The Navy is holding two additional public meetings this week in response to concerns about a proposed expansion of its fleet of EA-18-G Growler planes based on Whidbey Island.
The meetings will be held on Lopez Island and in Port Townsend, where people have been complaining about increased noise from the jets, which have replaced older Prowler aircraft over the past few years. Now the Navy is looking at environmental impacts of adding as many as 36 more Growlers to the current fleet of 82, based in Oak Harbor.
The Navy’s outlying airfield in Coupeville, in the center of Whidbey Island, is where Growlers and Prowlers practice what navy spokesman Ted Brown says is probably the most difficult task in aviation.
“And that’s to land an aircraft on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier and catch an arresting gear wire, to land on a very small landing area on a ship that’s moving," Brown said.
He says when an aircraft carrier is in the area, the navy steps up training in Coupeville to get its pilots ready for deployments.
Below is a YouTube video that contains the sound of a Growler training flight. It was by the Citizens of Ebey's Reserve (COER), a group of people who live near the airfield:
COER filed a lawsuit after a Navy Environmental Impact Statement found "no significant impact" from a proposed expansion of operations.
And at about the same time, Port Townsend Mayor David King says he started hearing from his constituents about the issue. Port Townsend is about 10 miles away from the airfield. The sound carries across Admiralty Inlet.
“The complaints that I am having from people that live here are it scares the dogs, it rattles the windows, it disturbs children. I mean they’re really quite loud," King said.
His concerns extend to an additional plan, to fly the planes over Forest Service lands in the area, where mobile radar trucks would simulate jammers used in electronic warfare. He says that plan could have Growlers practicing up to 16 hours a day, 260 days a year, above settled areas and a wilderness area.
“I mean, there are endangered species in our North Olympic Peninsula, like the spotted owl. And it’s a very delicate place and I think quietness is a part of that delicate balance,” he said.
The Navy's Ted Brown says Congress has yet to vote on funding for more Growlers. And with the added public meeting this week, the Navy has also extended the public comment period until Jan. 9.
“We do not know at this point how many, if any, Congress will fund," Brown said. "But in the interest of being as comprehensive and transparent as we can be, we decided to reopen the scoping process, have additional scoping meetings and analyze what the impact would be should these aircraft be funded by Congress.”
Those comments will be used as the basis for a draft environmental impact statement, which should be out in about a year.
But King says, despite many citizens’ calls to move the electronic warfare training elsewhere, that option is not part of the current environmental scoping process, which only encompasses adding more Growlers to the current fleet on Whidbey Island.
U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen was among the public officials requesting the additional scoping meetings. He says he is pursuing plans to mitigate the additional noise from the Growlers and options worth exploring include: finding funding for an acoustic hangar to reduce noise impact on Lopez Island;researching technology to reduce engine noise; developing software that might safely reduce the required number of training flights; and asking the Navy to do monitoring on the San Juans as part of an environmental impact study for the EA-18G Growler.