By Kathryn Wheeler
Environmentalists were delivered a long-awaited win on Aug. 2 in the case of the Navy vs. The State of Washington, halting the expansion of the Whidbey Base Navy’s Growler jet training program. Judge Richard Jones fully sided with the plaintiffs, stating the Navy could not move forward with the addition of 36 new warfare jets, and hundreds of thousands of more flights until they more fully considered the consequences of the jets’ loud presence in nearby fly-over regions.
Prior to the 2022 ruling, Judge J.F. Richard Creatura, Chief Magistrate for the Western District of Washington, described the Navy’s use of certain statistics and careful omission of others, in his 2021 report as:
“…to borrow the words of noted sports analyst Vin Scully, the Navy appears to have used certain statistics “much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.”
The 2021 matter Creatura presided over led to the Aug. 2 decision by Judge Jones.
In response to Cretura’s ruling, Lopez Island’s Quiet Skies founder Cynthia Dilling stated, “This is the first time we’ve really been heard, and it’s only taken 30 years.”
This small group on Lopez Island has been bringing awareness to the negative effects of the consistent, loud presence of the jets since 2015. Part of this effort has been the collection of thousands of noise reports from citizens. In one 2022 report, a community member described the jet’s noises as “shaking thunder” and “war sounds.” Another resident stated that during a fly-over while kayaking in Port Susan, her eight-year-old grandson “Looked at me worried and yelled ‘Nana are we safe?’”
Low-flying Growler jets – categorized as “electronic warfare aircrafts” by the Navy – emit sounds as high as 80-130 decibels (dB), a level described by the CDC as harmful to hearing, particularly during repeated exposure. The characteristically loud jets take off and land at the Naval Base on Whidbey Island, Ault field, and NOLF Landing Field in Coupeville, and fly over the Salish Sea, Puget Sound, and the Olympic Peninsula, areas known for their wildlife and abundant natural spaces.
Dilling began monitoring the sound levels of overpassing jets in the early 90’s when the noise around her residence in the southern part of Lopez increased, becoming more intrusive. This monitoring continued on with Quiet Skies, which now has over 350 people islanders engaged, according to Christine Kerlin, a long-time member who collects data for the group. Chris Greacen, another central member of the group, stated that “Our reports are designed to draw the human impact.” He emphasized the vastly overlooked, and often unmentioned consequences of the sounds, vibrations, and pollution on human lives emitted from the jets. Quiet Skies has now collected and submitted thousands of these reports in the hope of getting lawmakers and the Navy to see the severity of the problem.
These reports are also sent to the Sound Defense Alliance, a larger organization that, according to its mission statement, “works to protect communities and the natural environment from harmful military activity” around the Salish Sea, Puget Sound, and the Olympic Peninsula.” According to their website, the group brings together citizen and regional community groups, nonprofits, state officials, state agencies, and local elected officials. The Sound Defense Alliance has become an organizer for the many separate groups arguing for the same goal: to bring awareness to, and ultimately reduce the impacts of the jets on their local community.
When the Navy came out with a plan in 2019 to expand flight operations that would result in a four-fold increase in noise and greenhouse gas emissions, the Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve, a group among the SDA, mobilized. In reading the Navy’s 200,000 Environmental Impact statement – a document necessary for any federal agency introducing new infrastructure that may impact a human environment – they found that the Navy vastly underreported the impact of the jets on humans and wildlife, using inaccurate metrics and data, and omitting key information. The fraught EIS gave COER a strong basis for a lawsuit. The group quickly garnered the support of Washington State Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, who in 2021 jointly filed a lawsuit that claimed that the Navy’s EIS was not adequate to safely allow for their proposed expansion.
In his December 2021 decision, which led to the denial of the Navy’s proposal this past August, Magistrate Creatura sided with the plaintiffs, stating that the Navy had failed to examine potential relocation areas for the jets, the impacts on learning for school children in fly-over zones, adequately consider noise impacts on bird species, and the true fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of the jets. This negation of facts meant that the Navy’s EIS did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, and therefore had to be redone.
Since the Aug. 2 ruling, the involved parties had thirty days to negotiate an interim remedy that will go into place while a new EIS is created by the Navy. In discussions, COER has offered two proposals thus far for implementation by the Navy: to revert Growler use back to previous lower levels and to share flying information that will help residents avoid sound exposure in high-frequency fly-over areas. According to the Sound Defense Alliance’s reporting, Robert Wilbur of COER stated, “The only response from the Navy has been along the lines of, ‘We’ll get back to you on that.” The Navy refused to answer calls about the case for this article. There has been no information publicly released on the final result of such discussions.
When asked what’s next for Quiet Skies, core member Christine Kerlin stated, “We’ll just keep collecting data and bringing it to legislatures.”
The group showed no indication of slowing down their efforts so long as the Navy continues to conduct its dozens of fly-overs, day and night. For more information on Quiet Skies, or to submit a noise report, visit: https://www.quietskies.info/home.