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US Navy settles sonar lawsuit

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The US Navy has settled a whale-saving lawsuit filed by environmentalists challenging the use of military sonar for testing and training exercises around the world, with both parties proclaiming victory.

Five environmental groups, headed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said they reached the deal because the Navy will commit to researching the distressing effects of mid-frequency sonar on sea life as well as disclose previously classified information on sonar for civilian review.

As it continues to use mid-frequency sonar, the Navy claims the settlement essentially adopts a research program and protective measures it had already developed before the lawsuit was filed .

"The Navy is pleased that after more than three years of extensive litigation, this matter has been brought to an end on favorable terms," said Navy general counsel Frank Jimenez in a statement. "The Navy welcomes an approach that relies more upon scientific research than litigation."

Mid-frequency active sonar sends sound pules through the water to listen for what objects the sound bounces off of – such as enemy ships and submarines. The technology differs from passive sonar, which doesn't ping sound into the water, but merely listens for noises emitted by enemy sea craft. Active sonar has become more widely adopted by the Navy because quiet diesel-electric submarines are increasingly becoming difficult to hear coming.

"The Navy agrees that high-intensity military sonar can injure and kill whales, dolphins and other marine life," NRDC senior attorney Joel Reynolds said in a statement. "This agreement commits the Navy for the first time to a program of environmental review and public transparency in its sonar training in an effort to shield whales and other vulnerable species from harmful underwater noise."

In addition, the Navy agreed to fund $14.75m in new marine mammal research. The Navy will also pay $1.1m in attorney's fees for settling both a 2005 lawsuit and 2006 lawsuit regarding sonar use around Hawaii.

The latest lawsuit was filed by NRDC, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Cetacean Society International, the League for Coastal Protection, the Ocean Futures Society, and Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau). ®

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