A Supreme Court ruling has a way of concentrating the minds of litigants.
Six weeks after the high court issued its ruling on the impact of the U.S. Navy's sonar training on marine mammals in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, both sides have reached a settlement on issues related to -- but not decided by -- that case. Both the Navy and the NRDC are touting the settlement, which was announced Saturday.
The high court ruling Nov. 12 struck down a preliminary injunction issued at the district court level that ordered several restrictions on sonar use in planned training exercises off southern California. The restrictions or mitigations, sought by NRDC and other plaintiffs, were aimed at reducing the alleged impact of sonar on certain whales and dolphins. The 5-4 ruling found that the national interest in training Navy submarine personnel trumped the possible harm to the marine mammals in weighing whether a preliminary injunction was justified.
But the Supreme Court ruling explicitly stopped short of deciding the more basic issue whether the Navy was required to prepare an environmental impact statement for the training exercises under federal environmental law. On that point the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had said the environmental plaintiffs had established a likelihood of success and that the Navy's environmental assessment was "cursory, unsupported by cited evidence, or unconvincing."
The settlement announced by the Navy on Saturday and commented on by the NRDC on Sunday addresses that broader issue and charts a course for future research by the Navy on sonar impact on marine mammals. The Navy agrees -- as it already had during the litigation -- to conduct full environmental reviews before future training exercises. It will also commit nearly $15 million to future marine mammal research, in addition to $26 million already budgeted this year. The Navy will also release previously classified documents relating to past research, and will pay plaintiffs more than $1.1 million in attorney fees. The agreement steers clear of any additional mitigation measures, which was the subject of the Supreme Court decision.
Navy general counsel Frank Jimenez highlighted the "favorable terms" of the settlement, which he said will base future actions on scientific research rather than litigation, while NRDC senior attorney Joel Reynolds applauded creation of "a process of negotiation" between the Navy and environmental groups that could reduce future litigation.