By Pam Linn


Winning onefor the flippers

After almost a decade of dire predictions by scientists, news on the environmental front took a turn for the better last week. Not because of improvements in climate change or mandates on greenhouse gas emissions, but for federal court protection for whales.

In an election year, this news is important because of its implications for pushback against imperial powers claimed by the Bush Administration.

In January, the Natural Resources Defense Council praised a federal judge in California for imposing the strongest-ever protections for whales, the result of an NRDC lawsuit demanding the Navy rein in its deadly sonar before beginning two years of planned maneuvers near the Channel Islands.

The president’s answer was to issue a waiver exempting the Navy from obeying a key environmental law during sonar training exercises that endanger whales.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper struck down Bush’s waiver and in doing so affirmed that both the White House and the military must uphold the country’s environmental laws. The same judge called the Navy’s existing plan for protecting the five endangered species of whales that call Channel Islands home, “grossly inadequate,” and ordered the Navy to put safeguards in place during its sonar maneuvers to protect marine mammals from injury and death. Judge Cooper said Bush’s “emergency” waiver, an attempt to override the court’s order, was “a creature of its own making,” and reaffirmed that the military can train effectively without needlessly harming whales.

The Channel Islands sanctuary is one of the world’s most sensitive marine environments. The Navy itself estimated the sonar would harass or harm marine mammals about 170,000 times and cause permanent injury in more than 400 cases. (It’s not clear whether these figures apply to individual animals or incidents involving more than one.)

The ruling includes a ban on mid-frequency sonar within 12 miles of the California coast, a zone heavily used by migrating whales and dolphins, in the deep underwater canyon known as the California Basin, and between the Channel Islands.

This argument about the Navy’s mid-frequency sonar, used to detect quiet-running enemy submarines, has been going on for years. Previous exercises produced mass stranding of whales on nearby beaches. Necropsies on those animals showed massive brain injuries and rupture of the inner ear. Whales rely heavily on their own echolocation to find mates and food and avoid collisions with ships.

We’ll have to wait and see whether this ruling will hold or if it just ticks off Bush and prompts an appeal to a higher court. Or perhaps he’ll retaliate against environmental advocates by denying endangered species listing for polar bears (he’s has been dragging his feet on that one) or lifting protection for wolves in the Northern Rockies.

So here’s where presidential politics comes in. The current campaign has been almost devoid of serious discourse on environmental issues. The Democrats make mention here and there of fuel-economy standards, alternative fuel technologies and curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s been little substantive debate. And Republicans don’t seem to want to touch it. Mitt Romney danced all around such a question in an evasive maneuver to rival even Bush.

So, would John McCain, now the presumptive GOP nominee, uphold environmental law or issue an “emergency waiver” to the military? He’s having enough trouble courting the conservative base; voters who may have to hold their collective noses and vote for him in November, jump ship or just stay home. Some choice.

Voters of all persuasions appear to be more concerned about the economy, healthcare, illegal immigration and Iraq. Who is the agent of real change and who would be ready on day one?

Environmental voters might have to take a back seat in this debate. But they could call attention to electing someone who would uphold the law, the Constitution, the whole judicial branch of government. Maybe we could elect a person who wouldn’t waste resources on circumventing the law, whether it applies to torture, civil rights or even the environment.

Meanwhile, they can chalk up at least one win one for the whales. And then push for the polar bears.