Federal suit filed; OLF practices suspended
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
JULY 19, 2013 · UPDATED 3:44
A Central Whidbey community group aiming to close Outlying Field Coupeville has taken its fight to federal court.
Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve for a Healthy, Safe & Peaceful Environment filed a lawsuit Monday.
Capt. Mike Nortier, commander of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, and Adm. Bill Gortney, Commander Fleet Forces Command, are both named as parties in the suit.
In a Thursday statement, the Navy declined to comment on details of the suit, but it did reveal a major change of airfield operations.
“It would be inappropriate for the Navy to comment on the specifics of pending litigation.
“Last month, however, the Navy decided to temporarily suspend field carrier landing practice (FCLP) operations at OLF Coupeville until the end of the calendar year.
“This decision will create operational impacts, and is not considered to be sustainable for the long term. Conducting all FCLPs at Ault Field will interfere with other necessary operations, entailing delays and operational conflicts.”
EFFORTS TO engage Navy leaders about jet noise concerns have failed and legal action was the last recourse, said representatives of the citizens group.
“The only way we could get them to talk to us was to file a suit,” said Maryon Attwood, a member of the group’s board of directors.
In June, the organization’s attorneys, Seattle-based Gendler & Mann, gave the Navy 30 days to begin an in-depth review of operations at the airfield based on National Environmental Protection Act standards.
The letter also included a privately funded noise study that claimed aircraft performing touch-and-go maneuvers at the airfield are so loud they represent a health risk.
According to Attwood, the Navy did not respond.
THOUGH SPECIFICALLY named in the lawsuit, Nortier declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to talk about pending litigation.
Congressman Rick Larsen, a Second District Democrat and member of the Armed Forces Committee, also declined to weigh in.
“As a member of Congress, Rep. Larsen does not weigh in on pending lawsuits so he will not be commenting,” wrote an aide, in an email to the Whidbey News-Times.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington in Seattle, alleges that the Navy failed to meet requirements outlined in the National Environmental Protection Act.
The group is asking a federal judge to intervene and force the commission of an in depth review, known as environmental impact statement.
“Basically, we’re trying to get them to do what they should have done in 2005,” Attwood said.
THE NAVY completed an environmental assessment in 2005 that examined the base’s planned transition from the EA-6B Prowler to the EA-18G Growler aircrafts.
The lawsuit contends the new planes are not only louder than the Navy’s assessment claims, but the jets are flying more frequently than predicted.
“(The group) and its membership have been significantly harmed by a significant increase in flight operations at OLF Coupeville,” the complaint said. “Members suffer a variety of health impacts, including a loss of hearing, loss of sleep and loss of ability to focus or work.”
According to the lawsuit, the 2005 study estimated flight operations would fall 20 percent, from 7,682 in 2003 to 6,120 in 2013.
The group alleges, however, that operations have exceeded that prediction since 2010, topping out at nearly 9,670 last year.
Also, the organization’s recently funded noise study asserts that recorded noise levels that are “well above the levels requiring hearing protection and are high enough to potentially result in permanent hearing loss.”
The noise study is one of the cornerstones of the lawsuit but not everyone is sold on its conclusions.
“I QUESTION the validity of any study commissioned by a special interest group,” Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, referring to the anti-OLF group’s findings.
“I grew up under a flight path and I hear just fine,” she said.
Like many who believe the noise complaints are superfluous, Johnson called the lawsuit “unfortunate” and said that it puts the base’s future in jeopardy.
During a recent meeting with Navy leadership, Johnson said she learned that airbases with carrier-based squadrons need an outlying field within 50 miles or two parallel runways.
“We don’t have two parallel runways,” Johnson said.
“The linkage between OLF and NAS Whidbey makes this conversation dangerous for the future economy of Whidbey Island,” she said.
ISLAND COUNTY Commissioner Helen Price Johnson’s position on the issue is less clear. Asked to comment on the lawsuit during an interview Wednesday, she said it’s a separate matter from her efforts to find immediate solutions.
“I want to stay focused on what I think I can do,” Price Johnson said.
She and Mayor Nancy Conard recently hosted a community meeting in Coupeville in an attempt to generate mitigation strategies.
They contend the airfield fate is not in their hands, but that they can work with Navy leadership to reduce the impact while the matter is being decided.
Price Johnson did say, however, that the reality of flight operations is not what was outlined in the Navy’s 2005 study.
“It is different than what was expected.”
THE CITIZENS of the Ebey’s Reserve’s lawsuit is seeking a “temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and/or permanent injunction” that would require the cessation of flight operations at the airfield until the study is completed.
Joe Kunzler, a Navy and OLF supporter, said he favors having an additional study, but called the group’s request “over the top.”
“I’m just outraged,” Kunzler said. “That’s not a solution.”
Environmental impact studies can take years to perform and pilots can’t go without a place to train for so long, he said.
Kunzler said he launched an online petition to save the airfield.
The Navy 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.
The Navy confirmed in its statement this week that it is already looking at “the need for further NEPA action for Growler operations at NAS Whidbey Island and OLF Coupeville.”