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An EA-18G Growler taxis toward the runway at Ault Field as a P3C Orion performs a low approach on March 29, 2019.
An EA-18G Growler taxis toward the runway at Ault Field as a P3C Orion performs a low approach on March 29, 2019. (Paul Seeber/U.S. Navy)

WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — A U.S. federal magistrate has found that the Navy in an environmental impact statement "turned a blind" eye to data that did not support the goal of increasing Growler jet operations from an air station at Whidbey Island.

Chief Magistrate Judge J. Richard Creatura, in a sometimes scathing 38-page report filed in U.S. District Court this month, found the Navy failed to disclose the basis for greenhouse gas calculations from the jets, and failed to quantify the impacts of the noisy, often low-flying EA-18G Growlers on classroom learning.

Creatura also noted shortcoming in the Navy's assessments of specific impacts on birds and also concluded there should have been more detailed analysis of siting additional Growler aircraft at an alternate site in El Centro, Calif.

The report was requested by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones, who will review it before making a ruling on two lawsuits — one filed by Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and another by Citizens of Ebey's Reserve — that allege Navy shortcomings in the study violated the federal National Environmental Policy Act.

"The bottom line is when the Navy makes up its mind before considering the facts, it leads to bad decision-making," said Bill Sherman, an assistant state attorney general and chief of the environmental protection division.

A spokesperson for Naval Air Station Whidbey Island declined to comment on the report and referred questions to the Justice Department.

All the litigants will have a chance to respond to Creatura's report, which recommended the district court find the study did violate federal law. Jones will issue a ruling, which can accept, modify or reject Creatura's recommendation, according to Sherman.

If Jones finds the Navy's environmental impact statement is deficient, then the Navy likely would have to do additional impact reviews in the areas that he cites in his ruling.

Citizens of Ebey's Reserve also would want to discuss how much training the Navy could conduct while a new environmental impact statement is developed, according to a statement released by the group.

The federal lawsuits by the state attorney general and Citizens of Ebey's Reserve made numerous challenges to the findings of the federally required environmental impact statement finalized in 2018. The Navy used the document to support the addition of 36 Growlers to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. Along with more aircraft, the expansion includes greatly increased numbers of low-flying training exercises that attempt to simulate landings on an aircraft carrier.

In a state that has long hosted military bases, and welcomed billions of dollars of Defense Department spending, the lawsuit filed by Ferguson marked a rare court challenge by state leaders of a Pentagon decision.

The state's lawsuit was cheered by Whidbey Island opponents of the Growler expansion, many of whom have been upset by the noise and concerned about health and wildlife impacts.

The state's move angered Navy supporters on an island where the air station is a big employer and economic force.

Creatura, in his report, rejected some of the plaintiffs' allegations of flaws in the Navy environmental review.

But Creatura agreed with four significant claims of shortfall in the review, and disparaged some of the Navy's work. Borrowing a phrase from sport analyst Vin Scully, he said, "the Navy appears to have used certain statistics 'much like a drunk used a lamppost: for support, not illumination.'"

(c)2021 The Seattle Times

Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com

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