Story last updated at 4:58 PM on Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Residents blast Navy's plans



BY CRISTY FRY

Representatives of the U.S. Navy got an earful from Homer residents Saturday at an event set up to collect public comment and disseminate information about a draft Environmental Impact Statement for plans to increase training exercises in the Gulf of Alaska.

The Navy already holds joint Army, Navy and Air Force training in the Gulf for about two weeks every other year. However, it is doing a study on the concept of expanding that training to as much as 21 days every year, and would like to use "active sonar" in that training, necessitating the EIS.

It is that active sonar, as well as the use of live explosives and munitions, that had most residents concerned. Active sonar produces an energy pulse, or ping, that reflects off objects and returns to a receiver, as compared to "passive sonar," which is essentially a listening device. Active sonar has been shown to impact whales and other marine mammals, including changes to migratory routes and diving and feeding behavior, and is thought to be responsible for some major beaching events around the world.

The sonar the Navy plans to use is Mid-Frequency Active, or MFA sonar, which has a range of about 50 miles under ideal conditions, and which was the subject of a December court ruling in California that required the Navy to employ stronger mitigation measures to avoid interaction with marine mammals. However, most of those mitigation measures are already in the Navy's draft EIS for its Gulf of Alaska training.

"It's true that some of our activities do put sound in the water," said Project Manager Alex Stone. "But the results of our analysis show that we're not having a significant impact on the population of marine mammals."

Stone said the Navy is working with the National Marine Fisheries Service to study potential impacts and produce mitigation measures.

"Where we do think there could be a potential for impact, like with the sonar, we've actually adopted measures to even further minimize," he said.

Stone added that mitigation measures while the sonar is in use or explosives are being deployed include highly trained lookouts and the use of hydrophones to listen for vocalizing whales, and reducing power or shutting off the MFA sonar or not detonating explosives if marine mammals are nearby.

However, some attendees questioned how effective the lookouts would be in the Gulf of Alaska in 6-8 foot seas on a squally day, fairly common weather for the region in May and June, the months the Navy operates in the area.

That time of year, chosen by the Navy for the relatively mild weather, was a hot topic during the open mic/public comment part of the evening, because it is part of the peak of the migration of gray and humpback whales through the Gulf of Alaska.

Seventeen of the 22 attendees took advantage of the opportunity to speak their mind, most echoing the concern that about one-fifth of the area that the Navy trains in is up on the continental shelf, off the coast from about Montague Island to the middle of Kodiak Island, an area rich in biodiversity and sea life abundance.

Others said they thought the Navy might be trying to pull something over on Alaskans.

"I feel like they can't get away with it in California, so they might be coming up to get away with it in Alaska, and I would really like that issue addressed," Amy Christiansen said.

Stone said there are many reasons to choose Alaska.

"We deploy the Navy to different environments, and different environments have different characteristics in the ocean, bathymetry, the way the sound travels underwater, and just simply the weather."

Also, he said, Alaska is unique in that it offers an opportunity to train with the Army and Air Force because of the proximity to their bases, something not available anywhere else.

Rep. Paul Seaton told the Navy panel that he has been hearing concerns from constituents about the effects of sonar on whales, and is also concerned about the copper from munitions and sonobuoys being introduced in the water column.

"Alaskans are concerned about the effects of copper in the fresh water and marine environments, especially on fish," he said. "So I'm concerned that... the sonobuoys that are going to be used are going to increase the amount of copper (thiocyanate) discharge from the current level of 38.1 pounds to 2520 pounds, and the amount of copper from 8 pounds to 540 pounds."

Homer resident Robert Archibald agreed. "We've had a big battle going with the anadromous fish stocks and the effects of copper on them, and it's proving that they are dizzying-up their navigation systems," he said. He expressed concern about the timing, introducing the copper at a time when the salmon stocks are returning to the Gulf and traveling to their final destinations.

Homer fisherman Don Lane expressed concern about detonating explosives above the continental shelf, some areas of which are relatively shallow, and the potential harm to marine life.

"This nation's security is a big job, and the Navy has always played a large role in the safety and security of this country," he said. However, he continued, "some of that water up on that shelf (in the practice area) is 150 to 180 feet deep."

Lane said detonating explosives in water that shallow would have devastating effects on marine life. He asked that the Navy consider only using explosives in water deeper than 1000 fathoms. The area used for training is about the size of Iowa, and 80 percent is off the continental shelf, in those deeper waters.

While the Navy panel declined to open things up to a town-hall style meeting, they did stay around to answer questions after the public comment part of the presentation. One question was why not use simulators for this training.

Project manager Stone said they do for the majority of their training, but that can only go so far. "The Navy is a huge advocate of simulated training," he said. "Most of the training we do is simulated. But just like any type of simulation, at some point you actually need to put it all together because of the complexity of everything."

The 942-page draft EIS is searchable and contains detailed information about munitions, toxic materials, and potential marine mammal interaction, as well as a map of the training areas, and is available online at www.gulfofalaskanavyeis.com/, or on CD via U.S. mail by calling Environmental Public Affairs Officer Sheila Murray at (360)396-4981. The public comment period for the draft EIS is open until January 25. Information on submitting comments can also be found at the website. Murray said that anyone with questions that aren't answered in the draft EIS can call her and she will direct them to the person with those answers.

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