Enviros take legal action to protect marine mammal Marty Coyne, Greenwire senior reporter
Environmental groups last week sued Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over Pentagon plans to build a heliport and relocate a military base in Japan because of potential impacts to the endangered dugong, a species related to the sea lion. The lawsuit is the first test of the international provisions of U.S. law intended to preserve historically important wildlife.
Roughly 50 Okinawa dugong, listed as an endangered species in the United States and as a natural monument under Japan's Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, live in waters around the Japanese island where the United States has operated several military bases since the end of World War II. Although the National Historic Preservation Act -- the basis of the lawsuit -- typically addresses development issues in the United States, Congress amended the law in 1980 to comply with U.S. obligations under the World Heritage Convention, thereby mitigating the adverse effects of federal activities outside the homeland.
At issue for environmentalists is the potential impact that Pentagon ocean surveys for the heliport and the relocation of the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to the coastal area of Henoko, where dugong are known to live. The marine mammal, also known as a seacow, has been threatened for decades by entrapment in fishing nets, widespread loss of habitat and coastal pollution, according to environmentalists monitoring their condition.
Led by the nonprofit groups Okinawa Dugong and the Center for Biological Diversity, environmentalists challenged the air station's relocation Sept. 25 in a lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Oakland in California.
Other groups involved in the action include Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Turtle Island Restoration Network, Save the Dugong Foundation and the Committee Against Heliport Construction.
If underwater surveys for the heliport and base relocation activities begin as scheduled in December, the fallout for the marine animal will likely be devastating, according to the plaintiffs. "These activities are likely to inflict serious and irreparable harm to the Okinawa dugong," their complaint charges. "Noise and other disruptive aspects of these activities are believed to adversely affect marine mammals, sometimes causing severe injury, including deafness, tissue damage and disorientation."
Defense Department officials familiar with the military operations in Okinawa declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
To comply with the historic preservation law, the Defense Department "must at a minimum engage in a consultative process with local preservation authorities, relevant experts and local communities," the groups maintain.