KAHULUI - U.S. Navy training exercises in waters around Hawaii and across the Pacific would be the same kinds of activities that have been under way for decades, including sonar training and the use of explosives under water, Navy officials said last week.
The U.S. Navy brought its application to renew an environmental impact statement allowing its ships, submarines and planes to continue training in waters around Hawaii and Southern California to a lightly attended open house in Kahului on Friday.
Opponents have objected to the Navy's use of sonar in its exercises within the 1.2 million-square-mile Hawaii testing range, saying the powerful sounds cause injuries to marine mammals including humpback whales.
"We believe our effects (with sonar) are temporary," said Fleet Environmental Counsel Johnny Nilsen. "We do not believe that the sonar is going to kill any mammals."
The Navy must, by law, conduct training exercises to be prepared for the event of attack or war, and that involves using explosive devices in the water as well, Nilsen added. However, their main concern is trying to detect diesel-powered submarines, which are becoming increasingly popular among some Asian countries, such as North Korea, he said.
None of the training and tests under consideration is for land targets, Navy officials said.
"This is more of the same," said Mark Matsunaga, environmental public affairs officer for the U.S. Pacific Fleet command of the EIS process. "We have been doing these activities for decades."
At least a dozen residents stopped by for the four-hour-long open house at Maui Waena Intermediate School. Another dozen Navy officers, spokespeople, private consultants and scientists were on hand to answer the public's questions.
A number of those who visited the event were skeptical of the Navy's claims.
"Of course, you darn well know they are just telling you what you want to hear," said Mele Stokesberry of Maui Peace Action. "They've got to defend their positions."
Stokesberry said she was concerned that the Navy is using depleted uranium in its weapons training but was told that only the Army uses the controversial metal for its projectiles.
Mahealani Oliver said she came to find out firsthand where the Navy got the authority to conduct its operations in both the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary and the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. She also said she was concerned about its impact on the environment and aquatic life.
"I just don't think it's a good place for training, you know?" Oliver said.
The final EIS and overseas environmental impact statement (OEIS) is actually the second set of studies for the area, Matsunaga said. It won't take effect until the existing statements expire in January 2014, if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Fisheries Services approves the study, he said.
The EIS/OEISs are for the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing Study Area. San Diego is about 2,400 miles from Hawaii, and vessels train along the way.
For more information, go online to www.HSTTEIS.com, where the Navy will also accept written comments. The drafts of the documents are scheduled to be ready by spring 2012, when the Navy will return to hold public hearings on the subject and gather more public input.
"We're getting out ahead of the game," Nilsen said.
This month, the Navy also hosted four other required "scoping period" open houses in Point Loma and Long Beach, Calif., Lihue, Honolulu and Hilo.
The studies are partially in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision nearly two years ago. The Navy prevailed, but the courts imposed a number of restrictions on its use of sonar to protect marine animals, such as Hawaii's famous whales, monk seals and sea turtles.
The Supreme Court sided with the Navy in its November 2008 decision against the Natural Resources Defense Council, saying the ability to conduct realistic training exercises outweighs any concerns that sonar could damage marine life.
However, both sides claimed victory in that case. Environmentalists said that the decision puts a number of restrictions in place.
Nilsen said that the new guidelines call for the Navy to power down its sonar by 75 percent if a mammal is at least 1,000 yards from a craft and shut it off if a mammal gets within 200 yards.
"There's a lot of allegations that mammals are being hurt or killed, but there's no evidence," Matsunaga said.
The sonar the Navy uses on 56 ships included in the EIS/OEIS is midfrequency, said Conrad Erkelens, who represented the Navy's marine resources accoustics/modeling research. He said sonar causes what's called a "take" in ocean mammals, that can be as minor as an animal turning its head in response to hearing the sonar.
Pearl Harbor has 17 submarines; however, they don't use the sonar very often because it gives away their position, Nilsen said.
Some people are concerned that the Navy's sub-hunting sonar disrupts fishing, but he said it's been proved that it does not affect fish, which cannot hear the frequency, as mammals can.
Officials also noted that the humpback whale population is on the rise and continues to come from Alaska to Hawaii using the same migratory paths.
"We're not discounting there may be an effect, but we say it doesn't eliminate wildlife," Nilsen said.
In addition, it's the NOAA's civilian-run National Marine Fisheries Service that determines how many hours Navy planes and helicopters can be in the air and, what, where and how much ordnance and munitions they can use, Nilsen said.
"We are on the phone with them every week," Nilsen said. "It's a sea change for us, and it's a good thing."
Project documents, fact sheets and other information can also be found at the Wailuku Public Library.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.