New jets. New ships. New piers stretching into Hood Canal.
They’re just some of the big-ticket items the Navy has bought for its bases around the Puget Sound area.
After a dozen years of Army growth and the end of a $2 billion wartime investment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Navy Region Northwest is on its own building spree.
It’s spending hundreds of millions of dollars improving facilities ranging from the wharf that handles nuclear missiles at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor to the hangars on Whidbey Island set to receive some of the military’s latest aircraft.
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When the boom finishes five or so years from now, advocates say the Navy will have a secure footing in the Puget Sound region for decades, similar to what the Army and its boosters say they spent years establishing at JBLM. It’ll be home to some of the military’s newest weapon systems, making it an unlikely target if the Pentagon begins a serious downsizing.
“I just don’t see how we could replicate that anywhere else in the world,” said Vice Adm. Mike Shoemaker, the chief of Navy air operations, on a June visit to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
But before then, the Navy has to win back public opinion. It lost some support as it rolled out plans for six major projects that have unsettled environmental advocates throughout the Northwest.
It’s also facing two lawsuits in federal courts. One challenges operations at NAS Whidbey Island over concerns about jet noise. A second takes aim at the environmental studies the Navy conducted before it built the new $715 million explosive-handling wharf at Bangor.
It has also been slowed on two proposals that would add features to Navy training in the skies above the Olympic Peninsula and in the depths of the Pacific along the coasts of Oregon and Washington.
More than 3,000 people wrote appeals to the U.S. Forest Service questioning a Navy plan to place trucks on old logging roads in Olympic National Forest for exercises that simulate challenges pilots face searching for enemy communication signals. That’s called electronic warfare, and it’s the core mission of the more than 80 EA-18 Growler jets stationed on Whidbey Island.
Another 1,000 people have submitted comments to the Navy on its coastal plan, which includes provisions that allow an increase in training and a corresponding rise in the numbers of marine mammals impacted by maritime events.
State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark waded into one of the major training proposals in February. He wrote a letter to the Navy that indicated he’d oppose allowing sailors to park trucks in state forests for electronic warfare exercises.
It was a setback for the Navy that thrilled environmental advocates. But the debate may not be over.
Since Goldmark sent his letter, state officials and the Navy have continued talking. The training is considered too important for the Growlers on Whidbey Island for the Navy to entirely drop its request of both federal and state forests.
“I encouraged (the Navy) to not let the discussion stop there,” Gov. Jay Inslee told The News Tribune. “It seemed to me there needed to be further discussions.”
He wants the Navy to “exercise the nth degree of energy and resources to objectively and scientifically assess the noise concerns associated with the operations,” figuring that people are concerned that EA-18 jets may noisily disrupt the Olympic forests.
IN THE AIR
Naval Air Station Whidbey Island these days is abuzz with the sound of construction and the roar of powerful EA-18 Growler jets taking off from the runway at Ault Field.
Those jets first arrived in 2008, replacing Prowler jets that had conducted electronic warfare operations since the 1970s.
Soon they’ll be joined by another batch of new aircraft, the Boeing-made P-8A Poseidon surveillance jets. Whidbey Island is in line to become the West Coast hub for those planes, which are variations of 737 passenger jets.
Whidbey Island also is picking up an unmanned aircraft assignment. It’ll be the home base for naval pilots remotely flying the Triton, an unarmed drone that could complement the Poseidon’s far-reaching patrols.
The combination of those two new aircraft plus the drone mission has Whidbey Island boosters feeling optimistic about the Navy’s future in the Northwest. The base employs about 8,500 sailors and 2,000 civilians.
“The future of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is set for a long time,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen of Everett. “The Navy has recognized the community support it has there, and it has recognized that the base itself is a good homeport for the next generation of their aircraft.”
Yet some residents are up in arms about noise generated by the Growlers. They’re basically the same plane as FA-18 fighter jets, except they’re equipped with gear to detect and disrupt enemy communications instead of being equipped with the FA-18’s small arsenal of rockets and bombs.
“I feel like I’m being killed by noise,” wrote Coupeville resident Maryon Attwood, 67, in a declaration for a lawsuit that aims to shut down a short runway near her home that the Navy uses to simulate landings on aircraft carriers.
She and her husband, a former Navy pilot, bought their home a decade ago, before the Navy stationed Growler jets on Whidbey Island.
Now, “when the Growlers are here, I can’t go outside, can’t talk on the phone and can’t do business,” she wrote.
She and her partners in the lawsuit have already scored some victories since they filed it in 2013. The Navy has limited its use of the Coupeville runway after spending several years carrying out thousands more flights than described in its original environmental planning document.
The Navy also is paying close attention to noise in another study that could lead to as many as 36 more Growlers stationed at the base. That study should be complete in 2017.
Around Whidbey Island, many residents are fairly unsympathetic to concerns expressed by the environmental group. Online comments on stories about their lawsuit at The Whidbey News-Times show many residents think people with noise complaints shouldn’t have bought homes near a Navy runway in use since the 1960s.
“We have a lot of veterans on the island. There is a population who lives near the runway who have concerns about noise. I would have concerns about noise, but I wouldn’t buy near the runway,” said Ron Nelson, an Air Force veteran and director of the Island County Economic Development Council.
The Navy is in line to add a few new ships to its Puget Sound bases, but its biggest projects are intended to squeeze more life out of its submarines and the nuclear missiles they carry.
The service is in the final stages of what has long been the state’s most expensive military construction project: an additional wharf at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor that will give sailors more time to do maintenance and handle weapons on the eight Trident submarines that port there.
Congress set aside $715 million for wharf, agreeing to build it because maintenance on Bangor’s first explosives wharf was reducing its availability for the fleet. Also, aging Trident missiles are requiring more time at home for maintenance, testing and upgrades.
But the Navy is still in court defending itself against a lawsuit that accuses the military of withholding key information from the public. The information centers on a 2012 environmental study that considered the possible impacts of building a second missile-handling facility at Bangor.
In particular, anti-nuclear activist Glen Milner obtained records through the Freedom of Information Act that showed the Navy declined to follow a 2012 recommendation from the Defense Department Explosives Safety Board to study what would happen if an explosion at one dock triggered a detonation at a second.
An assistant secretary of the Navy determined the project could go forward without the additional data, accepting “risk greater than that afforded by the minimum explosives safety standards” because of Navy operational needs, according to the secretary’s letter.
Navy officials also maintain that the new wharf complies with Pentagon standards and that the military has taken steps to limit the damage of a potential explosion.
The Navy won the first round of the federal lawsuit in January 2014, when a judge dismissed Milner’s case. He submitted it to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where it might be heard later this year, his attorney said.
Milner, a Kitsap Peninsula resident, hopes the case leads judges to compel the Navy to spell out any additional risk the wharf may present and to address it with additional safeguards.
“The greater the risk, the less likely they are to tell the citizens and the public about it,” said Milner, who has been using FOIA requests to obtain information about Navy weapons in the Puget Sound region since the 1980s.
Two more Navy development proposals would bring new piers to Port Angeles and Hood Canal.
The Port Angeles pier is intended to give the Coast Guard a safe place to dock ships that escort submarines on their way to Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.
Back at Bangor, the Navy wants to build a barrier in Hood Canal to tighten security and to extend a pier that would allow it to move two attack submarines from a different location in Puget Sound to join the main fleet.
To the Navy, the projects are essential investments in its only West Coast base that has Trident nuclear weapons.
But some residents will continue pushing back.
“They’re industrializing the Hood Canal. They just keep building,” Milner said.
Around the state, political leaders are looking for ways to balance environmental concerns about the Navy’s proposals while protecting the military from restrictions on training that would drive it out of the Northwest.
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson is trying to coax the Navy to communicate more often with residents around Coupeville who’ve been startled by the Growlers.
“Longtime residents who are very supportive of the military are struggling with the platform because the physical experience is quite different (than the Prowlers that preceded the new jets),” she said. “I just hope that we find a way to meet the community’s need and the military’s.”
In the nation’s capital, Rep. Larsen has been urging the Navy to look for adjustments in flight practices that might make the Growlers quieter. One change led to pilots dropping their landing gear later on their approach to Coupeville, which led to a reduction in noise complaints from residents on the San Juan Islands. Larsen also is asking the Navy to build a facility at the air station that would muffle jet noise during engine testing on the ground.
“We want to do that consistently with safety requirements, but also challenge the Navy to think more about operational changes they can make,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, meanwhile, is pressing the government to conduct more studies on jet noise over the Olympics. The Gig Harbor Democrat’s district includes both the Bangor submarine base and the stretch of national forest where the Navy wants to enhance electronic warfare training.
He’s been critical of the Navy’s public outreach on the projects, suggesting the Navy could have won more support by engaging residents more frequently.
“The projects where they have incorporated public comments are better projects,” he said.