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Anti-OLF group putting federal suit on hold

Accusing the Navy of “backpedaling,” a Coupeville-based citizen’s group suing the Navy in federal court has begun the process of putting its lawsuit on hold.

The group filed suit against the Navy in July over jet noise at Outlying Field Coupeville, part of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. In its lawsuit, the group demanded an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, be launched by the Navy.

The Navy, which suspended operations at OLF until the end of the year, announced this month its intention to initiate an EIS.

David Mann, lawyer for the Coupeville-based Citizens of Ebeys Reserve, said he was approached by the Navy last week, asking if the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve lawsuit was “moot” now that the EIS had begun.

Mann said the group is hesitant to dismiss the lawsuit because the scope of the EIS won’t be determined for several months.

Nonetheless, Mann said, COER plans to put the suit on hold in the meantime.

“If we can reach an agreement and get a judge to agree to it, we’ll put it on hold until we see the complete document,” Mann said.

COER members have expressed concerns that the scope of the study might not be enough to address the issue properly.

The “baseline” of allowable jet noise will be determined through the EIS process which is slotted for completion in 2016, Mann said, though the group is asking the Navy to start with zero operations as a baseline.

“There’s no magic number where we get to ignore the first 120 decibels,” Mann said. “If they do that, it will be challenged and they will fail.”

“The Navy must address the complete impacts of its operations on human and natural environment. This includes all past, present and reasonably foreseeable noise impacts,” Mann said.

“The Navy cannot shortcut the NEPA process and ignore existing, already intolerable, conditions.”

The Notice of Intent issued by the Navy this month stated that the “EIS will evaluate the potential of environmental effects associated with the introduction of two additional EA-18G Growler squadrons (10) aircraft and the addition of three EA-18G Growler aircraft to the Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) when added to baseline conditions, including ongoing EA-18G Growler airfield operations at NAS Whidbey Island’s Ault Field and Outlying Land Field (OLF) Coupeville.”

Michael Monson, a member and spokesperson for COER, said the group interprets this as stating that the “baseline” was originally set at present-day operations, with the EIS focusing on new aircraft.

The Navy has said it plans to include previous studies conducted in 2005 and 2012 and build upon it to create the new EIS.

"The Navy plans to build upon the two previous Environmental Assessments to analyze the environmental effects for all Growler operations at NAS Whidbey Island and OLF Coupeville," said Lisa Padgett, U.S. Fleet Forces Command project manager for the EIS.

“The Navy made the decision to include all VAQ operations being conducted at both Ault Field and OLF Coupeville in this NEPA document to thoroughly evaluate both what is occurring now and what is proposed in the future at and in the vicinity of both airfields,” said NAS Whidbey Public Affairs Officer Mike Welding.

Asked when the Navy decided to include all Growlers in the EIS, they issued the following response on Tuesday, “We cannot discuss the precise timeline due to the pending litigation.”

Nevertheless, Monson said the citizens’ group believes the Navy is “backpedaling” because of the strength of the group’s lawsuit which has forced them to widen the scope of the EIS.

“We are very confident and we have every reason to be,” Monson said.

Despite the Navy’s plans to include all Growler operations within the EIS, whether new or intended from the outset, Monson said the group still fears the new EIS will not be as comprehensive as the Navy is claiming.

In a press release written by COER member Maryon Attwood entitled, “You can say what you want, but do the arithmetic,” the group claims that the two additional squadrons and three aircraft will translate into 800 more operations per year.

A Navy public affairs officer, quoted last week, characterized the additional 13 aircraft as contributing a “slight” increase in noise and traffic at OLF.

“We believe that 800 operations is more than a ‘slight’ increase in training as mentioned in the news story,” Atwood said.

Monson said the 800 figure was intended as simply as a “hypothesis” to demonstrate the group’s concern that the Navy may have a history of understating the impacts of the jet noise.

The group has also characterized a 2005 Environmental Assessment by the Navy as “fraudulent,” in a recent press release, and that their lawsuit “challenges the flawed EA and the decision to bring the Growlers to NAS Whidbey Island in the first instance.”

While the Navy won’t respond directly to the group’s allegations, it issued the following statement:

“The Navy comprehensively analyzed Growler operations in a 2005 Environmental Assessment for the introduction of aircraft carrier-based Growlers, and again in a 2012 Environmental Assessment for the introduction of expeditionary (land-based) Growlers.”

“On Sept. 5, 2013, the Navy initiated an Environmental Impact Statement at NAS Whidbey Island and OLF Coupeville to analyze effects of adding two more expeditionary Growler squadrons and to build upon the two previous Environmental Assessments to analyze the environmental effects for all Growler operations at NAS Whidbey Island and OLF Coupeville.”

“This approach fully complies with all relevant environmental laws and regulations.”

The next step in the two-year EIS process is to hold the open house information sessions.

The open houses are currently scheduled for 4-8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 3, Wednesday, Dec. 4 and Thursday, Dec. 5, at Coupeville High School, Oak Harbor High School and Anacortes Middle School, respectively.

 

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