Judge hears Whidbey OLF noise complaint against Navy

The U.S. Department of Justice and an attorney representing a group of Central Whidbey residents squared off in federal court last week in a battle over jet noise.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly heard from both sides in arguments over a preliminary injunction that the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER, filed against the Navy in an attempt to halt aircraft touch-and-go practice at the Outlying Field near Coupeville.

COER claims that the noise from the EA-18G Growler is harmful to the health of those who live near the field. The judge did not make a ruling last week, but COER members said they hoped to have a decision within two weeks. The judge did not give a timeline.

A win for COER would have a significant impact on training schedules at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, but it could have ripple effects beyond the island. Cate Andrews, a COER board member, opined that the case has the potential for setting precedent.

Skip Pohtilla, a former Navy flight officer, used to train at OLF Coupeville in an A-6 Intruder. He said the field provides invaluable training that’s just not available anywhere else. He said closing OLF would make training more expensive and less efficient.

“It’s one of the best fields there is,” he said.

Andrews said the hearing this past Wednesday went extremely well and she was impressed with Zilly. She said he asked a lot of questions of both sides and the arguments lasted much longer than anticipated.

“He wanted the facts,” she said. “It was obvious that he had done his homework. He seemed to be very fair minded, thoughtful and insightful.”

COER brought a bus full of supporters to the courthouse in Seattle. Andrews said they filled the courtroom; she didn’t see anyone in the gallery in support of the Navy.

After the hearing, the Navy released a brief statement.

“We believe we made our case today, and await the judge’s ruling,” said the emailed press release.

COER originally filed a lawsuit against the Navy in 2013 to force it to prepare a full environmental impact statement for the new Growler, which the group considers to be much louder than the prior aircraft, the EA-6B Prowler.

The Navy uses the small runway in the rural area as simulated carrier landing practice.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Navy announced that a full environmental impact statement will be conducted for the addition of new squadrons coming to Whidbey.

The court stayed the case until the study is complete.

The Navy initially set a completion date of 2016 for the EIS, but pushed the date to 2017, according to court documents. As a result, COER filed a preliminary injunction to prevent the Navy from conducting Growler operations at OLF until the impact statement is completed.

Both sides laid out their arguments and counter-arguments in court papers.

COER presented what it said is scientific evidence of the effects of noise — from hearing problems to heart disease — and testimonials from those claiming to be impacted. In response, the Navy’s attorneys argued that the science presented by COER was not reliable and isn’t new; it was already considered by the Navy in the 2005 Environmental Assessment.

COER claims that a sound measurement conducted near an Admirals Cove home in the flight path found that the jet noise reached at least 119.3 decibels, which is at the threshold of pain.

The Navy maintains that the COER study overstates the sound level and didn’t include necessary parameters, such as whether windows were open.

In court documents, COER argues that all 6,120 “field carrier land practices” at OLF Coupeville each year can be shifted to Ault Field and still remain under the Navy’s previous “benchmark” for landing practices at Ault Field.

In response to COER, the attorneys representing the Navy point out that the area around Ault Field is more densely populated than the Admirals Cove neighborhood near OLF Coupeville. They said that the public good would not be served by shifting flights to the more populated area.

A chart included in the government’s response shows that the number of flights at OLF Coupeville was down sharply since they started in 1967. The number of field carrier land practices was nearly 40,000 a year circa 1970.

The number has been below 10,000 since 1997.

COER responded by arguing that the number of flights at OLF Coupeville was still higher than the Navy promised and that the Growlers are louder than anticipated.

In the response filed with the court, the Justice Department asked the judge to deny the motion on four grounds: that COER failed to show a likelihood of success in its lawsuit and no significant new information was presented; that the injuries to the COER members were not sufficient to rise to the level of irreparable harm; that the balance of the harm favors the Navy’s interests in military readiness and efficient operation; and that the public interest in national security favors denial of this motion.

“This case presents a classic case of the public interest in military preparedness conflicting with private interests,” the Navy’s attorneys wrote.

“As the Ninth Circuit has noted, ‘When a district court balances the hardships of the public interest against a private interest, the public interest should receive greater weight.’ ”