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The U.S. Navy is proposing plans to continue bombing exercises on an uninhabited island called Farallon de Medinilla in the Mariana Islands, an archipelago in the western Pacific.
The Navy’s analysis seeks continued approval for 2,300 bombing exercises each year on the island. Farallon de Medinilla has been a target island since October 1971.
The Navy’s proposal would also extend undersea sonar and explosive training in the waters surrounding the Marianas archipelago, which are made up of two U.S. territories — Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas.
The Navy says the training is critically important for national security but environmental watchdogs are concerned about the impact of sonar training and testing on whales. The public comment period ends April 2.
The U.S. military has trained in the Marianas and its surrounding waters for decades, but the latest proposal is part of a broader push to expand large-scale training and weapons testing in the region.
The Navy has also proposed leasing another island, Pagan, that’s north of Farallon de Medinilla, for additional bombing practice, and conducting heavy artillery training on Tinian, an island that’s south of Farallon de Medinilla.
The Navy’s fiscal year 2019 budget included a $66 million lease for Pagan as part of more than $1.3 billion for military construction plans in the region. A lawsuit contesting the plans for Pagan and Tinian, which could destroy numerous historic sites and could endanger Tinian’s aquifer, is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
At the same time, the Navy is in the process of building a Marine Corps base on Guam and plans to move troops from Okinawa there. Protests and a lawsuit forced the Navy to scale back plans for the base, but it is moving forward with a machine gun range.
The supplemental environmental impact statement released this year deals specifically with Farallon de Medinilla and undersea training. A spokesman for the Navy said the environmental impact statement evaluates the impacts of ongoing and future Navy training in the Marianas region and supports the reauthorization of training under the Marine Mammal Protection Act beyond 2020.
The Navy says failing to conduct the training would mean it “would be unable to properly defend itself and the United States from enemy forces, unable to successfully detect enemy submarines, and unable to safely and effectively use its weapons systems or defensive countermeasures” due to a lack of real-world training.
The U.S. Navy is in the midst of a 50-year lease on Farallon de Medinilla that started in 1983 and includes an option for a 50-year extension.
The lease requires the Navy to clean up the island at the conclusion, but that’s proven prohibitively expensive on other former training ranges, including Kahoolawe, a former Navy target island near Maui. The Kahoolawe Reserve Commission is seeking Hawaii state funds this year to continue the island’s restoration. It remains largely uninhabitable even after a $344 million munitions cleanup.
The legal nonprofit Earthjustice successfully sued and briefly stopped the Navy’s bombing of Farallon de Medinilla more than a decade ago. But the Navy received a congressional exemption to continue bombing exercises on the island despite the presence of migratory birds.
The Navy’s supplemental environmental analysis says the training hasn’t significantly impacted the birds. However, the agency hasn’t been able to survey the bird population since 2016 due to a lack of helicopter services.
Attorney David Henkin from the Honolulu office of Earthjustice says that the draft analysis is an improvement over the previous version because the Navy is for the first time recognizing biologically important areas in the waters surrounding the Marianas.
But he says the draft is missing actual protection for humpback whale birthing and nursing areas off of the island of Saipan, even though that protection exists for similar areas around the Hawaiian islands. Henkin believes the draft should also include an analysis of the connection between sonar and whale strandings in the Marianas.
“That’s a fatal flaw,” he says. “They don’t necessarily need to agree with what the reviewed science says but they at least need to acknowledge it.”
Michael Jasny, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that although the U.S. military has been training in the region for decades, since training ramped up nearly a decade ago the Marianas has seen six beaked whale strandings after many years of observing none.
“It’s really the tip of the iceberg. The animals that you see on the beach just happen to be the ones that happen to swim to shore,” says Jasny.
“This is a case of shooting and asking questions later. The Navy has just gone ahead and ramped up activity without attempting to protect these species and now we’re seeing the fruits of that recklessness in the form of dead whales.”
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