Sonar's Impact of Concern to State; There Are Still Questions of Animal, Coral Safety during Navy Training

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Byline: STEVE PATTERSON

Despite a positive Navy report, Florida still questions the environmental effects of a military training range planned off Jacksonville's coast.

Concerns about potential harm to endangered right whales, federal commercial fishing and deep-sea corals have been raised since May in correspondence between the Navy and the state's Department of Environmental Protection and Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Those types of issues could potentially lead to plan changes for the undersea warfare site or simply delay work on the $100 million project 50 nautical miles -- about 58 miles -- offshore.

The Navy is hoping for a quick solution.

"Our goal is to resolve this with the state of Florida," said Jene Nissen, the project manager for the range.

About 300 underwater acoustic devices would help ships and submarines using sonar practice for undersea war. The devices would send and receive signals that training managers could use to quickly critique a crew's performance. Helicopters would also practice there.

The range represents a critical upgrade in training that crews need for foreign deployments, said Nissen, a retired Navy commander.

A number of developing nations, including China and Iran, have bought new, quieter diesel submarines designed for use in coastal areas.

Nissen said the range would help simulate situations crews could face overseas and could be ready to use by 2014 or 2015.

But between the range and Jacksonville's Navy bases lie waters where right whales, a species numbering only about 300 to 350 animals, nurture their newborns every winter. Once hunted almost to death, there are so few remaining whales that scientists worry about the impact of any new challenge, such as collisions with ships or sonar bursts hurting the animals' hearing.

Conservation commission staff and those at the Department of Environmental Protection have been focused on that, a state environmental manager, Lauren Milligan, wrote to Navy officials in an e-mail this week.

An environmental impact report the Navy issued last week projected little effect on the whales, who are normally seen in shallow waters much closer to the shore. …

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