Military

Navy Faces Lawsuits over Expanded Growler Jet Training in Pacific

The U.S. Navy is facing two lawsuits over its expanded EA-18G Growler training out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Washington, which the state and conservation groups say is disruptive for residents and the park region nearby.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the service, claiming the Navy will increase its Growler flight training “to nearly 100,000 annual takeoffs and landings” for the next three decades.

“The Navy has an important job, and it’s critical that their pilots and crews have the opportunity to train,” Ferguson said in a statement. “That does not relieve the federal government of its obligation to follow the law and avoid unnecessary harm to our health and natural resources.”

Citing health and well-being concerns, Ferguson said the Navy has violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA) because officials did not properly analyze the impact Growler flights would have on the public and the environment.

The lawsuit follows another from the National Parks Conservation Association, which states the Navy has “repeatedly withheld information” regarding jet noise impact over Olympic National Park, roughly 30 miles west of Whidbey Island.

“We’d like to work with the Navy to protect our special places, so are looking for solutions to their training needs which protect the parks too,” said Rob Smith, Northwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). The group filed its lawsuit in May.

Speaking to Military.com on Wednesday, Smith said the NPCA and Navy are negotiating to potentially make flight schedules available so conservation groups can submit feedback.

“It seems like there’s a lot of information [the Navy has] that [officials are] not producing that would be informative on the level of which they’ve studied noise impacts, and whether they’ve looked at alternatives to the training regime they want to conduct out there — like other places they could fly, or at higher altitudes, or doing more over the ocean,” he said. “That’s why we’re asking for that information.”

Smith said the Navy is due to submit an environmental impact survey for its Northwest Training and Testing range by next summer. It last conducted an environmental assessment in 2014.

In March, the service said it would bring more than 30 additional jets to the base, adding to the 82 Growlers already stationed there, The Associated Press reported.

Other aircraft are also stationed at Whidbey, such as the P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, but “people are not complaining about those,” Smith said.

“The complaints are about very loud noise from very low elevation [Growler] jets in a rural setting that people thought was set aside to protect nature and the rural way of life,” he explained.

NPCA has even created a mobile app for the public to track and submit locations where they’ve heard or seen Growlers operating in or near the Olympic Peninsula.

“The first time I heard a Growler, it felt like I was back in Iraq,” said Brandon Kuehn, an Army veteran featured in an awareness video on NPCA’s website. “It’s an easy trigger.

Kuehn said the “absence of sound” at the park “made me, made everything fall away … and relax.”

David Youngberg, a Navy veteran and local resident, also appears in the video, calling the planes “intrusive.”

The service would not comment on pending litigation, but said the training ranges are instrumental to Navy readiness.

“The Olympic military operations area is one of the Navy’s most important littoral training areas

on the West Coast,” said Michael Welding, spokesman for NAS Whidbey, Naval Region Northwest, in an email Thursday. “Few, if any other places offer the same geographical diversity as the Olympic MOA.

“Military aircrews rely on these areas to prepare for their difficult missions. Effective training is critical for U.S. military success in hostile environments, often the difference between life and death for America’s service members. Taking away or constricting existing training areas will reduce our military’s readiness and create unnecessary risk for aircrews,” he continued.

Welding said that the Electronic Attack Wing squadrons do “basic electronic warfare training” and some combat aerial maneuvering with the Growler fleet.

According to a 2015 fact sheet describing day-to-day Growler flights in the region, the Navy said its earlier environmental assessment determined its signal transmission would not harm “people, animals, or the environment.”

“There are no ‘war games’ planned,” according to the fact sheet. “The Navy has not proposed any significant changes to the way aircrew train in the Pacific Northwest.

“The Navy plans to enhance existing training by adding one fixed transmitter at Pacific Beach and three mobile transmitter vehicles that will operate on existing logging roads and pull-out areas on U.S. Forest Service land,” it states.

As part of the expansion, the Forest Service in 2017 authorized the use of the additional transmitter vehicles “to conduct ground-to-air training using mobile electronic transmitters from eleven designated roadside locations on the Pacific Ranger District of the Olympic National Forest for a period of up to five years.”

Another environmental lawsuit from an advocacy group quickly followed.

The plan to increase flights to 100,000 per year would be a modest proposal: By comparison, flight operations totaled more than 265,000 annually between 1988 and 1994, while the average from 2008 to 2014 was just over 161,000 per year, according to the fact sheet.

Still, residents and tourists aren’t in favor.

“The Navy arbitrarily dismissed impacts to human health and child learning from increased noise, despite many studies indicating that exposure to noise can lead to adverse health outcomes,” the attorney general’s office said Tuesday.

All “we’re saying is you need to take a bigger view, you have other places you can do this training and the training for these jets doesn’t need to happen here,” Smith said.

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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