Community groups are building coalitions region-wide, aiming to stop expansion plans by the U.S. Navy.
Operating since 1942, the naval air station on Whidbey Island is not new. But the recent replacement of its electronic warfare aircraft has upset many residents in the area.
Mark Lundsten moved from Seattle to Anacortes 11 years ago to build a house in the woods with his wife. He says there were Navy Prowlers flying overhead then, but they didn’t bother him much. He even remembers thinking they were kind of cool.
“Now they have these new jets which shake your house. And they feel like the sky’s ripping open when they’re right over you. They’re very, very loud,” Lundsten says.
“When they’re really close, it’s like a rifle shot going off, except it’s not just for an instant, it’s like for 15 seconds. Plus there’s this low wavelength rumble vibrates the whole house. Things on window sills shake and rattle.”
He says the Navy’s expanding presence throughout the Puget Sound region is a misfit for an area that’s renowned for wild natural beauty and resources.
Lundsten is part of a group called Indivisible Fidalgo. They’re one of a growing number of groups in a regional network of activists trying to stop the Navy’s expansion plans.
Maryon Attwood is President of Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve in Coupeville, which has spearheaded the fight. She says although the official expansion is for up to 36 jets, requisition records show the Pentagon has commissioned 160.
And even if the Navy stays within its plan, it has authorization for up to 35,000 more operations per year with the additional jets, which is nearly six times the current level of 6,100, Attwood says. Right now, much of the practicing takes place late at night.
“So there’s no way that this whole region is not going to be impacted by the noise of these jets. Everyone is going to be experiencing increased noise,” she says.
Attwood is speaking Monday night at an event about the jet noise hosted by Indivisible Fidalgo in Anacortes. She says the Navy currently has six expansion projects pending in the Northwest, and many people here feel they don’t fit the region’s values.
“We would like the Navy to step back,” she said. “And the first step to moving back is to move the Growlers because they’re the loudest and most offensive. And they could have the most dramatic impact on saying to the community, ‘We hear you.’”
The Navy says the additional Growlers are being built now because this is what’s called “a lifetime buy” of a very specialized jet.
The manufacturer will shut down the line once it's done with this contract, so the Navy is ordering all they need now, including spare parts, for the life of the program, says Lisa Padgett, an environmental engineer and project manager for the Growler Environmental Impact Statement.
Navy Public Affairs Officer Ted Brown said the additional aircraft will be parked until they’re needed. Some will also be deployed at forward operating bases in Japan and tested elsewhere, such as at Naval Air Staion Patuxent River in Maryland.
As for the nighttime noise, Brown says it’s critical that Growler pilots train for one of the hardest flight maneuvers in all of aviation, which is landing on a moving aircraft carrier with enough precision to catch an arrest wire. He says this is even harder to do in the dark, with minimal lighting on the flight deck.
“We have to train these pilots in as realistic as possible. And it’s absolutely essential that a certain portion of their field carrier landing training is conducted in darkness,” Brown says.
The Navy did delay release of its final Environmental Impact Statement so it could respond to thousands of comments submitted by opposition. They have also made some changes to operations, which they say have already reduced noise from Growler training by 20 percent.
Community groups are documenting the noise with video recordings and websites where residents can report complaints. The groups are also working on a lawsuit against the Growler expansion, which they hope will force the Navy to move the fleet to a less populated training area.
The Navy says that’s unlikely because people would be impacted wherever it goes.
“Right now, this is our home base location. It’s their sole location in the continental United States,” said Brown about NAS Whidbey.
“And if we were to move that, we would just be moving the noise from one community to another, and that’s just not acceptable either, as a solution.”
And they say moving all of the hangers, specialized training ranges and other Growler infrastructure would be costly.
The final EIS on the expansion plan is expected sometime this summer or early fall.