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Environmentalists to battle Navy proposal on Whidbey

March 26th, 2009

 

Environmentalists to battle Navy proposal

By Justin Burnett

Examiner Staff Writer

Whidbey Island environmental groups opposed to the Navy’s plan to expand its Northwest training operations say they will take their objections to the highest levels of government.

 

Representatives from Orca Network and the Whidbey Environmental Action Network have agreed to team up and send their comments not only to Gov. Christine Gregoire and Washington‘s Congressional delegation, but also to President Barack Obama.

 

“I think we need to kick it right to the top,” said Howard Garrett, president of Orca Network’s board of directors.

WEAN cofounder Marianne Edain said attracting presidential or congressional attention may be a long shot, but could end up being worth it. She pointed out that the Navy answers to both branches of government.

 

“The president and Congress have ultimate power over the military,” she said.

The Navy is planning to expand operations in its Northwest Training Range Complex, an area encompassing about 122,400 nautical miles of air, surface and subsurface space stretching from Washington to northern California. The complex has been in use since World War II.

 

The proposal, which ranges from increasing missile and sonar testing to dumping depleted uranium, has attracted the attention of more than just local environmentalist groups.

Following federal Environmental Policy Act requirements, the Navy prepared an environmental impact statement to examine how the expansion might affect wildlife and the environment. The Navy held six public hearings on the matter and accepted public comment from late December to mid-February.

 

But as concern over the plan began to grow, and more people learned about it, an increasing number of people complained that the public comment period was too short for a document of more than 1,000 pages. Even large, well-informed environmental groups such as People for Puget Sound said they felt caught off guard by the Navy’s proposal.

 

Although the Navy extended the comment period to mid-February, complaints in Oregon spurred six of the state’s seven-member Congressional delegation to send a letter to Navy Secretary Donald Winter requesting another extension of the comment period.

 

Navy Environmental Public Affairs Officer Sheila Murray the Navy has extended the comment deadline three times – a first for the Navy.

“This is unprecedented,” she said. “The Navy has never done this before.”

 

Murray said the Navy’s willingness to extend the deadline has been based primarily on the public interest generated by the plan. The new deadline is set for April 13. So far, more than 1,000 comments have been submitted.

 

That includes a 59-page document submitted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental watchdog group. The NRDC document was endorsed by 20 other national and local groups that are against the Navy’s plan.

 

According to Heather Trim of People for Puget Sound, the environmental impact statement does not adequately address potential impacts to Puget Sound. 

“This is an area that’s already stressed,” Trim said.

 

The Navy’s increased activities could have serious implications on endangered species in the region, such as salmon and orca whales. That makes the Navy’s proposal more than just a local issue, she said.

“It really has national implications.” Trim said.

Garrett agreed, noting that the proposed training activities could cause significant harm to orca populations. He said that he appreciates the Navy’s need to train and be prepared, but he does not believe it should come at the price of the environment.

 

“It’s a clear case of social values that are in conflict,” he said.

Garrett said his hope is that the Obama administration shares his outlook, and will place a higher priority on the environment and resolving international conflict through diplomacy than on the military.

 

While the impact statement will be reviewed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, Murray said the assistant secretary of the Navy makes the final decision as to whether to proceed with the training expansion proposal. The decision is expected sometime this fall.

 

Comments can be mailed to Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest, Attn: Kimberly Kler, 1101 Tautog Circle, Silverdale, WA 98315-1101. Submit comments online at www.nwtrangecomplexeis.com. The deadline is April 13.

 

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