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Washington state officials weigh in on lawsuit against Navy

Two EA-18G Growlers from squadron VAQ-136 taxi toward the runway at Whidbey Island, Wash., as they prepare to take off.

PAUL SEEBER/U.S. NAVY

By BRANDON STONE | Skagit Valley Herald | Published: July 31, 2019

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — Washington state officials are weighing in on a lawsuit filed by the attorney general against the Navy over its plans for expansion at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

In a letter to state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns condemned the lawsuit, calling it an irresponsible waste of resources and unjustifiable to the majority of his constituents.

Severns, who has served four years as mayor, said he believes the public understands the importance of the Navy's mission, and values it above the additional noise that will be caused by expansion.

Ferguson's suit comes after the Navy released plans in March to add 36 EA-18G Growler jets at NAS Whidbey Island, increasing aircraft activity at Outlying Field Coupeville from 90 to 360 hours, or about 100,000 takeoffs and landings each year.

Ferguson alleges that in its review process the Navy failed to adequately measure impacts to public health and to wildlife as a result of the additional noise, according to a news release from his office.

The Navy does not comment on pending litigation, according to reporting by The Associated Press.

Severns said if the state truly took issue with the Navy's Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, the state could have asked these questions during the six years the Navy spent conducting its studies.

Severns said NAS Whidbey is the largest employer in his county, and is integral to the regional economy. The lawsuit, he said, is a threat to the Navy's continued growth, and potentially to its presence on Whidbey Island.

"Your action could also adversely affect future Navy decisions, which could cripple the economy in our Pacific Northwest and leave us without the protection and support that we value as a community and a state," he wrote in his letter to Ferguson.

When he first ran for Oak Harbor City Council six years ago, Severns said he ran an extensive door-to-door campaign.

"Our goal was to knock on every door in Oak Harbor, and we pretty much did," he said.

He said he spoke favorably about the Navy, and none of the voters he spoke with disagreed with him, leading him to believe his constituents aren't bothered by the noise these jets create.

Helen Price Johnson, an Island County commissioner, said she's frustrated by the rhetoric around this lawsuit, and what it's actually alleging.

"This isn't a question of whether we support the Navy," she said, adding that NAS Whidbey is a vital part of Island County. "It's a question about process."

Even if the state's lawsuit is successful, it shouldn't threaten the Navy's plans for growth here, she said. It would merely require the Navy to perform a more detailed review of the potential environmental and health effects.

"All (it is) doing is making the Navy follow the rules like any other agency," she said.

She's long been a supporter of real-time noise monitoring, she said, which would be much more useful than the average noise level data the Navy provided.

With regards to the noise, she said it makes sense that most residents aren't too bothered by it because they don't live in the flight path.

"If you happen to be in that path, it's like living near an aircraft carrier," she said.

Her colleague, Commissioner Jill Johnson, opposes the suit.

If the lawsuit keeps the Navy from growing here, it will have to grow elsewhere, she said. Because the base is vital to about 70 percent of the county's economy, she said that will have disastrous effects on the region.

"What health impacts outweigh the impacts of people losing their jobs?" she said.

"The planes can be irritating, but the mission is of a much higher value to everyone I talk to," she said, adding that the dissenters are a vocal minority.

She accused Ferguson of making a political decision, saying he chose to get involved in this issue to appeal to potential donors in a bid for governor next year.

"Pandering isn't something we should respect," she said.

©2019 Skagit Valley Herald (Mount Vernon, Wash.)
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