Congress may require real-time Growler noise monitoring

Congress wants the Navy to measure the sound of military jets on Whidbey Island in the real world instead of relying on computer models.

The National Defense Authorization Act was approved in the House of Representatives Wednesday on a bipartisan 377-48 vote and heads to the Senate.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Arlington, and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell included amendments to provide on-the-ground noise tracking at three Air Force and three Navy installations, including EA-18G Growler practice at Outlying Field Coupeville and in Olympic National Park.

The legislation authorizes $1 million for the noise monitoring and requires the results be made publicly available on a Department of Defense website. It also mandates that the secretary of defense work with the director of the National Park Service and the chief of the Forest Service to create a plan within six months for noise monitoring above or adjacent to nearby public lands, including Olympic National Park, Olympic National Forest and Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve.

The amendments will be in the final compromise of the legislation, which authorizes appropriations and sets policies for the Department of Defense. The conference report now awaits passage in the Senate.

As a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, Larsen was able to shepherd the provision through to final passage.

“I am happy the final bill includes real-time noise monitoring language to require the Navy to mitigate the effects of military aircraft noise on private residences, schools and hospitals,” he said. “This provision will ensure aircrews can get vital training while better understanding and reducing the impact of operations surrounding communities.”

The Senate passed Cantwell’s amendment in June. Since then, the legislation has been in a conference committee to be reconciled with the version passed by the House.

“Publicly available real-time monitoring of Whidbey Island and the Olympic National Park will provide transparency,” she said in a press release, “and a basis for an accurate discussion on the impacts of the increased flight activity between the Navy, the state, and the communities involved.”

Growler noise, as well as how its measured, has been a source of controversy on Whidbey Island and elsewhere for years. Under the Navy’s record of decision, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island will receive 36 additional Growlers and 80 percent of the field carrier landing practice will take place at OLF Coupeville, a small landing strip in rural Central Whidbey. The number of Growler landing practice “passes” at the airfield will increase from about 3,000 a year to more than 12,000

Many officials, citizens and agencies, including three federal agencies, have called on the Navy to conduct real-time noise monitoring, which Navy officials have resisted.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommended that the Navy start a noise monitoring program similar to what Larsen and Cantwell are proposing. The U.S. Park Service conducted its own acoustic monitoring in Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve in Central Whidbey and found that the modeling in the Navy’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, “significantly under represented” the noise levels the Park Service found in real-life conditions.

The Navy relied on computer models in the EIS, which was required for increasing the number of Growlers at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Navy officials argued that the computer noise modeling is accurate, lawful and the same as what’s used for commercial airlines. The former secretary of defense also said real-world noise monitoring had been done in the past.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a federal lawsuit against the Navy, arguing that the EIS was not adequate. He is arguing that the Navy violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not properly analyzing the impact an increase in Growlers will have on human health, the environment and historic resources.

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