ANACORTES — Open houses held this week on the proposal to bring more EA-18G Growler jets to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station drew hundreds, including 110 to one Thursday at Seafarers’ Memorial Park.
The Navy held the five open houses to provide information and take public comments about the draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, that looks at the environmental impacts of bringing more Growlers to the base.
The draft EIS was released Nov. 10, and public comments are being accepted through Jan. 25.
The Navy proposes adding up to 36 Growlers to NAS Whidbey’s fleet, which includes 82 Growlers that replaced the EA-6B Prowlers in 2015.
Concerns about noise from the jets have been a common theme in public comments the Navy has received online and at the open houses, Navy Region Northwest Director of Public Affairs Sean Hughes said.
Some at the Anacortes open house said they would like the Navy to limit jet noise, and to find a balance between what’s necessary for NAS Whidbey’s operations and consideration for surrounding communities.
Navy officials said jet noise is difficult to quantify because it is intermittent and affected by a variety of factors including jet speed, altitude, maneuvers, terrain, time of day and weather.
But using a formula created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate workplace noise hazards, the Navy concluded in the draft EIS that jet noise from NAS Whidbey is not likely to contribute to hearing loss, said Bonnie Curtiss, a noise analyst with the Navy.
Kaaren Malson said she attended the meeting as a show of support for the base. She and her husband have no complaints about the Navy flying over their Lake Erie home.
“That Navy came 75 years ago and if you didn’t like the noise then why did you move here?” Malson said. “I just don’t get how anybody can complain about these guys having the necessary training. They don’t have an easy job.”
Jet noise is of particular concern to Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve, a group that has long opposed the Navy’s use of Outlying Field (OLF) Coupeville for field carrier landing practices.
The draft EIS concludes that field carrier landing practices — which are done at Ault Field in Oak Harbor and OLF Coupeville — could double with the addition of 36 Growlers.
The draft EIS suggests noise from the potential increase would impact communities near the training fields, but not to the extent that hearing loss would be expected.
”It is going to get loud, it may be annoying, but in the majority of people it is not going to cause hearing loss,” Navy audiologist Alan Ross said.
The Navy is considering some measures that could help reduce noise from the jets, including building “hush houses” that limit sound during maintenance work, and installing equipment on the exhaust nozzles to limit noise during flight.
“A lot of people are worried about field carrier landing practices. They are loud. We fly low,” said Anna Whalen, an environmental planner with the Navy Facilities Engineering Command Northwest.
With the recent release of the draft EIS, noise impacts from field carrier landing practices at OLF Coupeville remain a concern for Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve.
In a position statement, the group says the draft EIS does not adequately address noise concerns and asserts that the Navy should do field carrier landing practice elsewhere.
“It’s in the middle of a community with thousands of people,” Cate Andrews, one of the founding members of the group, told the Skagit Valley Herald. “We’re just asking them to practice elsewhere. Not to move the base, not to close the base, just to practice where there are not so many people.”
Navy officials said field carrier landing practices are essential training for Growler pilots, and OLF Coupeville is the best place for them to do it because it most closely resembles the conditions pilots face at sea.
Growler pilot Lt. Roy Walker said during missions at sea the jets approach carriers at about 600 feet above the water, make calculated turns toward the ship, and have to connect with the landing equipment on the ship at no more than 14 feet above the deck and on a landing strip about the length of a football field.
OLF Coupeville was designed so that Growlers can approach at a similar altitude and with limited lighting to help imitate the darkness at sea, Walker said. Training there is also uninterrupted by other aircraft, which isn’t the case at Ault Field.
“We want to mimic what we have on the boat to the maximum extent that we can, and we have that at OLF Coupeville,” Walker said.
Brown said the Growler is the only electronic warfare aircraft in the U.S. military, and NAS Whidbey is home to all of them.
“This aircraft is protecting soldiers, sailors and marines everywhere they are in combat,” Fleet Forces Command Installation and Environmental Public Affairs Officer Ted Brown said. “The Growlers are critical to the Department of Defense and all of our overseas missions, and Whidbey is critical because it is the home base of the Growlers.”
The Navy started the EIS process in late 2013.
After the public comment period closes Jan. 25, the Navy will review the comments and compile responses into a final EIS by fall 2017.
Following a 30-day review period, the Navy will issue a decision detailing any changes to Growler operations at NAS Whidbey.
If the Navy adds Growlers at the base, the jets and up to 1,574 personnel and family members could be settled in the area by 2021, according to the Navy.
*Story has been updated to correct the way Growlers have to touch down when landing on an aircraft carrier ship.