The Navy’s loud EA-18G aircraft — also known as Growlers — have been a source of irritation for many Lopezians for nearly a decade. Now, Sound Defense Alliance is reaching out to residents around Puget Sound affected by the United States Navy’s presence in the region.
Quiet Skies Over San Juan County and the Sound Defense Alliance held a digital outreach meeting via Zoom on Sept. 30, drawing more than 40 participants.
“We are creating gatherings like this one across the region,” Sound Defense Alliance Board Chairperson Anne Harvey said. “This is all part of our work across the region. It is really important to us to be connecting with people.”
Noisy aircraft began being a concern for the island communities in the 1970s with the EA-6B Prowler, according to Quiet Skies member and Lopezian Brian Silverstein. He said when concerned citizens first approached the Station Commander at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island about the noise, they were asked, “Why don’t you just move?” That question cost the commander his job, Silverstein explained, and prompted Lopezians to organize.
Then, in 2012, the Navy announced the Growler would be moving in, Silverstein said. The EA-18G Growler is a carrier-based electronic warfare aircraft and is a specialized version of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet.
In 2016, the Navy began exploring the potential addition of 36 more Growlers to NAS Whidbey Island, and in 2019, that addition was approved. This would bring the total number of EA-18Gs on Whidbey to 112.
Harvey lives in Coupeville, directly under the Growler flight pattern out of NAS Whidbey Island’s training facility Outlying Landing Field (OLF). She’s a self-described devoted lifelong learner.
“So learning about these growlers has been really important to me,” Harvey said.
Sound Defense Alliance is a coalition of groups and individuals working to restore balance, Harvey explained. Its mission is to work to defend communities and the natural environment from the harmful impact of military activity.
With the United States Department of Defense’s decision to expand the Growler operations by 44 percent, Harvey said military leadership ignored the more than 4,000 comments on the draft environmental impact survey decrying deafening noise, poisoned air, and water and harm to marine, land and air animals.
“We are in this fight for the long haul and we’re glad you’re with us, too,” Harvey said.
According to presenter Larry Morrell, who lives in Port Townsend, the Navy owns 150 growlers. NAS Whidbey is home to two categories of squadrons that train with the aircraft, which causes the most disruption to the area. A third squadron is land-based and since it does not land on aircraft carriers, it doesn’t require the carrier landing practice the other two do, Morrell explained.
Another form of training the Sound Defense Alliance is working to reduce or eliminate is the electronic warfare training, which the pilots out of NAS Whidbey Island practice over the Olympic Peninsula.
If several of these planes are returning to Ault Field, located at NAS Whidbey Island, they’ll fly in a holding pattern located above parts of Blakley, Decatur, Lopez, Orcas and Shaw islands, Morrell explained.
“You’ll see more and more aircraft going farther and farther north as they’re returning to Ault field,” Morrell said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
One of the main complaints made about the Growler operations is that the Navy’s noise data is based on models, not real data, according to Christine Hurley, who works for the University of Washington School of Public Health. She and fellow UW faculty member research scientist Lauren Kuehne conducted their own noise monitoring study to compare against the Navy’s alleged upcoming efforts.
“A lot of what the Navy’s modeled has never been tested,” Hurley said. “It’ll be fun to see how those things compare. I don’t expect things to be dramatically different.”
The project measured real noise levels in 12 areas, like residential neighborhoods and popular recreational locations, to compare against Navy data and reports the Sound Defense Alliance has received. Hurley noted that according to the Navy’s sound contour map, the San Juan Islands aren’t affected by the Growler noise.
“Officially, by the Navy’s estimate, you really shouldn’t be hearing much,” Hurley said.
The goal of the study, Hurley said, is to find out how the sound is really affecting the area around NAS Whidbey Island and understand how that compares to the Navy’s models. She added it will also allow levels to be compared to worldwide studies of how sounds affect health and stress. The noise airbase neighbors’ experience is, “high intensity, intermittent and impulsive,” she said.
“Makes it sound very dramatic,” Hurley joked.
Hurley said they hope to have the study concluded in the next couple of weeks.
“We’re honestly interested in looking at, really, what impact does the noise have?” Hurley said, adding they’re not just concerned with how loud the jets are but how it affects those who live in the area and are subject to the noise.
“When the growlers first announced to be growing it became clear to me that this was something that was bad for our community in a lot of ways,” Hurley said. “It’s been an interesting adventure.”
If someone in the community feels the call of being a secret data nerd, Hurley said their study is looking for people to help with analysis.
“If you like playing with data … we’re interested in a few special people who might want to help us with data analysis,” Hurley said.
Christine Kerlin, who lives on Lopez and is a member of Quiet Skies Over San Juan County, noted anyone who hears the jets can report the occurrence on San Juan County’s website, https://bit.ly/3l4E191.
“The more accurate you can be, the better,” Kerlin said. She added that comments are very helpful including how loud, the location and the effect the noise had on the reporting party.
“Since we started enabling folks outside of SJC to enter data, we’ve gotten more and more reports from outside of SJC and we are not counting them,” Kerlin said.
It was noted that complainants should also report directly to the Navy line by calling 360-257-6665 or by emailing comments to NASWI@navy.mil.
Maryon Attwood said she was forced out of her home by the jet noise, having lived under the path of flights in and out of OLF. She’s an active member of both Sound Defense Alliance and Whidbey Island’s Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve, which is leading the litigation against the Navy regarding the Growlers.
“I’ve been at this for a few years,” Attwood said. “We have made, I think, a lot of progress.”
Attwood noted both of the groups she’s a part of want people to understand the issues surrounding the growlers and work toward developing relationships with political leaders who can help advocate for the community. The current priority for both groups, she said, is ensuring the Navy does the real-time noise monitoring study it promised to start this fall.
“The Navy has done an excellent job of dragging their feet,” Attwood said.
Building a good relationship with political leadership, especially those in Congress, is important because Congress oversees the Navy, Attwood explained.
“There’s only one boss over the Navy and that’s the United States Congress, so they do have to do what Congress tells them to do,” Attwood said. “We’re working hard to make that happen.”
There are various lawsuits currently, Attwood explained. She said there is a preliminary injunction to stop the flying of the jets until an active National Environmental Policy Act case has been heard. A judge has to rule on this before any other litigation can progress, Attwood said.
“We’re kind of in limbo waiting for the judge to make a decision about the preliminary injunction,” she said.
Both Washington state and COER brought NEPA lawsuits against the Navy regarding the Growlers and COER filed the preliminary injunction in early 2020, Attwood said. Other active lawsuits about the growlers include those from homeowners asking for compensation for damage done to property values. Additionally, the state is threatening to sue over the Navy’s recently-concluded Environmental Impact Survey which contains plans which could harm the endangered Southern resident orcas.
“All of these lawsuits are an essential part of the long term fight of bringing the Navy back under a more balanced and civil control,” Attwood said.
For more information about Sound Defense Alliance visit https://sounddefensealliance.org/. To learn more about Quiet Skies Over San Juan County, visit https://www.quietskies.info/.