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'Star Wars' near Whidbey?

A scale model of the SBX radar station proposed to be homeported in Everett shows details of the 250-foot-tall structure as it might look in Everett as soon as 2005. - Matt Johnson
A scale model of the SBX radar station proposed to be homeported in Everett shows details of the 250-foot-tall structure as it might look in Everett as soon as 2005.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

A Department of Defense proposal to build a 25-story high floating radar station and homeport it in Everett had a number of Whidbey Island residents opposing the project along with about 250 other people Saturday.

The mobile, seagoing station, recently added to the DOD's National Missile Defense program, has stirred up a good deal of controversy among mainland and South Whidbey residents over the past few weeks as both they and 10th District Rep. Rick Larsen pushed for a public airing.

Originally introduced to the public at a meeting last October in Seattle that no one but DOD officials attended, the radar station -- dubbed SBX -- got that airing Saturday in front of a hostile crowed at the Everett PUD auditorium.

To be built atop a floating oil rig purchased by the DOD, the SBX is a giant, domed radar array that would use a powerful, narrow-beam radar to track intercontinental ballistic missiles. Between that radar, other ground-based radar installations, and several missile installations around the Pacific Ocean, the SBX could become part of the National Missile Defense system. The DOD wants to have the facility operational by 2005.

If built, the ship-sized platform would be a component of a test program that has cost U.S. taxpayers $60 billion since National Missile Defense or "Star Wars" was proposed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. At 250 feet in height, SBX would be 83 feet taller than the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln and would be in view of Whidbey Island.

At Saturday's meeting, dozens of people gave their opinions on the project to DOD officials, and none of those opinions was positive. Area residents objected to the size of the SBX platform, its potential affect on the views of Puget Sound around the Everett Naval Station, its possible impact on marine life, and it's potential effects on human health.

There were also a number of people who objected to what they saw as poor public process. Under pressure from the city of Everett and Rep. Larsen, the DOD called Saturday's meeting to take public comment on the SBX project, comment that would have otherwise been cut off earlier this year. South Whidbey resident Marianne Edain told the project's technical advisor, Navy Commander Robert Dees, that the DOD should undertake an all-new public process for its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense anti-missile system -- the portion of National Missile Defense to which SBX is attached.

"I want them to start over and do it right," she said after speaking at Saturday's forum.

She objected to the fact that SBX was added to the project after the fact and that it did not get adequate public review.

During three hours of public comment periods, an Everett physician told Cmdr. Dees that he felt the radar pulses put out by the SBX could kill people with implanted heart pacemakers. He said Navy radar at the Everett base already interferes with his garage door opener.

Michelle Trautman, a member of Concerned Citizens Against SBX, said she contacted a number of Whidbey Island people because she wanted them to be aware of the possible health risks associated with the high-powered radar the DOD was proposing. She noted that Whidbey Island is in the path of the radar.

Also at the forum Saturday was David Gladstone of Snohomish. He was blunt in his comments.

"I think this is a total waste of our money," he said.

Gladstone's Congressional representative, Rick Larsen, agreed in most part with that statement. Commenting on SBX and National Missile Defense Tuesday, Larsen said he and other legislators are currently fighting a DOD effort to prevent Congress from looking into and maintaining control over its National Missile Defense budget. This year, the DOD will spend $8.4 billion on testing anti-missile systems, Larsen said; in 2004, that amount could increase to $9.1 billion.

Larsen, who is on the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, said he worked unsuccessfully last year to cut this funding and spend a smaller amount on research and development. This is a better use of tax dollars, he said, since the DOD's current test system just does not work. He referred to a number of test firings in which the system was able to shoot down a target missile just once.

"The testing of National Missile Defense has not resulted in any real successes," he said.

What has been successful, Larsen said, is cooperative threat reduction, a program under which the United States has been paying to destroy Russia's nuclear weapon inventory. So far, the program has eliminated 6,000 warheads mounted on 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles and 300 submarine-launched missiles. The program has also paid to destroy 100 Russian long-range bombers.

He said all this has been done over the past 12 years for less than $9 billion. Larsen was one of a number of legislators who persuaded the Bush administration last year to retain funding for the program.

In Everett, the future of SBX is still up in the air. The DOD is accepting public comment on the project through April 15 and is in the process of finishing an environmental impact statement on the project. Everett's Trautman said she hopes SBX never sees a day's service in her community.

"I'm opposed to it being in any populated area," she said.

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