More conversations outdoors and indoors would be harder to hear, the new study says. Also, more people would be vulnerable — if exposed over decades — to possible hearing damage.
Basing up to 36 more EA-18G Growlers at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island would have a “significant impact” on noise as the pace of training increased at two airfields, according to a Navy study released Thursday.
The air-station training is key for flight crews whose aircraft, which jam communication and launch systems, play a leading role in the nation’s electromagnetic warfare. But the noise from low-flying jets has generated complaints, as well as health concerns, from Whidbey Island residents and some in the San Juan Islands.
The environmental study lays out the effects of a move to expand, by more than a third, the fleet of 82 Growlers at the station used in training at Ault Field near Oak Harbor and Outlying Field Coupeville (OLF). That would increase the total number of aircraft flight operations at the two air fields from 88,600 annually to more than 129,000.
When averaged over a year, the study found, more people would be exposed to a noise level above the threshold the Defense Department uses to help determine the compatibility of military aircraft operations with the surrounding area.
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For instance, more conversations outdoors and indoors, including in classrooms, would be harder to hear. More people also would be vulnerable — if exposed over 40 years — to possible damage to their hearing, according to the study.
The study also describes efforts to reduce the Growlers’ noise.
The Navy, for example, has tested putting ceramic strips on jet-engine exhaust nozzles to lower the sound. That would require some Growler redesign, the study noted.
Other options include automating some flight controls and possibly reducing training requirements for practice landings.
Just who gets hit hardest by the noise depends on how the additional training is divided up between Ault Field and OLF Coupeville.
The study analyzes how many additional people, in the options under consideration, would experience a day-night average of at least 65 decibels over a year.
Some of the harshest criticism of Navy operations has come from residents near Outlying Field Coupeville. Citing concerns that the noise was causing health problems — such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, elevated blood pressure and hearing loss — some tried unsuccessfully to secure a federal court injunction last year to stop landings there. They say the Growlers are more disruptive than the Prowler aircraft they replaced.
Around that field, the study states, 2,316 people are already exposed to an average 65 decibels or higher. Depending on how the additional training would be divided between the two airfields, the number of residents around OLF exposed to that threshold would rise by as much as 57 percent.
Navy critics say that averaging noise — in models — over a year, downplays the peak noise exposures.
“This dilutes the real noise measurements,” said Ken Pickard, of Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, which sought the injunction last year. “This would be a disaster.”
A private contractor hired by that group recorded levels above 100 decibels during flyovers, including one instance above 130 decibels. That maximum level was high enough to require ear protection and could damage hearing, the report by JGL Acoustics stated.
A Navy official says overall levels of aircraft activity now is lower than it was in a decade. So, even with the influx of additional Growlers, it still wouldn’t be higher than the level back in the mid-1990s, according to Ted Brown, a Navy public-affairs officer.
Navy supporters note the air station is an economic mainstay for Whidbey Island and Growler training is essential for the crews whose missions have saved the lives of troops in combat.
“No matter what the results of any EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), some will never be appeased or satisfied,” said a statement from the Oak Harbor Area Council of the Navy League.
Editor’s note: A comment posted to the comment thread for this story with Ken Pickard’s name on it was not from the Ken Pickard in this story. It has been removed.