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Groups vow to continue fighting Navy over jet noise

Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (Jelson25/WikiCommons)

More than two years after lawsuits were filed over Naval Air Station Whidbey Island’s growing EA-18G Growler fleet and increasing practice flights, the issue of whether the Navy adequately assessed the environmental and public health impacts of such growth remains tied up in court.

The two lawsuits filed July 9, 2019 by the state of Washington and the nonprofit Citizens for the Ebey’s Reserve, were combined in October of that year. Thousands of pages in briefings, declarations and motions have been filed since.

Representatives of Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve (COER) and the broader coalition Sound Defense Alliance said during an online event Tuesday that while the case appears far from over, those behind it have hope — and remain committed to their fight.

“Never in the decades our community has fought have we gotten this far … We should be very encouraged,” COER co-founder Paula Spina said.

While the lawsuit is pending, members of Sound Defense Alliance are considering other steps, including potential lawsuits over wildlife based on new science, and urging the Navy to study relocation of the Growlers to a less populated area.

“That’s our No. 1 priority this year,” Sound Defense Alliance Legislative Chair Maryon Atwood said. “The presence of the Growlers impacts every aspect of life in Northwest Washington.”

Spina said COER supports relocating the Growlers and related jet flight activity “somewhere that it doesn’t harm people or the environment.”

COER was a founding member of the Sound Defense Alliance, which includes many nonprofit organizations and individuals opposed to Growler jet practice flights interrupting everything from school to dinner to sleep.

“The impact is felt quite widely,” Sound Defense Alliance Board President Anne Harvey said.

Navy Public Affairs Officer Mike Welding said the Navy has no intention of moving the Growlers, which make up the Department of Defense’s Electronic Attack Wing, from NAS Whidbey Island.

The Growlers have the ability to land on aircraft carriers, and require their pilots to regularly practice such takeoffs and landings.

Harvey said the problem is that those practice flights bring with them “deafening noise.” The noise has brought complaints from the Skagit Valley to Forks.

At least 50 community members, most from the Coupeville area on Whidbey Island, took part in the online event Tuesday. Rick Oltman said that as the event began, a jet had just passed overhead.

Make Matsuno said jet noise has brought major challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many interactions to take place online. Erica Sugatan said the noise forces her indoors, and even then she has to cover her ears.

“I can’t go outside and enjoy the weather,” she wrote in the event chat.

Spina said the Navy’s decision to expand its Growler fleet — announced with the publication of an environmental impact statement, or EIS, in 2019, that said it would bring 36 more of the aircraft to NAS Whidbey Island by 2022 — is “regularly making life hell here in central Whidbey.”

When the expansion is complete, the number of Growlers at the base will total 118, and aircraft activity will have increased from 90 to 360 hours a year.

That activity includes flights over surrounding communities and public lands including COER’s namesake Ebey’s Landing — a site that includes a state park and a national historical reserve. It also includes flights over Deception Pass State Park, and Spina said many noise complaints come from nearby Camano Island and La Conner.

“The entire Salish Sea region has had it with jet noise,” she said.

Harvey said the real-time noise monitoring the Navy is conducting under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020 is a win for the Sound Defense Alliance, although the group is doing its own monitoring to cross-check the Navy’s data.

The Navy began its monitoring in late 2020 and recently completed its fourth and final weeklong survey. The monitoring is taking place at 12 sites from Whidbey Island to the Olympic Peninsula.

The monitoring was done Dec. 13-19, March 28-April 3, June 6-12 and Aug. 8-14, according to the Navy. It was conducted during a variety of high, moderate and low-level flight activities.

The Navy is expected to submit a report on the monitoring results to Congress by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the Sound Defense Alliance is eager to find out if the new White House administration and new Navy leadership is more sympathetic to its concerns.

“We have all kinds of new opportunities that are really exciting to us,” Harvey said.

The group’s representatives said their goal is to see balance restored between military priorities and community needs.

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(c) 2021 the Skagit Valley Herald

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