Flood of public comments pushes back Navy plans for electronic warfare testing on Peninsula

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGAELES — A flood of public comments has pushed back the Navy's target date for an $11.5 million expansion of electronic-warfare range activities on the Olympic Peninsula from September to early 2016.

The U.S. Forest Service, which had said a decision on a Navy request for a permit would be made by September, is hiring a third-party contractor to handle the 3,314 comments it received in response to the Navy's special-use permit application.

That will push the Forest Service decision to early 2016, agency spokesman Glen Sachet said last week.

The application is to deploy three mobile, camper-sized electromagnetic transmitters on 12 Olympic National Forest logging roads in Clallam and Jefferson counties and Grays Harbor County.

The transmitters would interact with EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft that are stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

After unveiling the project late last year with little public notice, Navy officials said they wanted to begin the deployment this September.

“That was the initial timeline,” Navy spokeswoman Liane Nakahara said last week of the September goal.

“As with all projected timelines, things do change.”

Sachet said the comments have not been fully analyzed for the Forest Service's responses.

After a draft decision on the permits is reached later this year, there must be another 45-day objection period for those who have previously commented, pushing the final decision on the permit to early 2016, Sachet said.

“That's what's taken the extra time: the number of comments and understanding how big a job that's going to be to analyze those comments,” he said.

“What we are doing is, we are arranging with a third-party contractor to do that content analysis.”

The Navy originally said it also would seek a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for three sites on state land in West Jefferson County.

Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands, said this past spring that DNR isn't interested in allowing its land to be used for electronic warfare training.

His senior adviser, Matthew Randazzo, said noise was among the DNR's concerns.

Nakahara said last week the Navy is still studying whether to apply for the DNR permits.

Navy aircraft already conduct internal simulated targeting exercises over the North Olympic Peninsula.

The Navy has said it would increase the 1,200 annual jet overflights in the Olympic Military Operations Areas A and B by up to 10 percent, with aircraft flying at an altitude of 10,000 to 35,000 feet.

The comment period on the project, which sparked vigorous criticism at public meetings over jet noise and potential dangers of electromagnetic radiation, was extended twice, the second time to Nov. 28.

Sachet said he did not know if every one of the more than 3,000 commenters would receive responses or if their concerns would be grouped into similar categories with single responses and presented in a single document.

“Our staff in the Olympic National Forest has been in conversations with appropriate staff in the Navy about the process,” he said.

Sachet said he did not know how much the contract to analyze the comments will cost or whether the Forest Service or Navy will pay for it.

“We routinely ask for, and in many cases require, special-use permit applicants to fund, through an agreement, the cost of processing their applications,” he said.

A September 2014 Navy environmental assessment found no significant impacts from the project on noise, public health and safety, biological resources, air quality and visual resources in Olympic National Forest, which surrounds most of Olympic National Park.

The project has garnered little support.

In November, following a raucous public meeting on the proposal at City Hall, Dean Millett, Pacific District ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, estimated that 90 percent of the 1,700 comments received by that point appeared to be against the project.

Millett, who referred inquiries last week to Forest Service public affairs, will make the draft decision.

He said after the November meeting that he would not make that final decision until “pretty deep into 2015.”

In September, Millett issued a preliminary decision in which he agreed with the Navy's finding that the project did not have a significant impact on noise, public health and safety, biological resources, air quality and visual resources in Olympic National Forest.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, whose 6th District includes Clallam and Jefferson counties and Grays Harbor County, asked in a letter to the Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise that the committee conduct a study of impact on Navy jet noise over Olympic National Park in light of “the potential for increased noise.”

“I want the government to use the latest science to ensure the soundscape and environment of this iconic landscape is protected and respected,” the Gig Harbor Democrat and Port Angeles native said in the correspondence.

The Navy has 82 carrier-based EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft that are stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island that already overfly the North Olympic Peninsula.

The Navy has proposed adding up to 36 additional Growler jets.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: May 17. 2015 8:08AM
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