Under a decision announced Wednesday, the Navy will add 36 EA-18G Growler aircraft to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and direct 80 percent of the field carrier landing practice to Outlying Field Coupeville.
That means the number of Growler landing practice “passes” at the small Central Whidbey airfield will increase from about 3,000 a year to more than 12,000.
It’s bad news for the Central Whidbey residents and groups that had opposed a drastic increase in flights because of the noise of the Growlers.
“I am concerned about the impact of a three-fold increase in flights on Whidbey Island communities,” U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen said in a statement. “I will continue to work with the Navy and the community on mitigation efforts and push for the Navy to conduct noise monitoring in Coupeville and beyond to better inform future decision-making.”
The Navy published the record of decision that invokes the preferred alternative identified in the Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, without significant changes.
The decision rejected calls for noise monitoring but instead relies on computer noise modeling cited in the EIS. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, local officials and activists asked for real-world monitoring to gauge whether the models were accurate.
The U.S. Parks Service conducted acoustic monitoring in Central Whidbey and found the EIS “significantly under represented” noise levels.
“I am disappointed that more of the local community input was not reflected in the final decision,” said Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, whose district includes Central Whidbey.
Price Johnson said the computer modeling produces an average decibel level over time, which doesn’t give the full picture. She said real-world monitoring would be an important tool for the county, and she plans on communicating the concern with base officials and the congressional delegation.
In the record of decision, the Navy reports that it carefully considered “the strategic and operational importance of augmenting our nation’s electronic attack capabilities, ensuring quality of pilot training, and balancing the impact of the proposed action on the human and natural environment.”
The Sound Defense Alliance released a statement that points to the impacts the Growlers will have on residents, schools, parks and affordable housing, according to the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement.
“In the past the Navy has been a good partner,” said Maryon Attwood, chairwoman of the Sound Defense Alliance. “But across the region, our elected officials, community leaders, and citizens all agree that this proposal is just asking too much from our part of Washington. We are not only disappointed, we are outraged. We will not be collateral damage to this expansion directed from Washington, D.C.”
Attwood said that the group will continue to work with elected officials and others toward a better outcome.
The Oak Harbor Area Council of the Navy League, on the other hand, released a statement praising the decision as well as the Growler community, which has “a 100 percent success rate at protecting aircraft, plus they have also saved many lives of ground forces.”
The statement said the Navy approach was thorough, balanced and scientifically based throughout the process of completing the Environmental Impact Statement, while “activists engaged in litigation, impractical proposals and publicity not supported by the courts or factual examination.”
“Local activism to move Growler operations added significantly to the time and expense of the lengthy, multi-year Environmental Impact Statement (EIS),” the Navy League statement said. “This time and expense could have been better spent by the Navy on national defense operations, training, and readiness.”
The Navy’s record of decision states that an estimated 112,100 Growler operations will occur annually, with 88,000 at the Ault Field base on North Whidbey and 24,100 at OLF Coupeville. Each operation is defined as either a takeoff or landing, so that translates to 12,050 touch-and-go flights at OLF Coupeville.
In addition to Growlers, other aircraft operate at Ault Field, including P-8A, P-3C, EP-3, MH-60 and transients. With the recent additional off three P-8 Poseidon squadrons, the congestion at Ault Field was one reason the Navy cited for directing the majority of training flights to OLF Coupeville.
The decision also states that OLF Coupeville provides superior training and that the numbers aren’t a departure from the past.
“Projected operational levels … will be comparable to historic flight operations experienced from the 1970s through the 1990s at NAS Whidbey Island complex,” it said.
A Navy press release states that the chosen alternative will impact fewer people overall; the population around the base on North Whidbey is denser.
In addition, the Navy commits to continuing investment in technology to reduce noise.
Under the record of decision, the Navy will provide $867,000 to the National Park Service for restoration of the historic Ferry House in Central Whidbey. It’s significantly less than what some had asked for.
Larsen, for example, urged the secretary of the Navy to provide $2 million for the Ferry House and $2 million for the Coupeville wharf.
Price Johnson questioned how the money qualifies as mitigation for the impact the Growlers have on Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, which takes up much of Central Whidbey.
The decision comes after a lengthy process the Navy followed under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“The proposed action,” the decision states, “will enable the Navy to augment the Navy’s existing Electronic Attack community at NAS Whidbey Island complex with additional aircraft in order to provide Combatant Commanders with expanded electronic attack capabilities to support our national defense requirements consistent with the Navy’s responsibilities under Title 10, United States Code (U.S.C), Section 8062.”