COER: New opinion of EA-18G impacts needed

Bob Wilbur, chairperson of COER, said the group will wait for the results of the consultations before deciding whether to file a lawsuit.

A Central Whidbey group that protests noise from Navy aircraft recently served several federal agencies with a notice of intent to sue under the Endangered Species Act.

Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, commonly known as COER, claims that a recent study published in the Journal of Marine Science has “ground-breaking findings” about how far the noise of EA-18G Growlers penetrates into the water, which triggers the need for new biological opinions because the noise could potentially affect orcas and other marine creatures.

COER served the Navy, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of the Interior with a letter asserting that the new findings require the agencies to reinitiate consultations regarding the Growler Environmental Impact Statement and the Northwest Training and Testing Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

Federal agencies, such as the Navy, that undergo an Environmental Impact Statement process, are required to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure they are not taking action that is likely to jeopardize listed species.

The agencies are tasked with rendering biological opinions about whether adverse impacts are likely.

The law requires the agencies to reinitiate consultation if “new information reveals effects of the action that may affect listed species or critical habitat in a manner or to an extent not previously considered,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bob Wilbur, chairperson of COER, said the group will wait for the results of the consultations before deciding whether to file a lawsuit.

“The new biological opinions,” a COER statement says, “must analyze the effects of Growler noise deep underwater in conjunction with the effects of vast and increasing man-made noise affecting the underwater environment and the marine fauna that live and breed there.”

The peer-reviewed study that is the subject of the notice, “Above and below: Military aircraft noise in air and under water at Whidbey Island,” was published Nov. 16.

The unique study concluded that Growler sound levels are higher than the thresholds known to disturb orcas and other endangered marine animals.

The researchers placed a sound monitoring device in 100 feet of water off the end of a Naval Air Station Whidbey Island runway, as well as an above-ground instrument at a park next to the base.

In a Sound Off piece published in the Whidbey News-Times, Capt. Matt Arny, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, wrote that the Navy disagrees with both the methodology and conclusions of the study.

“We do not believe these studies demonstrate that very short durations of localized noise — take-off from a runway — will have significant effects on the orcas where data shows they seldom visit,” he wrote. “Likewise, we disagree with extrapolating this data across the Puget Sound, as our aircraft do not fly a take-off profile in other areas where the orcas habitually live and feed,” Arny said in the editorial submission.

Federal lawsuits initiated in 2019 by the state Attorney General’s Office and COER over Growler noise are still ongoing.

The lawsuits, which were combined into one case, challenge the adequacy and accuracy of the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement, which looked at possible effects from an increase in Growler aircraft at NAS Whidbey and a fourfold spike in aircraft carrier landing practice at Outlying Field Coupeville.

In addition, the U.S. District Court judge in the case still hasn’t ruled on COER’s request for a preliminary injunction to halt the increased Growler flights at OLF Coupeville until the lawsuit is settled.

In July, a federal magistrate recommended against the injunction.