By Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
The state’s top lawyer is suing the Navy over the noise and other impacts of the Growler jet expansion at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson made the announcement during a news conference Tuesday morning. He was joined by Paula Spina of Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER, a Central Whidbey group that’s been fighting the Navy’s plans to significantly increase the training flights at a small airstrip near Coupeville.
COER is also filing a lawsuit over the same issues.
Ferguson argued that the Navy violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not properly analyzing the impact an increase in Growlers will have on human health, the environment and historic resources.
Ferguson will ask a judge to order the Navy to redo the process of assessing these impacts, which are largely from the noise of the aircraft.
“The Navy needs to look before it leaps,” Ferguson said. “The Navy did not do that here.”
Ferguson said many “completely reasonable people” felt the Navy ignored the input from the community and other agencies during the EIS process; it received about 4,000 comments. He pointed out that the state Department of Health provided the Navy with information about the health impacts of noise similar to that of the Growlers, but it was ignored.
The Health Department outlined how exposure to noise levels similar to those at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island could cause sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment and cardiovascular disease. It could also affect children’s learning, Ferguson said, and could also hurt wildlife, such as by disrupting the feeding and breeding of eagles and marbled murrelets, a type of seabird.
Ferguson said the Navy also failed to adequately consider mitigation for the impacts the aircraft will have, which is also required under the law.
“They gotta follow the rules and the rules aren’t that complex,” he said.
In addition to filing the lawsuit, Ferguson sent a letter giving notice of additional claims he will add to the lawsuit under the Endangered Species Act.
A base spokesman said it would not be appropriate to comment on pending litigation.
“The Navy completed a thorough and comprehensive final Environmental Impact Statement that addresses all of the comments received during the six-year project satisfying the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act,” the base said in a statement.
In her comments to the media, Spina discussed the “hellish” impact the Growler noise has had on Central Whidbey residents and COER’s efforts to change the situation.
“It’s been a long fight,” she said, “but we’re not going away.”
Growlers are specialized versions of the F/A-18F Super Hornets that have been modified to conduct electronic warfare.
Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer filed a record of decision in March on future Growler operations at the base. The decision followed an expanded process under the National Environmental Policy Act, which was often contentious as groups and citizens in Central Whidbey raised concerns about the impact of the increased noise and the accuracy of the Navy’s resulting Environmental Impact Statement.
Under the decision, NAS Whidbey will receive 36 more Growler aircraft. Eighty percent of the training exercises for landing on an aircraft carrier will occur at Outlying Field Coupeville, which is a small airstrip on the edge of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve surrounded by farmland and homes. The rest will be at the Ault Field base in North Whidbey.
The Navy’s use of technology to assist in landings decreased the amount of training necessary, but the decision still called for an increase of operations from 6,000 to 23,700 a year. Each “touch-and-go” pass at the airfield represents two operations.
Navy officials explained that aircraft carrier landing training is vital for Growler pilots since it’s one of the most dangerous maneuvers they make. OLF Coupeville is a perfect site for the training for many reasons, including the topography and the darkness. The other site for the training, Ault Field on North Whidbey, is congested with traffic from other aircraft.
The National Parks Conservation Association said it supports the lawsuit, noting that the flights could also affect Ebey’s Landing, a historical preserve on Whidbey Island, and Olympic National Park. The association recently filed a lawsuit accusing the Navy of withholding information about noise pollution from the jets over Olympic National Park.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sibling paper to the Herald.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.