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Did the US Navy Break Federal Laws to Push War Games Over National Forests?

The Navy may be breaking federal laws in order to push forward plans to conduct electromagnetic war games in Washington State.

An EA-18G Growler lands on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. (US Navy / Scott Fenaroli)

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The US Navy aims to begin conducting electromagnetic warfare training across much of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula soon.

Meanwhile, it is being accused of breaking federal laws in order to secure the permits necessary to move forward with its training operations.

Karen Sullivan worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service for 15 and a half years, and is an expert in the bureaucratic procedures the Navy is supposed to be following.

She is now part of the West Coast Action Alliance, one of two large multistate and international citizen groups who have tasked themselves with watchdogging the Navy, due to what they believe are ongoing violations of the law, blatant acts of disrespect toward human and environmental health, and ongoing bellicose behavior by the military branch in their areas.

“Ethical and legal questions about the Navy’s conduct abound: hidden notices, comment periods that have been shortened or wholly eliminated, and last-minute publication of key documents coupled with total disregard for NEPA’s [National Environmental Policy Act] prohibitions on segmentation present a clear and present danger that the Navy is hastily proceeding with plans regardless and in defiance of federally mandated processes,” Sullivan’s organization wrote recently in a memorandum to the Navy.

“The Navy has an astonishing sense of entitlement to public lands and waters.”

Some of the points of concern about the Navy’s actions include: failure to provide reasonable notice to the public about their planned war games, failure to provide adequate comment process, failure to address functionally connected activities and their cumulative impacts, and failure to adequately consider impacts to Olympic National Park’s World Heritage designation, among others.

Sullivan, who worked for over 15 years in the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of Endangered Species and External Affairs, told Truthout she believes the Navy’s final environmental impact statement (EIS) about their upcoming warfare training is “unlawful and fatally flawed.”

“The Navy has an astonishing sense of entitlement to public lands and waters,” Sullivan said about how the Navy has approached the public’s concerns over its operations. “Northwest Training and testing range manager Kent Mathes told me last year after a public meeting, ‘We own the airspace and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.'”

As Truthout previously reported, if it gets its way, the Navy would be flying Growler jets – electronic attack aircraft that specialize in radar jamming – in 2,900 training exercises over wilderness, communities and cities across the Olympic Peninsula for 260 days per year, with exercises lasting up to 16 hours per day. Naval surface fleet ships will also be participating by homing in on ground-based emitters – a topic that was never discussed in the Navy’s environmental assessment.

Dozens of naval EA-18G Growler supersonic jet warplanes will fly as low as 1,200 feet above the ground in some areas in order to conduct war games with 14 mobile towers on the ground in national forests. Medical doctors, scientific reports and even the Navy’s own documents show that enough electromagnetic radiation will be emitted to be capable of damaging human eye tissue, causing breast cancer, causing childhood leukemia and damaging human fetuses, let alone impacting wildlife in the area. The Navy has denied that these impacts will occur.

Medical doctors also told Truthout that noise from the Navy’s jets is a major health risk.

Nevertheless, the Navy appears to be rapidly moving forward with its plans to war game over the Olympic Peninsula. In doing so, Sullivan believes it is opening itself up to major lawsuits – because it is taking blatantly illegal actions.

Fatal Flaws

John Mosher, the Navy’s northwest environmental manager for the US Pacific Fleet, has stated that its planes will be flying as low as 1,200 feet above the ground.

Yet the Navy’s environmental impact assessment does not even mention jet noise pollution or the sound of the Navy’s jets, and states that there are “no significant impacts” on public health and safety, biological resources, noise, air quality or visual resources.

Tens of thousands of outraged residents from around the Olympic Peninsula have expressed their opposition via letters to the US Forest Service, public meetings, letters to the editor in newspapers across the peninsula, flooding article comment sections and via social media.

“Olympic Forest Coalition is extremely concerned with all aspects of the Navy’s proposal, but of primary concern is for the disruption to wildlife activities in both the national park, the forest and our coast. Endangered species such as the marbled murrelet are at a 5 percent population decline due to loss of habitat and other disruptions,” Connie Gallant, president of the Olympic Forest Coalition, which co-authored the recent memorandum to the Navy, told Truthout. “The Olympic Coast Marine Sanctuary area is also in peril due to the many ‘takes’ the Navy plans. It is as if our entire ecosystem has been targeted for destruction and, so far, the Navy is showing very little concern for it.”

But apparently the Navy is not having any of it: It has simply ignored or neglected to address residents’ outcries about its actions.

The October 13 memorandum sent to the Navy by the West Coast Action Alliance states, “Reasonable concerns and objections presented by the public and allied organizations continue to be utterly disregarded, and this controversy intensifies by the day.”

“The bottom line is the Navy doesn’t care how we feel about it and they don’t want to hear from us.”

Even some politicians have become concerned about the Navy’s negligence; in fact, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Washington State) requested that the Navy undertake a sound study under the auspices of the Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise (FICAN). But according to Sullivan’s group, “The Navy failed to do so. Instead it reconstituted an older study using data from Prowler jets, which are no longer being flown, to justify no significant impacts on the soundscapes of Olympic National Park.”

Sullivan explained to Truthout that the Navy’s EIS is “fatally flawed” for a number of reasons. One of the requirements of the law is for the Navy to give the public reasonable time to read and comment on their proposed operations, before the review period ends.

“Notices in local papers did not appear until five to seven days into the 30-day ‘review’ period, and as of October 10 only one individual we knew of had received the copy as requested, with more than one-third of the allotted 30 days already past,” Sullivan explained. “Libraries in northern California have still not received their copies as of October 20. The public review period ends November 2, and the documents are more than 4,000 pages long.”

This was just one of several examples of how, according to West Coast Action Alliance, the Navy has been in violation of the law.

“The bottom line is the Navy doesn’t care how we feel about it and they don’t want to hear from us,” Sullivan said. “If they did, there’d be a real person manning the jet noise complaint hotline, and there’d be a way to get information from them in a timely manner, and there’d be a way for the public to be heard on the record. Their message to communities on the Olympic Peninsula is: Go away. Your comments don’t count.”

Sullivan is far from alone in feeling this way. Even naval veterans are troubled by the Navy’s current behavior.

“They are becoming worse neighbors and becoming more belligerent. These people just want the Navy to be more considerate.”

“I’m one of them, and always will be,” Navy and Vietnam veteran Patrick Noonan told Truthout. “I’m deeply committed to what it is the Navy has to do. Given that, they need to learn to be better neighbors rather than worse neighbors to the surrounds and the cities they fly over.”

Noonan, who was also a naval test pilot, added, “They are going in the wrong direction. They are becoming worse neighbors and becoming more belligerent. These people just want the Navy to be more considerate.”

Other “fatal flaws” in the Navy’s final EIS, Sullivan told Truthout, include “segmenting connected actions into smaller pieces that get evaluated separately. What this means is nobody gets to evaluate the totality of effects, or what agencies would call cumulative impacts.”

Another issue she takes with the Navy’s EIS is that it fails to consider the impacts to the soundscape of Olympic National Park, which is a World Heritage site.

“They did not conduct a ‘neutral’ study on the effects of jet noise after being specifically requested to do so last May by Congressman Derek Kilmer,” Sullivan said. “The Navy ignored Congressman Kilmer’s request and reconstituted an old study using data from aircraft that are no longer being flown.”

She went on to point out how the Growlers are notably more powerful and far louder than the Prowlers, the aforementioned aircraft the Navy used in the reconstituted study. Her data came from calculations performed by Noonan, the former Navy test pilot.

“The new airplane is dramatically louder than even that monster F4 I used to fly,” Noonan said.

As Truthout has previously reported, doctors have shown that the intense jet noise from the Navy’s warplanes causes our bodies to go into functions that cause hypertension, increased triglycerides, lack of sleep, anxiety, lack of enough REM and other negative impacts. Several medical studies also show that the higher the decibels and the longer the hours, the higher potential for increased myocardial infarction, hypertension, anxiety and other issues.

Possible Lawsuits

The Navy has left itself open to being sued on many fronts. Sullivan said the Navy failed to provide adequate public notice nor provide libraries the Navy listed with their EIS in hard copy or CD format for the public to read.

“They also violated NEPA by pre-selecting an alternative long before making anything public,” Sullivan said. “The Navy applied for an incidental take permit [permit allowing the Navy to kill certain numbers of wildlife] from NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] last April, long before this EIS was finalized, yet they still have not announced their preferred alternative, so what this means is they have already selected it, applied for the permit and the public’s comments don’t matter a bit with regard to their final choice. That’s illegal.”

This leaves the Navy potentially vulnerable to Endangered Species Act and National Historic Preservation Act violations. The types of violations in which the Navy has engaged, according to Sullivan, are not simply routine blunders.

“The release of the EIS before consultation is complete is unprecedented,” Sullivan said. “To sign a record of decision before consultations are complete, while not strictly illegal, is unethical. Basically, it would amount to making up one’s mind before knowing what the impacts are.”

“The public is being left out of too many major decisions by our government, and that’s wrong.”

The US Forest Service has to grant the Navy the permit it needs to use national forest roads for driving its mobile emitters for the war games. The Forest Service has said it will issue its decision in November, but many activists involved in the situation believe the Forest Service is poised to rubber-stamp the Navy’s permit, despite thousands of formal public comments made in opposition to naval plans.

Consequently, Sullivan said, the Forest Service has also now left itself open to lawsuits.

“This could leave them [Forest Service] vulnerable on many fronts,” she said. “For example, they did not conduct their own scientific investigations to validate the Navy’s claims of no significant impacts.”

She believes there are “egregious” factual errors in the Navy’s environmental assessment, yet the Forest Service has nonetheless indicated it may adopt it wholesale anyhow.

“This violates the National Forest Management Act, among other laws, which basically prohibits them from accepting scientific conclusions from other agencies without verifying them,” Sullivan explained. “The fact that they received 4,000 comments from the public, all but 31 opposed, and that they are prepared to ignore that as well as the laws they’ve violated, makes them vulnerable.”


Gene Marx is a former Navy pilot who flew as an airborne electronic warfare officer in Vietnam. Nowadays, he lives in Bellingham, and is publicly critical of the Navy’s plans for the Olympic Peninsula.

“They will be flying over the Olympic Peninsula without restriction to altitude or speed; this will without a doubt have major negative consequences on the environment,” Marx told Truthout. “The Navy isn’t telling you a thing about what the overflights will be doing to the environment – so if we look at the noise impact, that alone will have a major impact on the peninsula.”

Marx called the Growler aircraft the Navy is using “a killing machine and a jamming machine,” and does not believe the Navy is doing anything in the best interests of the environment. “They are being disingenuous telling us they will be stewards of the environment and that they will not impact the peninsula with their training,” he added. “That is just crazy.”

Sullivan agrees.

“We have the right and the duty to oversee the actions of federal agencies, including the military, and to insist that they follow the law and their own policies,” she said. “We have the right to be heard on the official record, a right that is currently being denied. It is not unpatriotic to insist on these rights, and to demand that our government follow the law and its own policies.”

And similar to Marx, she is extremely disappointed by the Navy’s actions, on a personal level.

“Not that many years ago I used to feel a sense of pride whenever a Navy ship would pass by,” she said. “Being a mariner, I used to dip the ensign, or lower my boat’s American flag, to them in salute, and they always returned the salute. I used to be proud when they’d pass by.”

But her experience today has changed her sentiment.

“Now it feels like they have nothing but contempt for their neighbors,” she said. “The public is being left out of too many major decisions by our government, and that’s wrong.”

Noonan believes one immediate solution would be for the Navy to use already existing training ranges, instead of “going to pristine lands and imposing their noise on them.”

“They have the Yakima range, which gets very little air use,” he explained. “That range is vast and totally available to them, and it’s eight minutes [flying] from Whidbey. I’m frustrated by the Navy’s method and how inconsiderate they are being of the environment when they don’t have to be. I don’t understand that.”

Sullivan is acutely aware of how the deck is stacked against the public when it come to standing up against any arm of the US military.

“The Navy has teams of lawyers, and we citizens have only our powers of observation and freedom of speech,” she said. “However, we have the right and the obligation to speak out as informed citizens, across the country, wherever unwarranted encroachment into public and private land is happening, and it’s happening in a lot of places.”

In other words, she intends to fight.

“We are not giving up,” Sullivan said. “We will make them follow the law.”