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How Much Noise Can a Person Survive? Navy Jets Plague the Lives of Washington Residents

The loudest jets ever built fly so close to Puget Sound that residents’ dishes rattle and they become physically ill.

Imagine living in a place where the loudest jets ever built regularly flew so close, your entire house vibrated, dishes rattled and fell off shelves, and the noise was so loud you became physically ill.

Your sleep was impacted, you couldn’t work, and literally every single aspect of your life was affected negatively.

“The noise has impacted my life in every conceivable way,” Cate Andrews told Truthout.

She lives in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, near Naval Air Station Whidbey on Whidbey Island. Along with thousands of others there and other islands and locations throughout the Sound, Andrews is afflicted by health-endangering levels of noise from Naval EA-18G “Growler” warplanes, the single loudest aircraft ever built.

“I spend on average six hours per day at the computer answering hot line calls, emails and doing research on the impact of this low-vibration frequency noise on the body, and what the mechanics really are in creating the breakdown of bodily organs,” she explained, having decided that taking an active role in informing the public was one thing she needed to do in her efforts to deal with the crisis.

Cynthia Dilling lives on Lopez Island, which is heavily impacted by the noise from Naval warplanes. She has been struggling for more than 20 years with the Navy on this issue. While in the past she had some success — the Navy even rerouted some flight paths — when the Growler fleet arrived at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, the noise was bad enough that she questioned if she should leave the area entirely.

“We are now living on military time,” she told Truthout. “The morning blasts often wake us up. We take off our noise canceling head phones when the Growlers take breaks. We try to time our walks and gardening outside between their scheduled training. When the Growlers stop at night we can finally relax and perhaps sleep.”

The US EPA defines noise as an “unwanted or disturbing sound.” Sound becomes “unwanted” when it interferes with normal life activities, such as sleeping and communicating, as well as when it disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life.

The EPA sets community noise standards at 70dBA. Washington State has stricter standards and lists the maximum allowable noise in a residential setting at 55dBA, with the limit going down to 45dBA between 10 pm and 7 am.

To provide an idea of relative loudness of sounds: A vacuum cleaner is 70 decibels, heavy truck traffic is around 80 decibels, a chainsaw is 90 decibels, and being within approximately 100 feet of a jet engine is 140 decibels. Exposure to 140 decibels may cause immediate and permanent hearing damage or loss, as well as bleeding from the ears.

But the Navy’s warplanes are regularly exposing US citizens living and working underneath their flight patterns to levels of more than 80dBA in their homes, and even more than 130dBA on their porches.

And according to dozens of residents Truthout has spoken with, the Navy is doing next to nothing to remedy the situation, despite thousands of complaints and requests emanating from in excess of 10,000 people whose lives are being impacted by the noise.

A “Public Health Emergency”

“Without warning on February 17, 2016, around noon, I experienced a severe noise disturbance that was so invasive, I had to evacuate the house,” another Whidbey Island resident, Ann Amberg, told Truthout.

She was in her home beginning an online work meeting when the jet noise rattled her home. “The roar was so loud and intense I could not continue my work. The house was vibrating, and dishes were rattling in the china cabinet.”

As the warplane continuously circled overhead (they regularly do “touch and go” landing and take-off exercises at an outlying runway south of their air station), Amberg noticed her heart rate increasing rapidly.

Despite attempts to mitigate the noise by wearing both earplugs and headphones, with her hands over the headphones, “I felt panicky and I was concerned I might have a stroke or heart attack, and I could not function,” said Amberg. “My breathing was close to hyperventilating. I was not able to attend my work meeting. I gathered my computer and fled to my car and drove quickly south to escape the flight path. I felt attacked, as in wartime.”

Amberg described having to move out of the house, and feeling “physically and psychosomatically traumatized and destabilized, with no recourse.”

While this might sound extreme to someone who has not experienced these levels of noise pollution, Amberg and Andrews’ reactions are normal human survival responses to someone whose well-being is, quite literally, under threat.

“This is a public health emergency that is literally killing people,” Dr. James Dahlgren, a doctor of occupational and environmental medicine who is also a diplomat of the American Board of Internal Medicine, told Truthout in a previous report on this issue.

He spoke with Truthout about how Navy warplanes flying in and out of Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island, as well as the Navy’s OLF [Outlying Field] Coupeville in Washington State’s Puget Sound, are generating chronic exposure to noise levels that have human health impacts that include hearing loss, immune toxicity, insomnia, stroke, heart attacks and even death.

Andrews, also a founding member of COER [Citizens of the Ebey’s Reserve], has upped the level of pushback her group is doing with the aim of having the US Navy respect the health, rights and well-being of the citizens it is supposed to be protecting.

COER is now a member of a growing coalition of groups in the region working on the issue, which include Save the Olympic Peninsula (Port Angeles), Protect the Olympic Peninsula (Port Townsend), the Quiet Skies Coalition (Lopez Island), the North Olympic Group of the Sierra Club (Carlsborg), Protect the Peninsula’s Future (Sequim), the Olympic Environment Council and Veterans for Peace.

Fighting Back

Andrews sees the Naval jet noise crisis as a “moral issue,” as well as a public health issue.

Yet, when she and other COER members have requested meetings with the Navy to share their health-threatening experiences, they’ve been snubbed.

“The Navy has never responded to any of our requests for meetings,” she said. “We’ve sent many registered letters, phone calls, emails and faxes asking for a meeting. Suffice it to say that five years of asking local Navy Base Commanders has resulted in nothing. Ditto that on senators, congressman and [the] local Board of Health.”

Hence, Andrews’ decision to pour her energy into COER, which has generated a white paper [download the .CSV] that sets the legal grounds for why the Navy’s OLF Coupeville should be abolished, and created a database logging phone complaints about Navy warplane noise. COER is also organizing a growing coalition of groups in the region who are actively working for justice on the issue.

Dilling has worked equally tirelessly on the issue. She and a group she is a member of, Quiet Skies Over San Juan County where Lopez Island is located, created a database of noise complaint calls as well, logging 6,440 complaints as of the time of this writing, which is only a register of complaints from May 2014.

“As you look at the data, please keep in mind that we are a small population and the numbers will not compare to larger jurisdictions, but when we compare the numbers to the population of Lopez [roughly 2,500], they are significant,” she said. “The anguish, frustration and anger are apparent.”

Dilling explained how there are many stories of people in her community who have lived in the area for 20, 30 and even more than 40 years who are now wondering if they can literally survive living with the degree of noise to which they are being subjected.

“I know of several folks who are wondering if, for their sanity, they should try to sell their home and go somewhere else,” she said. “Believe it or not, for others, Seattle is actually quieter than Lopez on a bad day or night.”

Dilling said that some residents are trying to avoid the noise by leaving their homes on bad noise days by traveling north to quieter places.

“In some cases, for people who can afford it, people are even planning trips to avoid being home,” she added. “It’s a hard time, and anticipating a 47 percent increase in Growler traffic, as the Navy is planning on having, is almost unthinkable.”

The Navy’s Response

In 2015, Truthout requested comment from the Navy about the noise issue on Whidbey Island and contacted Michael Welding, the Navy’s public affairs officer in Oak Harbor, on Whidbey Island.

When asked if the Navy was aware of the noise problem and all of the complaints about it coming from residents around Whidbey Island, Welding stated: “Although the Navy disputes a number of assertions that have been made about the noise impacts experienced as a result of flight operations at OLF Coupeville, the Navy also understands that some people are concerned about those operations.”

Welding claimed that the Navy “strives to be a good neighbor and works with the community to attempt to address those concerns.” He claimed that the Navy would work with local communities to “modify flight operations to minimize our impact when possible” and that the Navy regularly meets with elected officials, school representatives, and community organizations and groups.

According to Welding, the Navy adjusts their flights around school testing schedules “if weather conditions allow,” and that they minimize flights at their outlying field “to limit disturbance.”

Welding added that the Navy publishes its flight schedules on a Facebook page as well as in the local newspaper one week in advance of the flights, and that they also send the flight schedule to other area media outlets.

However, an expert on federal laws that the Navy has been subverting and sometimes even breaking, takes issue with much of what Welding said.

An Expert Responds

Karen Sullivan, a retired endangered species biologist who cofounded West Coast Action Alliance, which acts as a watchdog of Naval activities in the Pacific Northwest, told Truthout, “What the Navy is doing to us amounts to an unlawful acoustic eminent domain.”

Sullivan, who is an expert in the federal laws the Navy is required to follow, pointed out that the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that covers noise from their warplanes does not effectively deal with direct, indirect or cumulative impacts from the warplane noise, nor does it even address how the noise is impacting communities.

She takes issue with the fact that the Navy’s EIS fails to include noise modeling for “vast areas where noise impacts will occur (and are occurring now)” and that limiting the scope in this way makes it nearly impossible for the public to discern what the Navy is actually doing. By law, the public has the right to address the full scope of impacts, not just a narrow sliver of them.”

Sullivan also pointed out how the Navy’s own documents show that its warplane noise impact had not been evaluated, at all, for the entire Olympic Peninsula, over which their warplanes fly regularly.

During a recent Navy open house meeting, Sullivan spoke with a Navy representative who informed her that the Navy plans to add another 42 Growler warplanes to the fleet at NAS Whidbey Island, “on top of the 36 that are being analyzed in this EIS, bringing the total to 160 Growlers, not the 118 the public thought was the Navy’s limit.”

According to Sullivan, 160 Growlers, along with other squadrons of aircraft already slated to be stationed at the air station, “would obliterate any remaining peace and quiet periods in the region, would invalidate the Day-Night noise average measurements that established existing and proposed noise levels, and would make the Navy’s currently proposed actions obsolete even before they are finalized.”

This will subject everyone living in the San Juan Islands, Whidbey Island, the Eastern/Northern/Western Olympic Peninsula, southwestern Vancouver Island and the Canadian Gulf Islands to warplane noise every day of the week.

Sullivan recently met with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s Senior Policy Advisor Rob Duff, Policy Advisor Jim Baumgart and Deputy General Counsel Taylor Wonhoff about the matter of Naval warplane noise, and as of the time of this writing, is still awaiting response on if there will be any policy changes.

Carrying on

Dilling said, generally, “the Navy is dismissive toward us.”

She, like Andrews, places a good deal of responsibility for the placement of Growlers on her legislators.

“[Naval authorities] know that they have Rep. Larsen, Senators Murray and Cantwell and Gov. Inslee in their pockets…. To the degree that [legislators] are able to influence the military, they have turned over some of the most pristine recreational areas in the nation to create a war training zone,” she said.

Dilling is troubled by the fact that Gov. Inslee, who many refer to as the “Green Governor” for the many positive actions he has taken toward mitigating the impacts of climate disruption, is actually a key participant in the Retaining and Expanding Military Missions program in Washington State and chairs the Military Alliance.

The latter of those includes objectives, such as protecting military and defense infrastructure, promoting military and defense industry vitality, and facilitating military and defense partnerships statewide.

In fact, plans appear to be moving forward for the Growler fleet to expand, which would increase flights and noise issues by roughly 50 percent.

These realities, along with the Navy’s disregard for the concerns and complaints of those living under the noise of their warplanes, have left people like Amberg in despair.

“I do not feel the Navy respects the EIS process or the complaints of those residents whose health is affected,” she explained. “I was told by Mike Welding on February 17, 2016, that people living in the Coupeville area [of Whidbey Island] should expect the Navy to operate and grow their presence there and the residents simply have to live with the consequences of their choice to reside there. These are domination tactics, and it renders ordinary people, many who have lived there for many years, voiceless and powerless.”

As a result, Amberg is considering leaving Whidbey permanently because of the threat of increased future Naval activity on the island. Meanwhile, COER, Andrews, Dilling, and hundreds of others in a growing coalition continue their fight for their voices to be heard.

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