An EA-18G Growler pilot practices aircraft carrier landings at Outlying Field Coupeville on Whidbey Island in August 2014. (U.S. Navy)

An EA-18G Growler pilot practices aircraft carrier landings at Outlying Field Coupeville on Whidbey Island in August 2014. (U.S. Navy)

Editorial: Question over Growler impacts now left to lawsuit

A suit by the state AG’s office has followed the Navy’s decision to walk away from discussions.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Usually it’s a given that military bases — and their personnel and families — will have the support of state and local officials and residents. The more, the merrier, especially when considering the boost for local economies.

Witness the broad disappointment in October when the Navy announced that neither the USS Nimitz, nor any other carrier, would be returning to Naval Station Everett this year or anytime soon. Even without a carrier, the base remains an important part of Everett’s economy and its pride in offering a homeport to those defending the nation, but the absence of a carrier is clear when the only thing sporting a big “72” is the Everett Silvertips’ mascot.

That support is usually no different on Whidbey Island in consideration of Naval Air Station Whidbey, that is until the U.S. Navy began the process to increase the number of aircraft and their daily operation at Navy airfields in Oak Harbor and Coupeville.

Last year, as the Navy completed work to review the environmental impacts of adding 36 EA-18G Growler jets to the current 82 communication-jamming aircraft at the station, the Navy walked away from concurrent discussions with residents and state and local agencies regarding how to adequately address those impacts.

And there will be impacts. The 33 percent increase in the number of Growlers — which can produce a roar above 115 decibels — will bring with it an increase to more than 10,000 annual flight operations over the next 30 years at Ault Field in Oak Harbor and a field at Coupeville used in training for carrier landings. The increase may be most notable over Coupeville and Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, where the increase in flights there will quadruple to 24,000 a year, an average of about 65 a day.

At the time, the editorial board noted a lost opportunity for compromise and provisions that could have addressed those impacts: “Absent a lawsuit, there’s not much requiring the Navy to do more to address the adverse effects of increased flight operations.”

Now comes the lawsuit.

Washington state Attorney General Robert Ferguson last week filed suit against the Navy and its plans to boost the number of Growlers and their flights. Ferguson brought the lawsuit citing the Navy’s failure to fully measure the impacts of the increased flights to public health and wildlife, in particular birds such as the bald eagle and the endangered marbled murrelet.

The Navy, Ferguson contends in the suit, violated the National Environmental Protection Act by improperly considering the impacts of the increase in Growler operations, noting information provided to the Navy by the state Department of Health on the effect that noise from an increased number of flights could have on the health of those in neighboring communities, in particular for sleep disturbance, cognitive impairment and cardiovascular disease.

Likewise, the suit notes the lack of study on the potential harmful impacts on the ability of birds to feed and breed because of the additional noise and the noise impacts for vistitors to Ebey’s Landing, a preserve managed by the National Park Service.

The Navy has a long history on the island, one that reaches back before the start of World War II. Residents — some grudgingly, others proudly — have lived alongside “the sound of freedom” as part of the deal in hosting a military facility and making allowances for Navy personnel to train to fulfill their mission and protect the safety of their aviators and crew. For much of that time, we’ll note that the Navy has made efforts to be responsive to the island’s communities.

Some may be tempted to attribute the Navy’s failure to continue community discussions and fully study the potential impacts of increased Growler flights to a general attitude in the Trump administration to do only as it sees fit, regardless of potential impacts or with respect for the standards of public review.

Certainly, Ferguson’s record of filing more than 40 lawsuits against Trump administration policy would seem to indicate a continuation of that pattern.

What matters, however, is a resolution.

Whether by judicial order or settlement, what’s needed in the interests of the Navy and that of Whidbey Island communities and residents, is a full and effective review of the impacts and solutions that address them.

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