The U.S. Navy got an earful on Dec. 4 at the Fort Worden Commons about its proposal to expand the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station fleet of noisy Growler jets from 82 to almost 120.
The meeting was set up as a series of information tables, rather than a standard public hearing where people have their minute or two with the microphone. It took place over a long couple of hours; people came and went. But at any given time there were 100 people in the room. A modest estimate would be that 250 attended overall.
There are two issues on the table. One is the expanded fleet of Growler aircraft, which do touch-and-go landings on a small, 5,400-foot long airstrip near Coupeville designed to simulate the deck of an aircraft carrier. The Growler fleet is devoted to electronic warfare (jamming enemy radar, etc.) and the planes are often among the first to engage in overseas combat missions, so most are carrier-launched.
For east Jefferson County residents, the primary issue here is noise. An expanded fleet, more flights, more touch-and-go landings, and more flights to west Jefferson County for electronic warfare training all translate to a lot more jet noise over Admiralty Inlet and the rest of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Navy estimates jets would be in the air on training missions for 260 days per year, a total of 2,900 training exercises, for eight to 16 hours per day.
Military jet noise is a tangible factor in the lives of most county residents. The Growlers have replaced older Prowlers, based on Whidbey Island for 40 years but which were, by comparison, quieter. Growlers are the loudest of any Navy jet. Pilots often have to use full throttle to make steep climbs from the Coupeville strip. Coupeville residents have filed a lawsuit against the Navy, citing noise damage to property and to property values.
But Whidbey Island, which obtains almost all of the economic benefits of having a large Navy air station in its midst, is politically divided on the issue. No government entity opposes the expansion. Here in Jefferson County, with almost zero economic benefit from NAS Whidbey, what we get is the noise.
Public comments are being accepted until Jan. 9, 2015; go to
whidbeyeis.com for information.
West End Training Range
The other issue, governed by a separate environmental process involving the U.S. Forest Service and which is much further down the road, is a Training Range proposal for expanded war games, testing and training involving Growlers and up to 15 land-based electronic warfare targets on the West End. The targets consist of radio towers, both fixed and mobile, that emit signals that simulate what might be coming from, for example, an enemy anti-aircraft battery. The pilots in training would have the mission to find and identify these targets via flyovers.
Opponents cite several issues. Noise remains at the top of the list – imagine a hike or camping in the pristine West End ruined by continuous Navy jet flyovers. Likewise imagine living there for years of the same.
Some opponents also allege that the radiation-based signals emitted by the target equipment could be harmful to surrounding wildlife or people, although the Navy strongly denies this. The Navy says only a creature flying over a 14-foot tall tower when it is emitting an intense radio beam might be affected if exposed for a long period of time. It said it would shut down the operation if humans or animals came within 100 feet of the land station.
The impact of these plans is both environmental and economic. Small businesses as close as the store at Fort Flagler State Park are already seeing a drop-off in business, attributed to Navy jet noise over Admiralty Inlet. Tourism-based businesses on the West End fear the loss of what draws people there – the quiet of a majestic rain forest. Loss of that would affect every business on the peninsula.
To its credit, the Navy is putting out its information, and listening to these concerns. The Navy personnel on hand on Dec. 4, uniformed and civilian, answered questions fully, tried to correct misimpressions but did not get defensive or strident. Everyone in the room recognized that the mission of these men and women involves putting themselves at risk in order to defend the country and its citizens. They need to be well-trained to do their job.
But there was still a “divide and conquer” stratagem at play in how these plans are being rolled out. The two proposals – the West End target stations and the expanded fleet of Whidbey jets – are obviously two sides of the same air fleet expansion, but they are separated into distinct planning processes with different agencies in charge, different timelines and different hearings in different cities. Also, the specific setup of the room at Fort Worden was designed to send people around to different tables for conversation, rather than providing an opportunity for remarks addressed to the entire audience.
There’s a difference between the opportunity to speak and being heard. We urge the Navy to hear what most people in Jefferson County are saying – your jet noise has a direct impact on our lives.
– Scott Wilson
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