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War Machine

Navy plans expansion of war capacity in Pacific Northwest

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When: 3pm Weds., Dec. 3
Where: Lopez Island Center for Community and Arts (204 Village Road, Lopez Island)
When: 3pm Thurs. Dec. 4
Where: Fort Worden Commons, Building 210 (200 Battery Way, Port Townsend)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Residents of the San Juan Islands think the name the United States Navy chose for its new EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft—“Growler”—is fitting. They complain of noise volume from the plane that are replacing the 1970s era EA-6B Prowlers as the fleet’s electronic warfare jets.

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is home to all Navy electronic attack (VAQ) squadrons in the United States. The VAQ mission-related Navy functions have been performed almost exclusively at NAS Whidbey Island since 1970, and the need for the ongoing use of Ault Field and an outlying landing field in Coupeville will continue, Navy officials say.

NAS Whidbey spokesman Mike Welding acknowledged that the more powerful EA-18s have a different sound than the EA-6 Predators—not necessarily louder, but of a lower frequency that may produce a shock wave from the planes that can rattle windows, he told the Journal of the San Juan Islands. People on Whidbey Island have complained of broken glass after EA-18s have roared over their homes.

According to information supplied by the base, flight operations in 2013 at Ault Field numbered close to 74,000—a number that includes total departures, landings and engine tests. Field carrier landing practices, often referred to as “touch and goes,” numbered more than 15,000. The number of EA-18s operating there will increase to 79 in 2014 and 92 in 2018, according to Navy records.

A group of residents filed a lawsuit last year against the Navy, demanding an environmental study on aircraft noise. The lawsuit is on hold while the Navy studies its expansion proposals for the electronic warfare wing on the island.

The Navy announced it will revise its Environmental Impact Statement on the EA-18G Growlers to include additional aircraft. The EIS projects additions of as many as 36 new aircraft, raising the number of these planes operating in squadrons at NAS Whidbey to 118.

That number alarms many island residents, who say the plan should trigger a more extensive environmental review.
Congressman Rick Larsen (D-Arlington) heard and agreed, urging the Navy to accept additional public comments and hold more hearings on plans for expanding the VAQ program at the naval air station.

“I recently heard from residents on Lopez Island about their concerns regarding jet noise and the number of Growlers stationed at NASWI,” Larsen noted in a press release. “I asked the Navy to include the San Juan Islands in the EIS process, and I appreciate the Navy expanding its outreach to include this community. I remain committed to making sure NASWI remains a premier Navy asset, as well as to finding solutions to reduce the noise impacts on local communities,” Larsen said.

A draft EIS was originally slated to be released next year with a 2016 decision. A public comment period was set to end this month, following meetings held in October in Coupeville, Oak Harbor and Anacortes, where residents shared their views with Navy officials. Larsen and other elected leaders in the islands urged an extension of the EIS process through January 9, 2015, with a published decision scheduled for spring of 2017.

The revised EIS will be more extensive and conducted under the more strict National Environmental Protection Act standards and rules, Navy officials said.

“The EIS will build upon analyses previously completed in 2005 and 2012 and will assess the noise environment as well as specific airfield operations at NAS Whidbey Island for this proposed action. Additionally, the EIS will consider public comments received during both the 2013 public scoping and during the current scoping period,” noted Ted Brown, public affairs officer with the Fleet Force Command in Norfolk, Va., which is conducting the EIS.

War Games

For many, the concern is not just where Growlers arrive and depart, but where they go.

With increasing frequency, the Navy conducts its exercises in electronic warfare over the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest on the peninsula, a program the military wishes to expand along with new aircraft out of NAS Whibdey.

As journalist and war correspondent Dahr Jamail notes, “These protected national commons are also the areas in and near where the U.S. Navy aims to conduct its Northwest Electromagnetic Radiation Warfare training program, wherein it will fly 36 of its EA-18G Growler supersonic jet warplanes down to 1,200 feet above the ground in some areas in order to conduct war games with 14 mobile towers.

“What is at stake is not just whether the military is allowed to use protected public lands in the Pacific Northwest for its war games, but a precedent being set for them to do so across the entire country,” he notes.

If approved by the U.S. Forest Service, the Navy would use 15 sites in the Olympic National Forest for electronic warfare training that involves communications gear on the ground and EA-18 Growler jets searching for signals in the air. The equipment would emit levels of electromagnetic radiation, similar to cellphone towers or TV news trucks. According to the proposal, training exercises over wilderness, communities and cities across the Olympic Peninsula could occur for 260 days per year, with exercises lasting up to 16 hours per day. Eight more sites could be used in the Roosevelt and Okanogon National forests east of the Cascades.

Navy officials say the training exercises are not different from those they have been conducting in those areas for many years.
The key addition are ground units, including trucks, that emit electromagnetic radiation that could harm wildlife and the public at high exposures, the Navy admits in its report.

The Navy’s environmental study acknowledges that the training could have consequences for several protected species, such as the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. Grizzly bears, gray wolves and Canada lynx also are known to prowl near the proposed training site in Okanogon National Forest.

Studies cited by the Navy say electromagnetic radiation could affect nesting success and sleep patterns among birds. Other studies suggest bird navigation is particularly sensitive to electromagnetic bombardment.

The Sierra Club submitted a letter to the U.S. Forestry Service protesting the federal agency’s concurrence with the Navy’s finding of “no significant impact” from their war games.

“The USFS’s mission, as set forth by law, is to manage its lands under a sustainable multiple-use management concept to meet the diverse needs of people,” their letter notes. “Among these diverse needs are forestry, recreation, and the protection of wildlife habitat and wilderness. The very nature of the Navy’s proposal, which involves open-ended access restrictions, makes it difficult to imagine how the USFS will be able to adhere to its multiple-use mandate as other uses will necessarily be precluded.”

The Admiralty Audubon Society issued a similar caution, adding, “The planned range may alter the attractiveness of this region as a destination for tourists and there is potential for significant economic impact. Since this region is already economically stressed, even small variations in overall economic activity may result in large, relative impacts.” The Navy, which had not considered economic impacts in its report should reassess addtiional impacts before proceeding,” the Audubon letter stressed.

The current public comment period for the Navy war games proposal on pacific Northwest public lands has been extended until Nov. 28.

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