Anti-OLF group claiming public records victory

Spectators watch as an EA-18G Growler performs a touch-and-go at Outlying Field Coupeville. A community group opposed to jet noise is preparing to take legal action in hopes of reopening a 2005 environmental assessment.  - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Spectators watch as an EA-18G Growler performs a touch-and-go at Outlying Field Coupeville. A community group opposed to jet noise is preparing to take legal action in hopes of reopening a 2005 environmental assessment.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

A Central Whidbey community group that formed last year in opposition to jet-noise at Outlying Field Coupeville is ramping up its efforts to curb flights at the practice airstrip.

Ken Pickard, a founding member of the Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve for a Healthy, Safe, Peaceful, Environment, confirmed Friday that the group has an attorney and has been busy in recent months preparing for legal action.

“I’ve never felt this frustrated,” Pickard said.

He declined to elaborate on the group’s long-term goals but said it’s immediate plans are to reopen a 2005 Environmental Assessment on the Navy’s transition from the EA-6B Prowler to the EA-18G Growler aircraft with a challenge in U.S. District Court.

By reopening the assessment, new factual data could be considered and ultimately result in the Navy having to conduct a full environmental impact statement.

The group, which Pickard said is comprised of a board of directors and has about 100 at-large members, is in the process of hiring a auditory engineer to gather decibel information for the case.

Paula Spina, a group board member and owner of the historic Crockett Farm, claims the Growler is louder than its predecessor and has a real impact on the health of people who live under the flight path.

The hope is that auditory proof of decibel levels and a subsequent environmental impact statement by the Navy will ultimately lead to change, she said.

“Once the public sees the true impact on the community, there is persuasive power that will show it’s not appropriate here,” Spina said.

“It’s not safe.”

The group’s attorney, David Mann of the Seattle-based law firm Gendler & Mann, has also been busy in recent months acquiring information about the base’s electronic attack jets.

In December, Mann submitted a massive public records request under the Freedom of Information Act, asking for everything from information about the planned transition between the two aircraft — the Growler is replacing the Prowler — and noise studies to the number of jets at the airbase and the number of touch-and-go operations at Outlying Field.

Three weeks later, a staff judge advocate for the Navy, Lt. Cmdr. D.E. Rieke, sent Mann a letter stating that the request was “unperfected” and that the 20-day statutory time frame had not yet started.

A revised records request was submitted, but when another 20 days had passed with no response, Mann filed an administrative appeal with the Navy’s Office of the General Counsel in Washington, D.C.

“I write on behalf of (the citizen’s group) and appeal the failure of the Department of the Navy to respond to a Jan. 11, 2013, revised FOIA request,” Mann wrote.

Attempts to reach Mann Friday were unsuccessful, but Pickard said the appeal appears to be successful as the group was recently informed the records would be sent in CD format.

Pickard said, however, an appeal should never have had to been made in the first place. Exasperated and angry, he said it was just another example of an unresponsive Navy.

“They blew off the request until we filed an administrative appeal,” Pickard said.

Sean Hughes, public affairs officer for Navy Region Northwest, said a lawsuit may actually be counterproductive to ongoing efforts to mitigate noise impacts on Central Whidbey as the Navy’s policy is to limit communication on an issue when litigation is involved.

“It would be extremely limited at best,” Hughes said.

Mike Welding, public information officer for NAS Whidbey, declined to speculate on potential litigation or any long-range impacts it might have on base or flight operations.

He reiterated, however, the importance of the airfield to the Navy.

“The Navy’s Outlying Field at Coupeville is a critical national security asset that provides essential training for Navy pilots based at NAS Whidbey Island so they can conduct safe and effective aircraft carrier flight operations around the world,” Welding said.

Important or not, Pickard and Spina say noise from the Growler is intolerable.

“The reality is the strip has to go,” he said.

“We’re not going to settle for anything less than shutting OLF down,” Spina said.


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