First Lady Jill Biden (left), is given a tour of Growler aircraft by Naval Aviator Lt. Cate Oakley, Tuesday, March 9 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times via AP, Pool)

First Lady Jill Biden (left), is given a tour of Growler aircraft by Naval Aviator Lt. Cate Oakley, Tuesday, March 9 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times via AP, Pool)

Editorial: Renewed shot to resolve dispute over Growler jets

A lawsuit ruling regarding increased flights at the Whidbey Navy base offers a window for talks.

By The Herald Editorial Board

A ruling last week by a federal district court magistrate — in favor of the state Attorney General’s Office and a citizen’s group on Whidbey Island, who sued over the U.S. Navy’s plans to increase the number of EA-18G Growler jets and their flights at Naval Air Station Whidbey — again offers an opportunity for both sides to negotiate a solution that balances the Navy’s need to train its pilots while addressing noise and other impacts from the jets.

The Navy had planned to add 32 of the Growler jets — outfitted with equipment that can jam enemy radar and communication signals — to the 82 jets now at the Oak Harbor base, increasing annual take-offs and landings to nearly 100,000 a year at the Oak Harbor airfield and a nearby auxiliary field near Coupeville and Ebey’s Landing, an historical preserve managed by the National Park Service.

The magistrate judge ruled Friday that the Navy had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by ignoring data — at the expense of the public and environment — that did not support its expansion plans, as reported Friday by the Whidbey News-Times’s Jessie Stensland.

While the ruling rejected challenges by the state and the citizen’s group over alleged violations of the Administrative Procedures Act and the National Historical Preservation Act, Magistrate Judge J. Richard Creatura found the Navy failed to disclose its basis for it calculations of greenhouse gas emission; failed to quantify the noise impacts of increased operations on learning at schools in the area; failed to fully consider species-specific impacts on birds; and failed to give detailed consideration to moving some Growler operations to a naval air facility in El Centro, Calif., 100 miles east of San Diego.

“To borrow the words of noted sports analyst Vin Scully, the Navy appears to have used certain statistics ‘much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination,’” Creatura wrote.

While the magistrate did not spare in his criticism, the outcome of the ruling isn’t settled. Both sides have until Dec. 24 to file written objections to the ruling and 30 days to advise the district court judge in the case as to proposed remedies.

This may revive an opportunity for negotiation.

A news release by Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, which joined the state AG’s Office in the suit, said that at an Oct. 26 hearing, Creatura asked COER’s attorney, David Bricklin, what outcome was sought in the suit. “Bricklin suggested that the parties should meet to see if they could agree to remedies that would protect the community while still allowing the Navy to train,” the release said.

Prior to the filing of the lawsuit in 2019, the Navy, community groups and federal and state agencies had entered into talks to find a resolution, but the Navy abandoned negotiations in late 2018, objecting to requests to mitigate impacts it believed were outside of its obligations.

The Navy has a long history on Whidbey island, dating back to when seaplanes were first based there in 1942. And since the arrival of jet aircraft, highway signs near the Oak Harbor base have excused their noise as “the sound of freedom.”

Very few will dismiss the need for the Navy to provide sufficient training to ensure national defense and the safety of aviators and crew and that of surrounding communities. And most recognize that military bases provide a significant economic and cultural boost to local communities, as demonstrated in Oak Harbor and Everett.

On that much both parties can agree.

“The Navy has an important job, and it’s critical that their pilots and crews have the opportunity to train,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said as the suit was filed in 2019. “That does not relieve the federal government of its obligation to follow the law and avoid unnecessary harm to our health and natural resources.”

With the weight of a judicial ruling now behind it, there’s opportunity to find a resolution through negotiation that serves the needs of the Navy and the Whidbey Island community.

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