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UPDATE: Navy being sued over explosive training in Puget Sound waters

The Navy is in hot water again, this time accused of indiscriminately killing fish in order to conduct training for bomb disposal teams.

The Navy is being sued for exploding ordinance in Puget Sound waters, allegedly killing thousands of fish and potentially harming federally protected species such as Chinook salmon, Stellar sea lions, humpback whales and bull trout.

A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle on July 29 by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Wild Fish Conservancy.

The suit asks the court to issue an injunction against further training operations in Puget Sound or order significant protective measures to prevent harm to threatened species and habitat until the Navy has brought training into compliance with

federal regulations.

The Navy says training for its explosive ordinance disposal teams is essential for both military and civilian purposes.

The Navy sets off between 180 and 300 underwater explosive charges each year — ranging in size from 2.5 to 20 pounds — in some of the most sensitive waters of Puget Sound, according to documents released by PEER.

These are often conducted in the shallows of Crescent Harbor — south of the Seaplane Base at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island — as well as Port Townsend and Hood Canal.

However, the detonations can also hurt up marine life. In one exercise involving a five-pound explosive charge set off near Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, observers counted 5,000 dead fish on the surface but estimated that up to another 20,000 fish died and sank out of sight to the seabed.

"We think the Navy should be paying closer attention to what scientists have been saying for years," said Wild Fish Conservancy biologist Mark Hersh.

"There are a number of measures they could take to minimize their impact on aquatic life but they haven't responded. There's no reason they have to destroy America while training to protect it."

Navy officials said that in the last five years its ordinance teams have responded to 146 civilian requests for help dealing with homemade pipe bombs and methamphetamine labs rigged with explosives.

However, the primary mission for the Navy's bomb squad is to find and defuse underwater bombs and obstacles that pose a hazard to ships and they need to train in as realistic an environment as possible.

Over the years, the Navy agreed to some seasonal alterations on the size of their explosive charges and agreed to look for sea life 30 minutes before detonation.

That isn't enough for some, however.

Since 2002, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the two civilian agencies charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act, have urged the Navy to undertake alternative training practices to minimize damage to marine life, such as using bubble curtains or other containers to minimize blast impacts, or conducting the training in quarries, lakes or the open ocean rather than in the waters of Puget Sound.

“Juvenile salmon and the food web of Puget Sound would be much better protected if the Navy would simply take the measures suggested by the government’s own scientists," said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy.

There was no response to repeated phone calls from Navy Region Northwest headquarters in Silverdale.

The Navy has come under repeated criticism in recent years for using sonar during training off the Washington coast, which some say can harm whales and other marine mammals.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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