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Groups sue over federal rules they say could harm belugas in Alaska’s Cook Inlet

FILE- In this August 2009, file photo, provided by the Department of Defense, a Cook Inlet beluga whale calf, left, and an adult breach near Anchorage, Alaska. Conservation groups are suing a federal agency over rules they say could harm beluga whales and other marine mammals in Alaska's Cook Inlet. An attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is challenging the rules along with Cook Inletkeeper, says the lawsuit was filed Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, against the National Marine Fisheries Service. The agency has said its analysis indicates that the rules will not contribute to or worsen the observed decline of the Cook Inlet beluga whale population. (Christopher Garner/Department of Defense via AP, File)

JUNEAU - Conservation groups are suing a federal agency over rules they say could harm beluga whales and other marine mammals in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

An attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is challenging the rules along with Cook Inletkeeper, said the lawsuit was filed Wednesday against the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries.

The lawsuit seeks to block rules that would allow certain oil and gas operations by Hilcorp Alaska with the potential to injure or disrupt marine life through noise exposure.

The agency has said it is requiring a mitigation plan to reduce effects on the Cook Inlet belugas and other marine mammals to the "lowest level practicable." It also has said its analysis indicates the rules will not contribute to or worsen the observed decline of the Cook Inlet beluga whale population.

Based on the analysis of potential effects, planned activities and a mitigation and monitoring program, the agency said it determined the work would have a negligible impact on the whales.

Julie Speegle, an Alaska-based spokeswoman for the agency, said by email it is policy to not comment on litigation. A message seeking comment also was sent to a Hilcorp spokesman.

The lawsuit says the analysis wasn’t as rigorous or comprehensive as it should have been. It says scientific experts have warned that noise pollution from oil and gas activities in the Inlet is likely to push the whales “closer to extinction.”

According to the Marine Mammal Commission, the Cook Inlet beluga whale stock was estimated around 1,300 animals in 1972 but declined sharply in the 1990s due largely to what it called unsustainable subsistence harvesting. The population was listed as endangered in 2008.

The lawsuit says while there has been no subsistence hunting of the species in years, the population has shown no signs of recovery. Fewer than 330 whales remain, it says.

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