SEATTLE -- A Navy military testing program that appeared headed to routine approval has hit a wall of opposition from Washington's governor, attorney general and state agencies because of potential harm to endangered orcas in Washington waters.
The program is being assessed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has determined impacts from the Navy's proposed testing to be "negligible" and is drafting a final rule for implementation of the program.
The Navy is working with its regulators to make changes in the program -- though what those may be is far from clear.
Planned military exercises range from testing torpedoes to firing projectiles from a gun into the sea at seven times the speed of sound, to piloting mine-detecting undersea drones, deploying underwater sonar and exploding up to 1,000 pound bombs at sea. The seven-year program would begin in November, and would be carried on across a vast area from northern California to Alaska, including Puget Sound and the outer coast of Washington.
No southern resident orcas are proposed to be allowed to be killed under the program. But thousands of other marine mammals would be subjected to so-called Level A harassment, which covers a wide range of disturbance and harm up to and including death.
Southern residents would be affected by Level B disturbance, which could interfere with their hunting, feeding, socializing and breeding. The Navy increased its estimate in a revised filing last December of the number of times southern residents would be subjected to level B disturbance by the program, from two times a year to 51 times a year.
All sorts of marine mammals in Washington, from seals to humpbacks, gray whales and more would also be affected nearly 2 million times to Level B disturbance during the life of the program, according to Navy estimates.
The governor and agencies want NOAA to take back its assessment of negligible impact, and to incorporate new limits on the program intended to significantly reduce likely harm to orcas and other marine mammals.
Approving the testing program as written would be "gross neglect" of NOAA's management duties, state agency directors said in a joint letter sent July 16 to NOAA from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Natural Resources, The Puget Sound Partnership, State Office of Recreation and Conservation, Governor's Office of Salmon Recovery, and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.
In his own letter sent July 17, Gov. Jay Inslee stated the Navy needs a "more robust avoidance and mitigation strategy" for the testing program to protect marine mammals, and in particular southern residents to "dramatically reduce the number of incidental takes."