The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a defeat to environmentalists Wednesday and cleared the way for the Navy to use high-powered sonar off the Southern California coast even if it poses a threat to whales and other marine mammals.

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a defeat to environmentalists Wednesday and cleared the way for the Navy to use high-powered sonar off the Southern California coast even if it poses a threat to whales and other marine mammals.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority in the court’s first decision of the term, said the Navy needs to train its crews to detect enemy submarines, and it cannot be forced to turn off its sonar when whales are seen nearby. “The public interest in conducting training exercises with active sonar under realistic conditions plainly outweighs” the concerns voiced by environmentalists, he said for a 5-4 majority.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental organizations had sued the Navy, winning restrictions in lower federal courts on sonar use.

Roberts faulted judges in California for “second-guessing” the views of Navy leaders. “Where the public interest lies does not strike us as a close question,” he said.

Roberts also questioned whether whales or other marine mammals have been harmed by sonar. He said the Navy had been operating off the California coast for 40 years “without a single documented sonar-related injury to any marine mammal.”

Dolphins, whales and sea lions are among the 37 species of marine mammals in the area.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups disagreed. They said studies have shown that the piercing underwater sounds cause whales to flee in panic. These studies said some whales have beached themselves and have shown signs of bleeding in their ears as a result of high-powered sonar.

The ruling lifts a Los Angeles judge’s order that required the Navy to turn off its sonar when whales or marine mammals were seen within 1.2 miles of a ship.

In his opinion, Roberts stressed the military threat posed by modern subs. “Modern diesel-electric submarines … can operate almost silently, making them extremely difficult to detect and track.”

America’s potential adversaries have at least 300 of these subs, he said.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. agreed with Roberts.

The four liberal-leaning justices were divided. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter dissented and said the Navy should be required to complete an environmental-impact statement before doing its final training exercises.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer agreed with the majority that the lower courts’ order went too far, but Breyer said it should be modified so the Navy’s exercises could proceed.

In Washington state, the past use of the sonar has raised concerns about the impact on local whales, particularly endangered orcas. But the sonar appears to be used infrequently, if ever, in Puget Sound.

That followed a 2003 incident in which the Navy destroyer USS Shoup appeared to disturb a nearby pod of orcas as it used midfrequency sonar in Haro Strait near the San Juan Islands. Soon after, the Navy instituted a requirement that before the sonar is used in Puget Sound or the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the commander of the Pacific Fleet must grant permission.

There is concern among some environmentalists, however, that plans to expand a Navy training range off the Olympic Coast could mean more sonar in a place trafficked by whales, including orcas.

The Navy has said the expansion shouldn’t pose a problem for whales. A Navy spokeswoman on Wednesday said there is only “minor” use of midfrequency sonar in that training area.

However, the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a letter to the Navy, said the Navy had failed to adequately assess the dangers sonar in the training area could pose to marine mammals, including orcas.

Seattle Times environment reporter Warren Cornwall contributed to this report.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.