By Dr. John Marrs
Sometime in the fall, the U.S. Navy will publish its final environmental impact statement (EIS) for electronic warfare training with Growler jets flying from the Whidbey Naval Air Station over the Olympic National Forest. All signs, including the initial draft of the EIS, indicate the Navy report will conclude that all systems are go and recommend that the Secretary of the Navy approve.
This eventuality is being fought locally by Save the Olympic Peninsula (STOP), an organization of concerned citizens, and by Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve at Whidbey Island where the jets are based.
Central to the opposition of STOP is the fact that the Navy EIS evaluation does not include any effects on the Olympic Peninsula, including human health, bird health and economic activity.
The Navy did perform a lower-level evaluation called an Environmental Assessment for the Olympic Peninsula that unsurprisingly revealed no problems. Any impacts on the peninsula are “going to be totally unstudied,” according to Ron Richards of STOP.
The Navy program’s opponents need to be in the fight for the longer haul, if they have any hope of success.
By some time next year, expect the Navy to upgrade the test flights now being flown irregularly to numerous daily flights over the Olympic Peninsula, including the national forest, the national park, Forks and the Lake Ozette area.
Going for the long haul likely will mean challenging our Navy in court once the program has been approved and goes into its full mode.
Anyone under the flight path of these EA-18G jets cannot help notice. Even deaf people feel the vibrations these jets cause.
Oh, and did I mention sonic booms? They do that, too, although the Navy says they don’t do it very much.
In fact, the Navy contends that the jets don’t make enough noise and don’t do so often enough to hurt anyone.
What about damage to tourism and the local economy from the nuisance of jet noise? Well, that is not considered in the environmental evaluations.
Brian Cullin, a retired Navy captain and an experienced government press secretary, expects the Navy to put the electronic warfare training program into effect, despite his view that the Navy historically underestimates its effect on communities and “wears blinders” when it comes to making its case.
He predicted in a Seattle Times commentary that the Navy will not face its greatest challenges until after the training begins and citizens on Whidbey Island and the Olympic Peninsula then react to the noise pollution foisted upon them.
At a STOP meeting in Port Angeles in April, he told a gathering of some 60 people that he expects the Navy to prevail unless protesters succeed with legal action and political support.
The protesters have won a modicum of recognition from Rep. Derek Kilmer, who has requested that the Navy pursue further sound studies. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray have apparently made no meaningful gestures of concern. Locally, we also have seen no resolutions of opposition or concern from the Clallam County Commission or the Port Angeles City Council.
The Olympic National Forest administration sides with the Navy. Reta Laford, forest supervisor, issued a draft for a “Finding of No Significant Impact” in March that when read carefully states that the final finding will be written to “clarify” that there would not be harmful effects to humans or wildlife from the jets.
Paula Spina and Marianne Brabanski of Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve (COER) hope to establish such harmful effects, at least on Whidbey Island. Spina told the STOP meeting crowd that evidence shows that such high noise levels are “very damaging.” Brabanski, a retired audiologist, compiled a 33-page report asserting that the Navy’s operations cause cardiovascular and auditory damage to humans.
How loud are these jets exactly? Up to 105 decibels (dB) even when flying at altitude, according to the Navy. Now, Brabanski says the Navy “considers any sound above 84 dB is noise hazardous.”
So what disconnect is at play here? The trick seems to lie in distance, duration and frequency of exposure. In the Navy’s view, its training flight “events,” including multiple sorties with more than one jet, will not result in damage to humans. Mike Welding, public affairs officer at Whidbey NAS, pointed out that the jets fly at high altitudes (chiefly 6,000 feet and higher, according to the EIS), except on approach to landing at the air station. Asked about citizen reports of the jets flying low in mountain valleys, he said, “I don’t know why they would be doing that.”
I then asked Ted Brown, a Navy public affairs officer in Norfolk, Va., if the presentation of prospects of damage to humans or wildlife might stop the plan here. He answered, “I’m not going to speculate on anything that may or may not happen.”
For what it’s worth, he did say that 4,300 public comments sent to the Navy are still under review. He did not suggest that this means the Navy has not yet made up its collective mind to go ahead with the program.
Why does the Navy have to do this at all? First, according to Cullin, is the Navy’s unchallenged need to be prepared to fight with and against electronic warfare. But why do this here? Because Whidbey NAS exists and because it’s closer to comfortable homes for some 5,000 Growler personnel and saves time and fuel over alternative sites at China Lake in California or Mountain Home in Idaho.
Officials basically view objections as falling under the adage of “not in my back yard.” In other words, nobody wants the program, but it has to operate somewhere.
If you are a hiker or one who likes to visit Lake Ozette or the rain forest, you can expect to suffer some really loud intrusions. If you hike in the national forest, you might also come across strange looking trucks that will be using logging and fire roads to emit electronic microwave beams at the jets. Don’t worry about death rays. The Navy and the Forest Service assure that they are very narrow and there is no “radiation exposure hazard.”
Government versus Local Concerns is an old story in our country. Government usually wins, but at Homestead Air Base in Florida, the Air Force in 2001 ended years of debate and recognized environmental concerns regarding harm to the Everglades and to Biscayne Bay. It dropped plans to let Homestead be transformed into a commercial air field.
In northern Alaska in the 1950s, local health concerns eventually overruled plans to create a harbor using atomic energy. I wrote a thesis about media coverage of the Atomic Energy Commission plan to explore the practical use of nuclear bombs by setting off three, four or five of them in Point Hope, Alaska. The brainchild of the late Edward Teller, the plan was dubbed Project Chariot. In that age before EIS reports, the proposal lasted several years before scientists established that the nuclear contamination of the food chain would kill eskimos (and likely anyone else living nearby).
The prospect of slowly killing humans brought Project Chariot to an end.
I would like to argue that COER and STOP can bring forth information of health threats that will turn away 117 Growlers. But that’s not going to happen – unless, as Capt. Cullin suggested, the flights themselves bring many more people on the Olympic Peninsula and on Whidbey to protest to Congressional representatives and to the Navy and to the Olympic National Forest.
How do you measure how much public pressure it takes to stop a military program? The answer is always more.
John Merton Marrs, Ph.D., wrote “Project Chariot, Nuclear Zeal, Easy Journalism and the Fate of Eskimos,” published in American Journalism, Summer 1999, Vol. 16, No. 3, a condensation of his Master of Arts thesis at the University of Washington.