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Tampa Tribune (KRTBN)

Military Seeks To Conduct Bomb Tests In Gulf Off Northwest Florida Beaches

By Mark Holan, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

May 21, 2004
Copyright ©2004 KRTBN Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. All rights reserved.

May 21--The U.S. military is seeking approval for Eglin Air Force Base to conduct missile and bombing tests in the Gulf of Mexico south of Santa Rosa Island.

The exercises, 17 to 28 miles off the Panhandle, would be the first use of live warheads in open Gulf waters in at least a decade.

"There is no place else in the continental United States where we can do this type of testing," said Mike Spaits, Eglin's environmental affairs spokesman.

In its request to the National Marine Fisheries Service for "incidental harassment authorization," the military acknowledges potential harm to sea turtles and marine mammals and explains how it would limit the damage.

Environmental groups are marshaling opposition to the proposal, saying the military underestimates the risk to whales and dolphins.

The exercises also would restrict commercial and recreational fishing and aviation in the area during up to a dozen annual tests for six years.

The military published its request in the Federal Register late last month. The Fisheries Service will accept public comment on the proposal through Monday, and it plans to decide by early July.

"No detonations will occur if a marine mammal or sea turtle is detected within a predetermined safety zone designed to protect all animals from temporary or permanent hearing impairment or other harassment," the Fisheries Service wrote.

The Eglin proposal calls for annually firing two live and four unarmed cruise missiles with 1,000-pound warheads and dropping up to six glide bombs with 217-pound warheads from aircraft. The targets would be barges strapped with ship containers.

The Air Force says it will use ship- and helicopter-based observers to scan the Gulf for whales, dolphins or sea turtles surfacing within two miles of targets. Testing would stop if marine animals come into view or if choppy seas, seaweed or jellyfish inhibit such detection, the proposal says.

Marine mammals have air cavities that can rupture from underwater shock waves caused by an explosion, resulting in death or injury. Explosions also can interfere with low-frequency sounds the animals make during breeding, feeding, migration and other activity.

Cynthia Sarthou, executive director of the New Orleans- based Gulf Restoration Network, said the exercises could have serious effects on dwarf sperm whales, citing Eglin's estimate of three to 103 marine mammals being exposed to each blast if no visual monitoring were to take place.

Sarthou said visual monitoring isn't enough. She wants Eglin to use acoustic equipment to detect sea creatures under water.

Bob Miller, endangered species biologist at Eglin, said visual monitoring is the best way to detect bottlenose dolphins, which don't vocalize as much as whales.

"If whales were in the test area, passive acoustic monitoring could be considered," he said.

Eglin used live explosives to test a mine-clearing system on the Santa Rosa Island beachfront in 1998. Miller said no dolphins were reported injured or killed.

The base had permission for similar tests in 2000 but didn't conduct them, Spaits said.

The Navy has done shock testing of ships and submarines, detonating explosives to test the durability of their hulls, in the Atlantic Ocean off Mayport and is seeking permission to do more off Florida's east coast or in the Gulf.

Spaits said two more incidental harassment requests from Eglin involving Gulf testing are in the pipeline.

Eglin, which does weapons testing at the base near Fort Walton Beach and controls 134,000 square miles of air space over the Gulf, also has proposed a new land target range in Florida's Big Bend for unarmed missiles.

Spaits said the proposed Gulf testing is not related to the Big Bend range request or to the closing a year ago of a U.S. military bombing range on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico.

The request comes after the Department of Defense in the late 1990s began proposing changes to environmental laws to ease restrictions on military training and exercises such as ordnance testing. The Bush administration has applied more pressure to accommodate such exercises.

In the past year, for example, changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 have altered the definition of "harassment" as outlined when the fisheries service began requiring permits in 1995.

Nearly 30 marine mammal species live in the Gulf.

Seven are listed as endangered, including North Atlantic right whales. Last month a pair of the whales were reported about 1 1/2 miles off Panama City Beach.

In late March, more than 100 dead bottlenose dolphins washed ashore on Panhandle beaches, reportedly victims of red tide. Endangered manatees remain the center of debate about protective measures such as slow-speed zones for boaters.

The Marine Mammal Commission, created by the 1972 law and run by John Reynolds III of Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, still was reviewing Eglin's proposal this week and planned to submit its recommendation to the fisheries service by Monday.

Through an advisory committee created in November, the commission is pursuing new research about the effect of underwater noise on marine mammals. The 28-member committee includes representatives of the commission, the federal Minerals Management Service and Navy. Both of the latter have received harassment authorizations for offshore seismic and military testing.

Oil companies, environmental groups and research institutions such as the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University also have representatives.

Underwater sound research conducted by Lamont-Doherty, including some in the Gulf of Mexico, is funded by the Minerals Management Service and Navy, which has come under criticism for its sonar testing.

"The Navy sonar testing is a little different in that the noise generated by sonar is continuous at a constant frequency band, where the noise impacts from a [missile or bomb] detonation is more at one point and only lasts for a few seconds," said Miller, the Eglin biologist. "So basically the noise is there and then gone."

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