Navy responds to potential endangered species lawsuit
In the face of a potential lawsuit over alleged violations of environmental law, the U.S. Department of Navy emphasized the need for servicemen to train in the land, sea, and air of the Marianas in the name of national security.
The statement Thursday from Joint Region Marians, however, does not directly comment on the lawsuit or disclose if alleged violations will be “cured” within two months as sought by environmental groups.
The potential lawsuit involves live-fire, sea, and undersea training approved in the “Marianas Islands Training and Testing” project that the group’s claims violate the Endangered Species Act.
Last August, the Navy gave the go-ahead on the MITT project, to replace a smaller scale on approved five years. Among the undersea sonar training the Navy approved strike, amphibious, anti-surface, electronic, anti-submarine, and mine warfare, among others. It approves use of F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft, aircraft carrier, destroyer class vessel, and amphibious combat vehicles and unmanned vehicle and aerial systems, inclusive of numerous rocket and projectile munitions and “kinetic energy weapons” or rail guns that use energy to accelerate projectiles to supersonic levels, according to decision-making documents.
The Navy also approved state-of-the-art high-frequency sonar systems to be operated from Navy vessels.
“The Navy is aware of the contents of the letter but it is our practice not to comment on possible or pending litigation,” said Joint Region Marianas in statement to Saipan Tribune Thursday.
“It is essential that Sailors, Marines, Airmen and Soldiers have realistic training on land, at sea, and in the air that fully prepares them to prevail when and where necessary. Recognizing our environmental responsibilities, the Navy and Marine Corps have been, and will continue to be good environmental stewards as we prepare for and conduct missions in support of our national security. The Navy will continue to work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure our compliance with the Endangered Species Act.”
The potential lawsuit—from the local Alternative Zero Coalition and the nation-wide Center of Biological Diversity, among others—alleges that the Navy and the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to reconsider the expansive military project in light of newly declared and threatened species in the Marianas.
The groups center on the Navy’s continued and authorized training within the Marianas despite a lack of consultation with the wildlife service, after the Service’s declared 23 plant and animal species as endangered or threatened last October.
“The Navy and the Service have violated and remain in ongoing violation of the ESA,” said David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney, in a “notice of intent to sue” letter to Defense leaders, the Department of Interior, and the Wildlife Service.
Henkin uses the Service’s own words in their final rule on the matter: “The [Marianas Islands Training and Testing area] opens up every island within the Mariana Archipelago as a potential training site…which subsequently may result in negative impacts to any number of the 23 species addressed.”
The project increases “training activities in Guam, Rota, Saipan, Tinian, Farallon de Medinilla (increase in bombing), and Pagan. Likely negative impacts include, but are not limited to, direct damage to individuals from live-fire training and ordnance, wildlife resulting from life-fire and ordnance, direct physical damage (e.g. trampling by humans, helicopter landing, etc.) to individuals, and spread of nonnative species.”
“Additionally, water purification training is proposed for all these islands, except for Farallon de Medinilla, which may be particularly damaging to the Rota blue damselfly,” the Service said.
Henkin said the new rule makes clear that the Navy training may affect the newly listed species—“triggering the obligation to reinitiate consultation.”
The potential lawsuit—from a total of eight groups—taps into larger frustrations that Marianas residents have had with U.S. President Barack Obama’s “Pacific Pivot,” or strategic military shift to the region, which has ballooned into a handful of separate Department of Defense projects in the CNMI and Guam in recent years.
One project includes the relocation of thousands of Marines and their independents to Guam, while another has proposed to house artillery, mortar, grenade ranges on the island of Tinian, where two-thirds of land is leased to Defense; and to lease the entire island of Pagan for bombing and range training purposes.
For the MITT project, the Navy expanded a training area encompassing some 500,000 square nautical miles of ocean into an expansive 980,000-some square miles—an area that advocates have lamented as larger than the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, and New Mexico combined.