Capt. Matthew Arny, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, updated Oak Harbor City Council about upcoming changes at the Navy base, including his impending retirement in July.
Arny also told council members about environmental efforts, technology upgrades, housing and child care needs, and future projects during a State of the Station presentation during Tuesday night’s meeting.
There are now 8,700 active-duty personnel at NAS Whidbey, and the number will soon rise to 9,000 before dropping to approximately 8,800, Arny said.
There are 2,100 government, civilian and full-time contractors on base, along with almost 800 transient contractors.
Arny said the Navy has a $1 billion economic impact on the region each year.
The mission control building for the MQ-4C Triton, an unmanned aerial surveillance aircraft, is done.
Work to finish a support facility for the P-8s is underway, and a new hangar to house two Growler squadrons is expected to be completed in August. He said a major project to update the runways and taxiways should come in the next few years.
Navy personnel were able to continue training throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Arny said, and all operational commands were able to deploy on time.
Now many in the “Team Whidbey” workforce have been vaccinated, he said. Arny didn’t give a specific figure but said the vaccination rate on the base is higher than the state and national averages. Both averages for the entire population who are fully vaccinated are just over 38 percent.
COVID-19 vaccines are voluntary and the base commander encouraged everyone to get a shot. Those who have been fully vaccinated are not required to wear a mask except for when they are in child care facilities or at the clinic on base, he added.
He also spoke about the island’s need for child care and housing.
He noted a $1 million grant from the Department of Defense for Oak Harbor Public Schools to assess replacing five schools and the district’s vehicle maintenance facility.
Two schools, Crescent Harbor Elementary and the HomeConnection/Hand-in-Hand Early Learning Center, are on military property and are eligible for up to 80 percent match from the federal government.
Besides the grant, the school district received $5.5 million in Impact Aid from the federal government for operations, maintenance and special education.
Arny said the base is seeking funding to expand child care programs. The base only satisfies 30 percent of its demand for child care with its one facility that has room for 465 kids, he said.
He noted the demand for affordable housing has increased and said service members’ housing allowances only cover 95 percent of rent and utility costs.
There are 1,495 housing units on base and he said there are no plans to increase the number of units, although the Whidbey Apartments will be replaced with construction on Seaplane Base in the next couple of years.
He also spoke about the Navy’s decision not to hook up the Seaplane base to the city’s sewage treatment plant.
“As unpopular as I know that decision was to some, it is also heartening to know that we have moved past that,” Arny said.
A new system to treat 1,4-dioxane in the groundwater will be operational this summer, he said. Drivers can see the construction on the west side of Highway 20 near the Auld Holland Inn.
Long-term solutions for 25 homes connected to eight contaminated drinking wells near an old landfill at Ault Field will be coming this year. Affected homes already have a filter or are supplied with bottled water, Arny said.
The Navy discovered the wells had levels of a family of chemicals known as PFAS that were above the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory limit. It also recently notified several farmers near Ault Field and OLF Coupeville that are affected by the chemicals in the groundwater.
The Navy has conducted two of four noise monitoring periods at 11 sites near Ault Field and Outlying Field Coupeville and the data will be shared with the public when the project is done at the end of the year, he told council members.
Arny said he hoped a record of decision for the Navy’s supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Northwest Training and Testing Range would come in June.
He highlighted several technological improvements and 5G cellular network expansion, recalling a multi-day communications outage in 2019 after a driver hit a power pole on Fidalgo Island that supplied internet to Whidbey.
The base is in the process of awarding a contract for a heat and power plant facility.
Arny spoke of his wife Samar’s work as an advocate for military spouses and her partnerships with local organizations during their time on the island.
Arny’s change of command ceremony will be on July 9. He got the top job in 2018 and said he will be retiring from the military.
“I can think of no better way to end a Navy career than to be the CO of the Navy’s finest air station in this wonderful community,” he said.