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Possible SBX move to Everett overshadowed in Langley by focus on military spending

Max Corell of Freeland is tutored on the SBX by Leah Garton of the Missile Defense Agency at Thursday
Max Corell of Freeland is tutored on the SBX by Leah Garton of the Missile Defense Agency at Thursday's community meeting in Langley.
— image credit: Roy Jacobson / The Record

Islanders were nearly outnumbered Thursday evening as Defense Department representatives laid out a case for bringing a mammoth anti-missile platform to Everett for maintenance.

For most of those who attended, however, the question was less about the location of the platform and more about the debate over defense spending in general.

“It’s total nonsense spending all that money on imaginary enemies,” said Malcolm Ferrier, 80, a “dyed-in-the-wool pacifist” from Langley. “It makes me so sad.”

About 30 people showed up at the Langley Middle School cafeteria to look at displays and ask questions of the 20 or so Defense Department officials on hand.

The Navy and the Missile Defense Agency need a deep-water port to work on the Sea-Based X-Band Radar platform (SBX), currently based in Adak, Alaska, in the Aleutian Islands.

Everett is one of only three West Coast ports suitable to the task, which requires 50 feet of depth. The others are Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle and Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, Calif.

The $1 billion, 280-foot-tall self-propelled mobile platform, operated by a crew of 80, is designed to detect incoming ballistic missiles.

The SBX went into service in 2005. It’s currently at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where it spends much of its time monitoring nearby missile ranges, but where the water isn’t deep enough for repairs.

The manufacturer-recommended five-year maintenance will be on the vessel’s thrusters, along with painting, repairing other components and upgrading some internal systems, at an estimated cost of about $9.4 million, officials said.

Portions of the work would be open to bid by Puget Sound-area contractors, and maintenance will be supervised by the Boeing Co., prime contractor for the SBX, officials said.

Army Col. Mark Arn, SBX project manager for the Missile Defense Agency, said a decision on which port will be used will be determined following community meetings in all three locations and the completion of an environmental assessment and a 30-day comment period.

A similar meeting attended by about 35 people was held in Everett on Tuesday night.

Arn said officials hope to begin maintenance on the SBX sometime this fall.

“There’s no notion of having it move to Everett as a home base,” Arn added.

An uproar arose over the SBX in 2003 when the Missile Defense Agency wanted to homeport the yet-to-be-built platform at Everett.

Everett officials, community members and Congressman Rick Larsen opposed the plan, raising concerns about health hazards and radiation that could hinder airport and emergency services communications.

Dozens of Whidbey Island residents joined the 2003 protest, the reason a community meeting was scheduled in Langley this time around, Arn said.

Arn and other officials said the planned maintenance work would take no longer than four months, and that the platform’s powerful radar systems would be turned off while in port.

He also said the platform would not be brought to Everett while the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln is home. The SBX, resembling a huge golf ball on top of a big box, is shorter and not as wide as the Lincoln, but is 30 feet taller.

Naval Station Everett officials said the base has strict environmental standards of its own which would apply to the SBX.

“We have regulations they would have to abide by if they do choose us,” said John Miller, a base representative.

He said most concerns so far have revolved around air and water quality, hazardous material, noise and visual aesthetics.

“We’re taking a look at all that stuff,” said Navy Capt. Mike Coury, commanding officer of the Everett base, who added that the final decision isn’t up to him. “My concern is the ships at Naval Station Everett.”

Diane Kendy, a longtime Langley activist, said she “couldn’t care less” where the platform is.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” she said. “It’s just awful what we’re spending money on when people are hungry and homeless.

“There’s always money for war,” she added. “I think it’s totally appalling.”

Elaine Woods of Freeland said she was concerned about the platform’s effect on sea mammals.

“I don’t know about residual radiation,” she said. “I have great concerns.”

Leah Green of Langley said she welcomed Thursday’s meeting.

“I believe in education in advance, because people get paranoid,” she said. “All I can do as a citizen is to trust that the Navy does what it says it’s going to do.”

Not everyone Thursday was down on the Defense Department and the SBX.

Gail Corell and her son, Max, 15, attended the session as part of his pursuit of a Boy Scout merit badge in communications.

Corell said her family is retired military, and that she supports Defense Department programs such as the SBX.

“It would be a big boost to the economy, which we really need,” she said.

Max, a member of Troop 37 of South Whidbey, said he was impressed with the platform.

“I don’t see any environmental bad parts to it,” he said. “It would be really cool to see it.”

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