A lawsuit pending in the Seattle federal courthouse tells the story of a relationship gone toxic between a military base and a community that embraced it for decades.
For the good of Whidbey Island, the Navy and Washington’s future, both sides must create a path forward that recognizes and reconciles their differences.
It won’t be easy. The suit filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson concerns the Navy’s push to ramp up operations of the EA-18G Growler fighter jets that call Naval Air Station Whidbey Island home. The Navy would add 36 jets to the 82 already stationed there. Attorney General Bob Ferguson claims Whidbey’s people, wildlife and history will suffer from the expansion due to a surge of new jet noise. Courts can decide the merits of each issue; growing the air traffic from Whidbey’s runways will likely affect life there.
The lawsuit is clear evidence of an ominous deterioration of the relationship between islanders and the base.
There is too much history, and too much mutual benefit, between the two to walk away from. Whidbey Islanders have lived with a base in their midst since the 1940s, and it remains Island County’s biggest employer. Across that many decades, friction has inevitably crept in; consider the 2016 discovery of drinking water wells contaminated by Navy firefighting chemicals. Yet the possibility the base would be targeted for closure in 1991 and 2005 roused Whidbey leaders to lobby to save it.
Military outposts ring much of Puget Sound. They are an important aspect of our regional fabric, and our fair share of national defense. That will continue regardless of whether Ferguson’s suit blocks the Navy’s Whidbey growth plan.
The town and base must pursue restoration of a healthy relationship, including a renewed effort to address stakeholders’ concerns.
Additionally, Congress must provide ways the military base can better accommodate the town and region. Several encouraging signs of this appear in the defense appropriations bill now before the House. It would give the island real-time, publicly-accessible jet noise monitoring and investigate ways to bring down the volume. These, and more, must be given priority consideration.
The two members of Congress whose districts are most affected by Whidbey flights, Democratic Reps. Rick Larsen and Derek Kilmer, have wisely declined to pick a side in the lawsuit. They are positioned to facilitate reconciliation if regarded as honest intermediaries for their constituents and the Pentagon.
“I’m trying to thread a needle with a very small eye here,” Rep. Larsen told this board.
The community, the military and the state have powerful reasons to hope he succeeds.