By PETER SUR
Tribune-Herald staff writer
U.S. Navy representatives answered questions from a skeptical crowd Thursday evening on an environmental impact statement regarding their training activities in the Pacific.
The Navy is seeking public comment on its activities in a broad area of the north-central Pacific, including offshore waters surrounding Hawaii, an area offshore of Southern California, nearshore training complexes and the transit corridor between Hawaii and California.
It’s a big area, and a big document. The two-volume EIS runs to 1,650 pages, describing the scope of the Navy’s proposed open-ocean activities over the next several years.
Once the EIS is accepted, said public affairs officer Mark Matsunaga, the National Marine Fisheries Service issues a letter of authorization good for five years. The current authorization would expire in 2014, so the Navy is going around the state, holding public meetings for comment on the draft EIS on Kauai, Maui, Oahu and Hawaii Island, as well as in San Diego.
Thursday’s meeting was held in the upstairs theater room of the East Hawaii Cultural Center in Hilo. About a dozen large poster boards ringed the room to explain the purpose of the EIS, and an expert in various fields stood by each board, ready to assist the public in answering any questions they might have.
An area of the room was set aside for accepting written comment, and in another room nearby a court reporter transcribed verbal comments.
Most of the concern centered on the effects of active sonar on marine mammals; some were also motivated by philosophical opposition to the U.S. military.
The EIS looked at a suite of potential stress factors for all marine mammals that might enter the operations zone and concluded that the proposed action, which would involve the potential increased use of sonar and the possibility of collisions with ships, would have an effect, but not an overwhelming one.
“Although potential impacts to certain marine mammal species from the proposed action may include injury or mortality, impacts are not expected to decrease the overall fitness of any given population,” the EIS says. The document also devotes a chapter to mitigation procedures.
“My main concern is for the safety and continued existence of marine mammals,” said Sharon Hettema of Hilo, who added that “a lot is still not known” about the effects of sonar.
And another person opted to make a more dramatic statement.
Jim Albertini, a peace activist who has a long history of tangling with the Navy, came in dressed as the Grim Reaper, with a skull mask, an American flag hanging from a mockup of a scythe and signs reading “Go Navy” hanging from his front and back. He stood silently in the center of the room.
“That was my testimony,” Albertini said later.
Chip Johnson, a staff biologist with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said there were many reasons that dolphins and other mammals might strand themselves besides sonar.
Disease is one potential cause of stranding, as is seismic activity, prey avoidance and disorientation in shallow waters. A handful of strandings have been documented in recent years, sometimes during RIMPAC exercises, but a clear link is elusive.
“The Navy has been doing these exercises for decades in the Hawaiian Islands,” said Conrad Erkelens, a contractor who specializes in marine resources acoustics and modeling.
Puna dolphin researcher Michael Hyson said sonar could induce decompression sickness, also known as the bends, if sonar pings caused dolphins and whales to rise quickly from the depths.
But Roy Sokolowski, a Navy environmental protection specialist who specializes in sonar acoustics, said the energy from a ping, while loud, is largely dissipated within a thousand yards or so.
“It (sonar) is a perishable skill,” Sokolowski said, arguing for its use in training situations.
Comments are being accepted through July 10 for consideration in the final Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing EIS. For more information, including downloads of the draft EIS, visit www.HSTTEIS.com. Copies of the draft EIS are also available for public inspection at the public libraries in Hilo and Kailua-Kona.
Email Peter Sur at firstname.lastname@example.org.