Judge orders new Growler study, but no immediate change in operations

The Navy must redo an environmental study on the impact of expanded EA-18G Growler operations.

A federal judge has ordered the Navy to redo an environmental study on the impact of expanded EA-18G Growler operations at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

The Navy, however, will be able to continue operations at the current level while the study is being done in order to protect the electronic warfare mission deemed vital to national security.

On Sept. 1, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones entered the order on remedy in a lawsuit that the state Attorney General’s Office and the Whidbey-based anti-noise group, Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, filed against the Navy in 2021. The judge found that remand without vacatur is appropriate.

Jones ruled on the lawsuit a year ago and ordered the parties to negotiate a remedy to the problems with the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS. When the effort failed, the judge decided on the remedy.

The wide-ranging lawsuit centered on whether the Navy violated the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, by creating a flawed EIS. The years-long environmental study is key because Navy brass relied on it to issue a Record of Decision that approved the addition of 33 Growler aircraft at NAS Whidbey and allowed for a fourfold increase of field carrier landing practice at Outlying Field Coupeville, a small landing strip in the Central Whidbey countryside.

Jones agreed that the EIS failed to quantify the impact of Growler noise on classroom learning; failed to disclose the basis for greenhouse gas emissions calculations; failed to take a hard look at species-specific impacts on birds; and failed to give detailed consideration of an El Centro, California alternative.

As part of the order on remedy, Jones denied the Navy’s motion for an in camera — or private — review of classified documents that show the importance of Growlers to national defense. The judge ruled that he already had considered national security based on unclassified information presented by the Navy.

Jones wrote that, under case law, the court must defer to senior military officials’ professional judgment that any interruption of EA-18G training and operations would erode national security. As a result, the judge didn’t order a change of operations while a new environmental study is prepared.

The Navy also denied COER’s request that the remedy include orders that El Centro be carried forward as a reasonable alternative and that the Navy perform a specific type of calculation on greenhouse gas emissions.

COER and the Oak Harbor Area Council of the Navy League both released statements that interpreted the significance of the judge’s decision differently.

In a statement, COER emphasized that the judge found the deficiencies in the EIS were serious enough to warrant a new study.

“COER fully agrees and hopes the new EIS, this time, forthrightly addresses and reveals the real impacts,” the statement says. “The extremely loud carrier landing practice sessions ignite trauma in veterans with PTSD, compromise at-home businesses, interfere with youngsters doing homework and diminish their cognitive function, aggravate dissociative reactions in autistic children, create significant health risks, and diminish and intimidate at-home livability to such an extent that many have been forced to relocate, creating dysfunctional turnover neighborhoods.”

COER intends to seek clarification from the judge and will consider an appeal.

The Navy League’s statement, on the other hand, argues that the decision is a setback for litigation organizers and their adherents since it is not a decisive outcome and that additional studies will not likely invalidate the record of decision or ultimately change anything.

“The Navy remains a steadfast, good Whidbey neighbor supported by the broad populace,” the Navy League statement says. “Its economic impact (88% of all activity) sustains our prosperous business community, integrated health care environment, outstanding schools, first responders, property values, and ample tax base. Their personnel perform comprehensive volunteerism. Search and Rescue (linked to the jets) is the most prolific in the military, receiving a recent award for extreme heroism. The Growlers (plus their predecessor, EA-6B Prowler) have a perfect, 100% success record protecting U.S. and allied aircraft.”