State letter sparks question: public health or Navy

The on-going controversy over Navy jet noise unexpectedly punctuated the ending of a recent three-hour Island County Board of Health meeting that had otherwise been devoted to issues of drug addiction, family violence and public health priorities.

Island County Commissioners Helen Price Johnson, Jill Johnson and Rick Hannold, who comprise half of the six-member board, debated the merits of asking the Navy to re-investigate possible negative public health effects caused by the activities of EA-18G Growler.

The discussion revolved around a ruling from the state board of health concerning the county’s response to community concern over possible negative effects from long-term exposure to the jets’ flight activities.

The Navy is planning on increasing the number of Growlers based on NAS Whidbey, which could mean a large spike in the number of aircraft-carrier-landing-practices at Outlying Field Coupeville. The Navy is now sifting through more than 4,000 comments to its draft Environmental Impact Statement on the flight increases.

Price Johnson, who chairs the health board, raised the subject of sending a letter to the Navy asking it to investigate public health effects from jet noise.

Jill Johnson then posed the pointed question, “Then what?”

“If it comes back there’s an unmitigatable health impact, then what?” she asked.

Johnson said she feared the board was headed toward a choice “between health impacts on our citizens and our Navy presence.”

“Are we prepared to choose?”

Johnson pointed out that as a county entity it could control only land use and land planning. “I don’t understand the tie in between health and land-use planning,” Johnson said.

Members of the state board also pointed out in their letter that county officials are legally limited in what they can do to address military jet noise.

Helen Price Johnson said it was important to help “our community move forward” in understanding the impact on many fronts such as transportation and housing, with increased military presence. Effects on public health should be further explored, she advocated.

Hannold expressed his frustration with the never-ending debate.

“I thought we put an end to this conversation but it still comes up every meeting,” Hannold said, referring to the August board of health resolution that passed 3-2 citing no public health crisis was at issue regarding jet noise.

He asked whether the county would be expected to do an assessment on fireworks or other noise. He also dismissed claims of harm to personal health from jets flying overhead.

“Life can cause illness and adverse health effects,” Hannold said. “The only way around it is death.”

Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns said the Navy’s draft environmental impact study already addressed jet noise and that “there’s plenty of study on this.”

Board member and WhidbeyHealth Hospital Commissioner Grethe Cammermeyer spoke in favor of continuing to ask questions.

“Our concern is for the health of the community,” she said. “For us to follow up and look and evaluate the situation is part of our role.

“It may be difficult to separate roles when you’re a county commissioner,” she added. “This is a Board of Health and we should be in tune to the citizens of this county.”

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