Photo by Michael Watkins/Whidbey News-Times Keith Mack, left, manager of marketing and community relations and George Senerth, executive director of facilities, both with Whidbey Health Medical Center, tour new construction of the hospital Monday in Coupeville.

Hospital should consider noise from Growler flights, group says

Group says patients, providers and bottom line could be affected

Officials with WhidbeyHealth Medical Center should consider how proposed Navy Growler jet flight increases could affect its patients and providers, members of a citizens group told Whidbey Island Public Hospital District Board of Commissioners Monday.

Lori Taylor, a member of Coupeville Community Allies, encouraged hospital officials and its board to review the Navy’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, and consider how more jets making more noise could affect “patient experience” and possibly the health system’s bottom line.

Tuesday, WhidbeyHealth CEO Geri Forbes responded in a statement: “The Navy has been very sensitive to not allowing flights over or near the hospital. Given our longtime collaborative working relationship with the Navy, we trust that the Navy will continue to uphold its commitment to respecting the airspace above and near our hospital.”

“WhidbeyHealth has a strong interest in maintaining a healthy environment for our patients to receive care and recover from injury or illness,” Forbes added. “We have no reason to believe that noise will be a factor for patients receiving care in this new environment.”

The Navy, which proposes increasing field carrier landing practice operations at Outlying Field Coupeville, has held informational meetings at various locations since releasing its plan Nov. 10.

Public comment is being accepted until Feb. 24.

The increases could be as much as sixfold, from 6,100 operations per year at OLF to 35,100 operations per year, Taylor said, adding that’s as many as 135 operations per week day.

Taylor addressed the board during public comment at its monthly meeting. She identified herself as a “20-year Navy wife and community advocate” speaking about how Growler increases “could negatively impact operations, finances and land use at WhidbeyHealth Medical Center and its local clinics.”

Coupeville Community Allies is a composed of Central Whidbey residents and business owners who say they’re devoted to getting information to the public regarding the controversial jet-noise issue.

Taylor, a registered dietician, worked at WhidbeyHealth for five years before leaving for private practice in 2015.

“We’re not anti-Navy,” Taylor said. “We fully support the military.”

The group differs from Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER, that has long fought jet noise, she said. Last year, COER tried and failed to get Island County Board of Health to pass a resolution stating Growler noise on Whidbey Island is hazardous to public health.

Coupeville Community Allies takes a different stance, Taylor explained in an interview.

“We’re saying, ‘Not all of it in our back yard.’ It’s too much to ask from going when planes fly some of the time to when planes fly all of the time.”

The overhead noise made by EA-18G Growler jets involved in aircraft landing operations has been calculated at Coupeville Elementary School by computer noise modeling done by the Navy, Taylor said. She said the Navy didn’t noise model the hospital “because they felt 1,000 feet was close enough to the elementary school for the results to be equivalent.”

The school modeling found sound levels as high as 98 decibels, at least once daily, Taylor wrote in a statement given to the board. She noted that sounds over 85 decibels are considered harmful to human health by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

However, the Navy has ruled that conclusive evidence linking aircraft noise to health problems doesn’t exist.

A range of potential environmental effects associated with the addition of 35 or 36 Growlers at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is reviewed in the 716-page draft document. The addition would result in a 47 percent increase in Growler operations on Whidbey Island, the Navy states.

The draft EIS, offers three alternatives for how aircraft carrier landing practices will be distributed between the large Ault Field base in Oak Harbor and the small, rural Outlying Field Coupeville.

“Despite some sensational articles purporting otherwise, and the intuitive feeling that noise in some way must impair health,” the EIS states, “there are no studies that definitively show a causal and significant relationship between aircraft noise and health.”

Taylor’s group basically points out that hospitals are filled with sick people and new mothers and newborns who need rest. And rest requires quiet.

“As noise is a significant issue in patient experience, noise caused by this increase in operations may affect WhidbeyHealth Medical Center, specifically income and reimbursement,” Taylor said.

Regarding the design of the new $50-million hospital wing, Forbes said that barriers for noise were not identified as a key factor in the architectural design process and that it’s built to “critical quality standards reflecting current recommended best practices for hospital noise.”

The Coupeville group recommended the hospital district ask the Navy to include WhidbeyHealth Medical Center in its sound modeling. It also pointed out that the hospital “already struggles with noise levels” as found by a government “Hospital Compare” survey.

Coupeville Community Allies also suggests that the hospital ask the Navy to elaborate on how it could be affected by Accident Potential Zones that may be expanded around OLF.

Since 1986, under a waiver, the OLF Coupeville hasn’t had an Accident Potential Zone, or APZ, which is typically built around a runway with greater than 5,000 operations annually.

Taylor pointed out that while the draft EIS states that new APZs will have to be developed, they are not sketched out in the proposal for the Coupeville location as they are for the Ault Field in Oak Harbor.

She told the board that APZs can comprise up to a 15,000-foot swath around an operating runway, about nearly three miles, and “such a swatch would cover nearly the entire Town of Coupeville, including WhidbeyHealth Medical Center.”

Also noted in the statement given to the health board is that “hospitals, nursing homes or other medical facilities are not allowed in any portion of an APZ” so future growth plans could be affected.

The group’s statement says it would be in the health system’s best interest to ask in its response to the Navy’s draft EIS that Accident Potential Zones for OLF Coupeville be drawn.

No board members immediately addressed Taylor’s remarks. Board member Grethe Cammermeyer had expressed concern at a December meeting after initially reading the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

Noting that the flight expansion proposal came as the hospital finishes its $50 million new wing, she said, “there have not been any conversations about the need for more insulation.”

The draft EIS is available for review online at www.whidbeyeis.com. Hard copies are at area libraries.

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