State public lands commissioner calls for more study on Navy electronic warfare range plan

By PAUL GOTTLIEB
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES — The Navy should rethink its proposed expansion of activities in its electronic warfare range in light of potential impacts on the threatened marbled murrelet and a deluge of comments against the plan, said Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands.

Goldmark, who manages the state Department of Natural Resources, said last week that the Navy's 2010 environmental impact statement on the effects of jet noise on the seabird listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act did not go far enough.

He called for an in-depth assessment in concert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the impacts of noise pollution on the murrelet and other endangered species, which inhabit both Olympic National Forest and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) land.

The Navy has applied for U.S. Forest Service permits for use, by three electromagnetic emitter trucks, of 12 roads in Olympic National Forest and is considering applications for use of three DNR roads.

The trucks, while parking in what the Navy says are remote areas, would allow virtual targeting exercises to be conducted with Naval Air Station Whidbey Island aircraft.

DNR already has said it is not interested in participating in the project but that it would process a Navy application if one is made.

The Navy has a vastly different take on the project than Goldmark.

“The change is three trucks in the forest that are barely louder than my dishwasher,” Navy Region Northwest spokesman Chris Haley said Friday.

“Why would we think there is more analysis that needs to be done, when there is no impact?”

High amount of input

Goldmark also emphasized the number of comments and outright complaints his agency has received about the proposal.

Forest Service officials have said comments about using national forest land also are overwhelmingly against the plan.

“In terms of percentage of population base, it's almost higher than anything else I've been engaged on,” Goldmark said of the hundreds of comments DNR has received.

“We need to see that [review] in some kind of environmental assessment and make sure the Navy goes through a rigorous process to make sure it does not have an impact.

“I'm just concerned about noise.

“The engagement of the public and the possibility of affecting an [Endangered Species Act] species would speak to the needs.

“It would be helpful to the Navy to be completely transparent with the public and Forest Service in the form of an EIS [environmental impact statement].”

Warfare range flights already occur in the Navy's two Military Operations Areas (MOAs) on the west ends of Clallam and Jefferson counties, but without coordination with ground-based emitters.

Goldmark said a 2014 environmental assessment of the emitter-truck deployment, which could increase NAS Whidbey flights over the electronic warfare range by up to 10 percent, did not go far enough.

The environmental assessment will not be followed by an EIS, Haley said.

The Navy is already reviewing a separate proposal to add up to 36 EA-18G Growler jets to the 82 currently based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

They could fly as low at 6,000 feet above the marbled murrelet's critical habitat while conducting simulated targeting exercises with the emitter trucks.

But the optimum level for the exercises is above 15,000 feet, according to Navy officials.

If the warfare-range project is approved, flights would increase up to one more a day, Haley said.

“If current analysis indicates that existing flights have no impact on the marbled murrelet, one additional flight is not going to have an additional impact on the marbled murrelet,” he said.

The murrelet's critical habitat is spread throughout the MOAs and covers about half the overall operations area.

The 2014 assessment is based on a 2010 environmental impact statement on the Navy's Northwest Training Range Complex, which includes the MOAs.

Noise impacts

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed noise impacts on the murrelets as part of that review.

“Periods of elevated noise levels would be brief, and repeated exposures over a short period of time would be unlikely,” according to the EIS.

“Most sound exposure levels would be lower than 97 [decibels] because overflights would occur above 3,000 feet.”

According to the Temple University Department of Civil/Environmental Engineering, 100 decibels produces sound equal to outboard motors, lawn mowers, motorcycles and jack hammers.

“The [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] biological opinion for the proposed action concludes that marbled murrelets affected by airborne overflight noise and potential aircraft strike from Navy training at 3,200 feet [above ground level] over the Olympic Peninsula is considered to be insignificant,” according to the EIS.

Haley said Navy aircraft fly higher than 3,200 feet above ground level.

“Responses would be short-term behavioral or physiological reactions, and the general health of individual marbled murrelets would not be compromised,” the EIS says.

“Further, murrelets are likely to habituate to in-air sounds.

“As a result, [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] expects murrelets will generally continue to forage within lower-intensity sound fields as a learned response to the stimulus.

“Disruptive effect to murrelets from the Navy's marine-based training is expected to be insignificant, and murrelets are expected to resume their loafing, breeding and foraging behavior.”

Goldmark said his agency did not comment on the impacts on the murrelet that were outlined in the EIS.

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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: June 07. 2015 12:06AM
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