The military wants to expand its training footprint in Washington state, including public lands and waters. That’s bringing complaints from residents who worry about noise and other impacts.
DECEPTION PASS STATE PARK, Island County — Visitors who pitch a tent or park their camper here are warned that the late-evening quiet policy does not apply to the Navy jets practicing their takeoffs and landings at nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
Some are able to embrace the noise. Others who play or live on north Whidbey and across the water on Lopez Island bridle at rumbling blasts that in summer may stretch past midnight.
At Deception Pass, on a bad night, the park may refund $500 to $1,000 in camping fees from those who pick up stakes and opt for an early exit.
“If you are a camper with little children, it can just destroy the experience you are trying to have,” said Jack Hartt, manager at Deception Pass, the state’s most-visited state park.
Navy officials say the constant repetitions are essential to help flight crews master one of the most difficult tasks in aviation — taking off and landing on the constrained confines of an aircraft carrier.
The Navy’s EA-18G Growlers, aircraft that can jam communication and launch systems, play a leading role in the nation’s electromagnetic warfare. Their presence in Washington state is expected to grow in the years ahead as the Navy proposes to add as many as 36 more to the fleet of 82 jets now based at the Whidbey Island air station.
Bringing in more Growlers is just one of several proposals that would expand the military’s training footprint in Washington — often over public lands and waters. The plans also include new electromagnetic war exercises for Growler crews over the Olympic National Forest and National Park, a potential increase of Navy SEALs training in state parks, and a new Army helicopter flight zone over the North Cascades.
The proposals — aimed at improving training and in some cases cutting costs — are running into opposition in a state that has long embraced the military but also has a tradition of environmental and citizen activism.
Some critics have prodded Washington’s congressional delegation, which helps to secure more than $13 billion in annual military spending in the state, to play a stronger oversight role.
“We are not trying to shut down the base but we think the Navy needs to figure out how to be a better neighbor,” said Jamie Stephens, a council member in San Juan County, where some residents say that long hours of aircraft noise from the Growlers are undermining their island lifestyle.
The Navy’s Growlers
The Boeing-built jets replaced the older model Prowlers, and the crews say these aircraft are a big step forward for U.S. electronic warfare.
Their capabilities range from blocking enemy radar to foiling communication signals that might be used to trigger bombs that threaten ground troops. All of this can save American lives. And the Growler crews are still very much on a war footing, flying missions over Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other global hot spots.
“The demand for this aircraft in the joint-war fighting world is huge,” said Capt. Scott Farr, the Whidbey Island-based commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Electronic Attack Wing. “We are the only ones that do this mission.”
Some of the crew training is done in an elaborate flight simulator that can offer a pilot sweeping aerial views of the Puget Sound region. And over time, the goal is to increase this training by as much as 25 percent and reduce actual hours in the aircraft, Farr said.
But the airfield will remain a busy place.
On a blustery March day, one after another, Growlers take off, circle back around, touch down and then are airborne again. Such exercises typically last 45 minutes before there’s a pause and the next crews start to train.
Navy officials repeatedly cite studies that show the Growlers are not significantly louder than the Prowlers they replaced.
That is contested by plenty of civilians who have experienced the sounds emanating from both aircraft. Many say the Growlers are not only noisier but also emit deeper vibrations that can rattle windows and disrupt daily life.
Some of the loudest noise is experienced by Whidbey Island residents who live close by a Coupeville-area landing strip south of the air station. Citing health effects from the noise and a privately contracted noise study, some sought unsuccessfully to secure a federal court injunction last year to stop landings at that strip.
The San Juan Islands are another hub of opposition. In June 2014, the county created a website where people could log Growler noise and make comments. So far, there have been more than 4,800 entries by about 560 people.
“The bottom line is that the introduction of the Growlers changed everything,” said Stephens, the San Juan County Council member.
Noise in the San Juans
Many of the Growler complaints have come from Lopez Island, a laid-back community that draws summer visitors to bike, kayak, watch whales and relax.
The island feels a world away from the hectic training pace of Navy flight crews.
Yet the southern tip of Lopez and the Whidbey Air Station are separated by less than 9 miles. So when the Growlers take off with their tails facing west, the sound wave can carry across the water to resonate in Lopez like a thunder that never quite goes away.
“It is the kind of noise that rumbles your insides. It’s like your whole body can feel the vibrations ” said Cynthia Dilling, a retired soap maker who since 1979 has lived in a house tucked in the woods that she built on the south end of Lopez. “When it starts, I have to go inside and put on headphones or go somewhere else. It’s really weird to have your home a place you endure, rather than a place of sanctuary.”
The noise from Growlers also has rattled the National Park Service, which in January 2014 sent a seven-page letter to the Navy detailing its concerns. Then-regional director Christine Lehnertz wrote that the proposed expansion of the aircraft fleet could potentially cause “unacceptable impacts on soundscapes and visitor experiences.”
The noise of the Growlers is mapped in Navy models that are based on sound measurements from the plane and offer an average Growler noise level over time. An environmental-impact statement that is expected to be released later this year will also model the maximum noise at various sites around Whidbey and Lopez islands, according to Rick Keys, of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
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San Juan County Council members want the Navy to spend 30 days taking on-the-ground noise measurements with a scale that would account for the deeper vibrations. Other requests include posting the hours when the Growlers will be flying, limiting late-night flight hours and pushing harder on research to create quieter aircraft.
“It’s been frustrating. We don’t feel like they are really communicating or responding,” said Stephens, who was in Washington, D.C., earlier this year to meet with staff from Washington’s congressional delegation about Growler concerns.
Navy officials say that years of research into quieter aircraft so far haven’t come up with anything that can meet performance standards. They note flight schedules are dictated by training requirements, and they need the nighttime and weekend flying hours to properly train flight crews.
Whidbey Air Station officials say they are trying to reduce the Growlers’ impacts on neighbors. Those steps include generally refraining from high-power turns after 10 p.m., and, when possible, keeping landing gear up during water approaches over Lopez, which helps reduce the noise.
“We take our complaints very seriously,” said Capt. Geoffrey Moore, the air station commander. ”We really work hard when we can to mitigate.”
The Olympic Peninsula
On the Olympic Peninsula, the Navy seeks to broaden Growler crew training to include electromagnetic warfare exercises now conducted in Idaho. The training requires crews to pinpoint signals from mobile emitters that mimic enemy systems. They would be stationed for up to 16 hours at any one of a dozen small sites on Forest Service land.
Between 2010 and 2012, the Navy secured from the Forest Service short-term permits to conduct 16 days of feasibility checks at potential sites for basing the emitters, said John Mosher, a Navy official.
The Navy is still waiting for the Forest Service to grant a long-term use permit for the sites, and their request has generated more than 3,000 letters, most of them from people concerned about the training.
Navy officials have repeatedly said the system poses no threat to the public.
The ground emitters would broadcast signals — at low power — that fall between radio and microwave frequencies, similar to civilian communication systems, Navy officials said. And the emitters would be shut down if visitors to the forest lingered within a 100-foot posted perimeter.
The pilots flying overhead would use passive systems to detect the signals, and would not try to jam them with electromagnetic weapons, according to Navy officials.
“There is no way that people would be exposed,” said Mosher, Northwest environmental manager for the Navy’s U.S. Pacific Fleet.
But electromagnetic energy can pose health risks, and plenty of people still have concerns.
“The public doesn’t trust the Navy. It’s that simple. … The Navy has a sense of entitlement to public lands,” said Karen Sullivan, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who lives in Port Townsend. Last year, she co-founded the West Coast Action Alliance, which watchdogs military training proposals that affect public lands and waters.
State parks, Cascades
For years, the Navy’s elite Special Operations teams, Navy SEALs, have quietly trained at five state parks.
Now, the Navy appears to want more places for the SEALS to train. They may seek “real-estate agreements” for SEALs to use up to 68 sites — most of them state parks — for “simulated actions” that could last from two to 72 hours, according to an internal Navy document first posted online earlier this year by Truthout, an online news and analysis site.
The training areas mapped in that document ranged from Westport Light State Park in Grays Harbor County to Camano Beach State Park.
Mosher, the Navy official, said there is no decision yet on whether to request use of those sites.
The Army also wants more training space in Washington.
At Joint Base Lewis McChord, Army officials propose to move high-altitude helicopter flight and landing training from Colorado to the North Cascades, as well as create three new flight zones in southwest Washington.
The initial proposal released last summer was attacked by a coalition of conservation, wildlife and recreation groups as a sloppily written document that placed four of seven landing zones on top of recreational trails and appeared to violate the federal Wilderness Act.
The proposal is now being revised, and there will be changes to some of the landing sites, according to Joe Piek, a JBLM spokesman.
In another proposal, the Army would move troop training on a rocket firing system from the Yakima Training Center to a JBLM site just off Interstate 5.
That would save travel costs and make it easier to keep Army personnel based in Western Washington up to date with their training. But the shift is opposed by the leaders of the Nisqually Tribe, whose reservation is near the firing range and already subject to noise from artillery fire and other training.
JBLM officials plan to test-fire training rockets later this spring. Due to community concerns, an Army Public Health Center team will set up acoustic ground monitors at the Nisqually Reservation and at other sites.
If the off-base noise exceeds safe levels, Army officials say, they will keep the rocket training at Yakima.
“I sit in the meetings with the garrison commander, and he straight up said if it’s too loud we’re done. Game over,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Harry Morgan, of the 17th Field Artillery Brigade.