticking.

Here's info on how you can write:
You may submit comments on the application and proposed rule, using the identifier 062206A, by any of the following methods:

E-mail: PR1.062306A@noaa.gov.

Federal e-Rulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov.

Hand-delivery or mailing of paper, disk, or CD-ROM comments should be addressed to: P. Michael Payne, Chief, Permits, Conservation and Education Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910-3225.

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