Oak Harbor mayor asks AG to dismiss Growler lawsuit

Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns is asking the state attorney general to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the Navy that targets an environmental study of EA-18G Growler aircraft at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

In a letter sent July 19, Severns writes that he “disagrees with and condemns” Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s complaint in federal court, filed July 9.

“Your decision to use our state’s resources to challenge a process that the Navy began in 2013 is irresponsible and unjustifiable in the eyes of the majority of our citizens,” Severns wrote.

Severns’ letter states that the Navy’s environmental review was extensive, the majority of people on Whidbey “do not consider Navy noise to be a bad noise” and the lawsuit could have far-reaching impacts.

“Your action could also adversely affect future Navy decisions,” he wrote, “which could cripple the economy in our Pacific Northwest and leave us without the protection and support that we value as a community and a state.”

In the lawsuit, Ferguson argues that the Navy violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not properly analyzing the impact an increase in Growlers — particularly the noise during practice — will have on human health, the environment and historic resources.

Ferguson responded to the mayor’s letter Tuesday morning.

“As the son of a Navy veteran, I agree with much of what the mayor says about the critical nature of the Navy’s mission,” he said in a written statement. “That said, the Navy must follow the rules just like everybody else.”

If the lawsuit is successful, Ferguson said, the Navy will sufficiently analyze the effects of the Growler noise. Also, the Navy will need to “consider reasonable steps to minimize these impacts.”

“I have met with many of the mayor’s constituents who believe they have a right to know the full impacts of the Growler jet expansion on their health and their environment,” Ferguson said. “I encourage the mayor to listen to their voices as keenly as he’s listening to the Growler jets overhead.”

Ferguson said it’s incorrect to imply that taxpayers are paying for the lawsuit. It is funded through penalties paid by corporations that broke the law.

The group Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, or COER, also filed two separate lawsuits against the Navy — one that corresponds with the state’s lawsuit and another over the Freedom of Information Act — and is asking that they be combined with Ferguson’s lawsuit into one case.

NAS Whidbey will receive 36 more Growler aircraft over the next few years. Under the Navy’s decision following completion of an environmental impact statement, 80 percent of the training exercises for landing on an aircraft carrier occurs at Outlying Field Coupeville.

Severns hasn’t been alone in his criticism of the attorney general. State Sen. Barbara Bailey and Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce Director Christine Cribb sent opinion pieces to the Whidbey News-Times in the last week, criticizing Ferguson for the lawsuit and accusing him of being politically motivated.

Other officials have been more supportive of Central Whidbey concerns about jet noise in the past. U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Arlington, has long supported NAS Whidbey in Congress, but previously expressed concerns about the Navy’s decision on routing most of the Growler practice to the small, rural airstrip. He has focused on finding solutions.

“I will continue to work in Congress to address the impacts of jet noise on local communities,” he said earlier this month. “The House NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) includes provisions I authored to conduct real-time noise monitoring around Navy installations, make noise mitigation available for homes near bases and increase budget authority for engine noise reduction research.”

Severns’ letter to the attorney general says if the state was “truly interested in the environmental impacts” of Growlers, it should have participated during the environmental review process.

Ferguson, however, emphasized that the state Department of Health did participate in the process and concluded that evidence exists to show that “noise exposure can cause annoyance that adversely impacts mental and cardiovascular health, contribute to sleep disturbance and impair children’s cognitive skills, particularly reading skills,” the lawsuit states.

Ferguson argued that the Navy “did not adequately consider this evidence or sufficiently analyze the potential impacts on human health from increased Growler operations.”

Severns said he spoke with Capt. Matthew Arny, commanding officer of NAS Whidbey, after Ferguson announced the lawsuit. Arny advised that the best way the city could help would be to publicly show support for the base, according to Severns.

It didn’t sound like the Navy was looking for the city to become involved in litigation at this point, the mayor said.

Severns said he was recently named as the new chairman of the Save Naval Air Station Whidbey Island Task Force, which was created in 1991 as part of a successful effort to prevent the base from falling victim to a round of Base Realignment and Closure. Former Mayor Al Koetje had been the chairman for the past 28 years.

Severns said the task force met last Friday. The members discussed the lawsuit and decided that the best action they could take right now is to follow Arny’s request and convey the city’s support for the base.

“The men and women who operate out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (NASWI) and Outlying Field Coupeville (OLF) have been Oak Harbor’s neighbors, friends, partners and heroes for over 75 years,” Severns wrote in his letter.

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