An EA-18G Growler launches from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s flight deck in May 2015, in the Indian Ocean. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Philip Wagner Jr. / U.S. Navy)

An EA-18G Growler launches from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson’s flight deck in May 2015, in the Indian Ocean. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John Philip Wagner Jr. / U.S. Navy)

Commentary: Navy’s welcome, but it must follow the law

A lawsuit by the state AG doesn’t seek to close the Whidbey base, just a full study of Growler noise.

By Larry Morrell

For The Herald

Many people in our region cheer Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s efforts to require the Navy to follow the law regarding the expansion of the EA-18G Growler jets based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Contrary to recent statements by state Sen. Barbara Bailey, these folks know that Ferguson is not trying to boot the military out of the state (“Bob Ferguson’s war a threat to Whidbey Navy base,” The Herald, July 21). He is not anti-Navy. Nor is he prioritizing “a small bird over veterans, over our national security, and over our state’s livelihood.” He is simply insisting that the Navy follow procedures required by federal law.

Ferguson concluded that the Navy ignored the best available science on health impacts of extreme noise generated by the Growlers. The Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement says, “No studies have shown a definitive causal and significant relationship between aircraft noise and health,” even while citing several studies that showed a statistically significant link between noise and adverse health impacts. More than 4,000 comments were received in response, many citing scientific studies; the Navy refuted a few and simply ignored the rest. This is one of the attorney general’s objections, since the National Environmental Policy Act requires a complete assessment, not just one that supports a foregone conclusion.

After the Navy issued the Record of Decision in March and jets immediately began flying at an increased tempo, many people have fled their homes of decades because of the unbearable noise. They stay with friends outside the immediate area or have had to arrange for other places to live. Others are selling their homes citing unimaginable levels of noise when the Growlers are flying. The advice given by the Navy to local farmers who complain about the intensity is to “find indoor work.”

Indeed, the new reality on the ground shows exactly why the Navy “disappeared” the issue of noise with a wave of its hands, and why Washington’s attorney general is not allowing the vanishing act.

In addition to minimizing the devastating noise impacts, Sen. Bailey exaggerates the beneficial economic impact to communities of military bases and activities while ignoring the economic costs of a military presence.

A 2017 report from the Office of Economic Adjustment of the Department of Defense shows $5.6 billion in total military-related payroll for military personnel and civilians in Washington state. Another $1.7 billion in contracts brings the total to $7.3 billion, far less than the $30 billion of economic impact claimed by Bailey.

Contrary to her assertions, it is civilians who subsidize the military. Local communities with military installations receive fewer tax dollars from the military than communities with more private enterprises, but still provide the same services to all residents: social services, public schools, road maintenance, utility infrastructure, and so on. The Department of Defense pays no property tax, and shopping on base is sales-tax free. Those costs are not counted in typical “economic impact” references. Recognizing some of these needs, our state Legislature passed a bill this past session to establish a special account to aid these communities.

Department of Defense expenditures in Island County total $572 million. Compare that to the $4.4 billion at risk in the outdoor recreation industry in the seven counties affected by Growler operations: Snohomish, Kitsap, Skagit, Island, Clallam, Jefferson and San Juan. If jet noise chased away just 13 percent of the $4.4 billion spent, the region would lose $572 million because of the Growlers.

The risk to the outdoor recreation industry is real. Deception Pass State Park officials say they regularly issue refunds to campers who cannot tolerate the noise. The word about the jet noise is already out and could dissuade people from enjoying our amenities and spending money in the Puget Sound region.

Neither Attorney General Ferguson nor Sound Defense Alliance is suggesting that Naval Air Station Whidbey should pull up stakes. There are many benefits to having the base in the region: search-and-rescue operations, the presence of a military airfield in the event of catastrophic earthquake or tsunami, military dependents who fill important local jobs.

However, there is no argument — economic or otherwise — for giving the Navy a free pass to ignore the law. Sen. Bailey, in her role as a lawmaker, should know that the attorney general’s attempts to make the Navy follow the law is not a political ploy. It’s simply his job.

And we thank him for doing it.

Larry Morrell is executive director of Sound Defense Alliance.

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