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News / Northwest

U.S. District Court judge weighing merits of Navy EIS for Whidbey Island

By Kimberly Cauvel, Skagit Valley Herald
Published: October 28, 2021, 7:49am

A U.S. District Court judge heard arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit over the Navy’s expansion of its EA-18G Growler jet fleet at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in July 2019, argues the Navy did not adequately review the potential environmental and public health impacts that increasing its Growler fleet from 82 to 118 jets would have on Whidbey Island and surrounding areas.

The state Attorney General’s Office and the nonprofit Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve are asking the court to invalidate the Navy’s environmental impact statement (EIS) that was published in 2019 and send it back to the Navy for further study.

“We are just asking for a reasoned analysis,” Assistant Attorney General Junine So said during the hearing.

She argued that several of the Navy’s decisions in the EIS “left the public uncertain about how the increase in Growler jet operations would impact themselves, their children and wildlife.”

Those decisions included relying on computer modeling instead of on-ground monitoring of noise levels, and considering impacts to all bird species, from tufted puffins to marbled murrelets.

So also argued the Navy did not engage appropriate experts on some topics, choosing instead to review scientific literature and draw its own conclusions. Among those conclusions: That the impact of aircraft noise on child learning is unknown.

“The Navy is an expert in national security, not in child learning and the link between noise and child learning,” So said.

Judge J. Richard Creatura said he is concerned about the lack of noise monitoring, lack of analysis of differences between bird species and apparent disregard for how noise may impact learning.

“If it’s inconclusive, aren’t you putting the children at risk? … Given the inconclusivity of the other studies, why not at least measure what’s going on?” Creatura said.

Attorney Gregory Cumming, representing the Navy, said the Navy had to draw lines somewhere to ensure the multi-year EIS process under the National Environmental Policy Act got done.

“The EIS isn’t a never-ending study, it’s a snapshot in time,” he said.

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Cumming also recounted the decades military jets have been stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, the value of that fleet to national security and the importance of training for the aircraft pilots.

The Growlers are designed for use on Navy ships. To prepare pilots to safely take off and land on those ships, the Navy says what is called field carrier landing practice is essential.

That practice is at the heart of the lawsuit.

The Navy’s increase of Growlers stationed at NAS Whidbey Island includes a four-fold increase in flight time, from 90 to 360 hours per year, involving 100,000 takeoffs and landings from the key practice site at Outlying Field Coupeville.

“The folks up there are suffering daily,” attorney David Bricklin, who is representing COER in the lawsuit, said of residents in Coupeville and surrounding areas.

Cumming argued that the Navy thoroughly analyzed available information about noise impacts on human and environmental health before drawing conclusions in its EIS, and that mitigation, such as developing ways to reduce noise through modifications to the jets, is underway.

Another key element of the lawsuit, however, argues the Navy did not properly consider alternatives, such as stationing its Growler jets elsewhere.

The plaintiffs argue the Navy could have considered moving the fleet to its base in El Centro, California, east of San Diego, but refused to do so. Bricklin said the desert base near the Arizona border is less populated than Whidbey Island and Growler operations would have had less of an impact.

Cumming, on the other hand, said the California base doesn’t have the capacity for 118 Growler jets, the fleet cannot be split up, and making the necessary upgrades to accommodate the entire fleet in California would be too costly and time-consuming.

“The Navy can’t wave a magic wand and convert El Centro overnight,” he said.

Judge Creatura said the topics discussed Tuesday were “just touching the tip of the iceberg” of content within thousands of pages of court documents filed in the case. He did not provide a time estimate for when he would be prepared to publish a recommendation.