Four representatives travelled to Homer to explain the purpose of Northern Edge. Captain Raymond Hesser is a naval officer with Alaskan Command.
“We as a team were able to present a lot of information. I’m sure they learned something and the whole point was an information exchange. We gave them some information and then we were able to listen. I think we got a pretty good amount of feedback,” says Hesser.
Hesser and his team explained the history of Northern Edge, the drills involved, and the equipment that would be used. They also said there wouldn’t be any population wide impacts to fish or marine mammals. Homer residents rejected that. Bob Shavelson, Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper, seemed to surprise the delegation with a question on the Navy’s recent legal trouble regarding exercises planned in waters near Hawaii and Southern California.
“There was a court decision in April that said the analysis, the environmental analysis, that they did in Hawaii and Southern California waters was inadequate. And it was actually illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other federal laws,” says Shavelson.
Shavelson asked if the Navy violated federal law there, then what are they doing differently here. None of the speakers had an answer. Hesser says he wishes he did.
“Would I have liked to have answers to every single question that was given? Yes. Had I heard that question before? Yes. Have I heard it answered before? Yes. I just would not even dare to try and answer the question when I don’t personally know the answer. We just did the best we could on very short notice to try and be as transparent as possible,” says Hesser.
Hesser says the group was invited on Thursday which gave them a few days to make the trip to Homer. He adds that if the same legal error were made with this study he is sure they would face a similar court ruling.
“That’s not an answer to the question but I just understand that they’re different so I just tried to point that out,” says Hesser.
The audience also chided the representatives for the Navy’s history of pollution, for not knowing about herring data gathered by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, and for claiming sonar impacts on fish and marine mammals would be minimal. Shelley Gill is part of a years’ long humpback whale study with the nonprofit, Eye of the Whale.
“They say sonar doesn’t harm whales. The Navy was kicked out of Hawaii and kicked out of San Diego. He was just talking about how well they did in Puerto Rico and they were kicked out of Puerto Rico too. We know that sonar kills whales,” says Gill.
Gill says the Navy admits in its environmental impact study, or EIS, they don’t know the impact sonar could have on salmon. Dr. Cynthia Ledoux-Bloom is a Fisheries Scientist in California who has worked with the Navy in the Gulf of Alaska. But she says she’s only given the Supplemental EIS for Northern Edge a brief read. Ledoux-Bloom thinks there were good points raised at the meeting, like why the Trustee Council data on herring didn’t make it into the Navy’s impact study.
“I don’t know if the data was available between 2008 and 2011, but if it was it should have been included,” says Ledoux-Bloom.
But she also believes there’s a gap between people’s expectations and what is actually possible. For instance, she doesn’t know how to figure out if there’s a positive relationship between fish mortality and exercises the Navy will be doing in the gulf.
“Were there fish before the training operations? Were there fish after the training operations? Did the training operations themselves remove the fish? If the fish died did they float? Did they sink? Were they dead and just picked up by the shorebirds? So I think trying to figure out mortality and making that relationship…I don’t know how to do it,” says Ledoux-Bloom.
Dr. Ledoux-Bloom says there was a clear divide between the audience’s opinion on the exercises’ impact and the information touted by the Navy’s team. And she says that’s okay.
“When everything goes smooth, I don’t really think you’re getting the full picture or you’re not actually talking to the people you should be talking to. So I though the meeting itself had its moments of discomfort but overall, I really feel super hopeful about it,” says Ledoux-Bloom.
Hesser says he appreciates the community’s concerns and he wishes he could have come to Homer to start a dialogue months before Northern Edge got underway.