By Kimberly Cauvel / Skagit Valley Herald
The Navy on Friday released its final environmental impact statement for increasing the number of Growler jets stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and the number of practice flights to be taken at area airfields.
The final environmental impact statement, or EIS, does not change the Navy’s previously announced plans, or what it has called its preferred alternative, for increasing the presence of EA-18G Growlers.
The Navy’s plan is to add 36 Growlers to its Whidbey Island base and increase operations of those jets at Ault Field and Outlying Field Coupeville.
Operations include field carrier landing practices, which the Navy says are needed to ensure pilots are prepared to land the aircraft on aircraft carriers at sea.
Field carrier landing practices have taken place at OLF Coupeville since the 1960s, but have in recent years become a point of contention with nearby residents who say the sound threatens their well-being.
Much of that contention surrounds an ongoing dispute over whether the Growlers are louder than the EA-6B Prowlers, which the Navy began to replace with Growlers in 2008.
Navy documents provide a variety of perspectives on the comparison of jet noise, suggesting it’s not a clear-cut issue but that the Growler is quieter — at least most of the time.
The EIS concludes the Growler is louder during arrival or approach for a landing, but is otherwise quieter.
The newer jets may be perceived as louder, however, because of the lower frequency of their engines compared to those of the Prowlers, according to the EIS, an environmental assessment completed in 2012 and an undated fact sheet from the Navy.
The previous environmental assessment states that lower frequencies can result in more vibrations, which are often perceived as louder and can have effects such as the rattling of windows.
Ted Brown, environmental public affairs officer with the U.S. Fleet Force Command, said the Navy essentially has been evaluating Growler jet noise since 1997, when studies were done using the F/A18F Super Hornet — an aircraft with the same frame and engine as the Growler.
Additional analysis was done in 2000 and in 2004 to compare the Prowler and the Growler. Brown said that analysis showed similar sound impacts from the two jets, as well as less noise from the Growlers during maintenance than from the Prowlers.
An undated Navy Noise Assessments fact sheet states the Prowler is louder and slower at takeoff than the Growler, and sound levels of 100 decibels or more reach farther during Prowler operations.
The gist of it, Brown said, is that because the Growler and Prowler have different engines, even at the same decibel level the aircraft sound different. The Growler is recognized by a rumble as it flies overhead, due to its lower frequency.
The EIS concludes that increasing the presence of Growlers will “increase noise perceived in the region” and for that reason, noise is a significant impact.
The EIS states that because aircraft operations will increase, 1,316 more area residents would be affected by jet noise louder than 65 decibels.
The document also states that the Navy has measures in place to reduce noise and will continue to try to minimize it.
With the addition of jets at the base, operations are expected to increase by 27,400 per year — 9,800 more at Ault Field and 17,600 more at OLF Coupeville, according to the EIS. In terms of time, that is an increase in operations at OLF Coupeville from 90 hours per year to 360 hours per year.
Operations include takeoffs and landings, making each field carrier landing practice two operations, according to the Navy’s public notice regarding completion of the EIS.
At 112,100 total aircraft operations per year based on the plan, the increase would remain within past levels, which ranged between about 98,000 in 2002 and 188,000 in 1990, according to the EIS.
Environment groups and community members remain unhappy about the Navy’s plans.
The Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve and other area organizations have joined together to form the Sound Defense Alliance to oppose increasing Growler operations and other activities over public lands, according to the organization’s website.
The organization hosted a meeting Sept. 19 about the increasing presence and operation of Growlers, which it said in a news release drew about 100 community members.
The organization has scheduled another event for 4 p.m. Wednesday at Crockett Barn in Coupeville to protest the Navy’s plans.
Brown said of the 4,335 comments received during the public comment period for the draft EIS that was released in 2016, about one-third addressed jet noise.
Those comments and others informed clarifications and improved accuracy in the final EIS, according to the public notice.
The Navy began the EIS process in 2013, following a lawsuit by filed by the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve that raised concerns about how the influx of Growlers could impact Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve near Coupeville.
The EIS evaluates the potential impacts of the plan to increase the number of Growlers and flight operations in a variety of categories including air quality, public health and safety, water resources and climate change.
The Navy acknowledged significant impacts to the surrounding community and on the use of public lands due to noise from increased jet activity, as well as on schools from an increase in the number of families moving to the area.
Otherwise, the Navy found few impacts to natural resources, cultural resources and infrastructure, according to the EIS.
The EIS considered 15 options. They included increasing the number of Growlers by 36, 35 or no jets, and a variety of options of increasing flight operations and the distribution of those operations between Ault Field and OLF Coupeville.
The Navy selected the option to add 36 jets and increase aircraft operations in order to modernize its fleet and maintain the base’s electronic attack capabilities, according to the EIS. NAS Whidbey Island is home to the Navy’s Airborne Electronic Attack wing and a key element of national defense.
“This preferred alternative provides the best, most realistic training for Navy pilots and takes into consideration the noise impacts to all surrounding communities,” the Navy’s announcement states.
That plan will bring the number of Growlers at the base to 118, and bring with it another 628 personnel and 860 dependents, according to the EIS.
A final decision will be announced in a Record of Decision from the Secretary of the Navy in 30 days or more.
The EIS can be viewed online and at several area libraries, including in Anacortes, La Conner, Guemes Island, Burlington, Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley. The document is not open for public comment.