Naval Air Station Whidbey Island (NASWI) is a major military base on the island where I live. One of the noisiest planes in the world is stationed here, the EA-18G Growler. When deployed during bombing missions, the Growler works from an aircraft carrier deck and provides electronic jamming of enemy radar. While stationed on Whidbey, Growler pilots practice their maneuvers for landing on aircraft carriers. This practice involves multiple approaches to a small landing strip in central Whidbey, where the planes do touch-and-go exercises, sometimes for hours at a time, both night and day.
The noise of the Growlers is stunning. Repeatedly, the decibel level has been established as seriously injurious not only to hearing, but also to the brain and thorax, especially over sustained periods of time. These injuries are compounded by damage to local tourism and farming, both of which are compromised when the jets are flying. In short, the Growlers are a substantial threat to many residents of Whidbey Island. This has become an ongoing source of conflict within our island community.
The northern part of the island, where NASWI is located, is presumably more economically dependent on the Navy’s presence than the rest of the island. Residents in the north often argue that jet noise is “the price of freedom.” But the people who pay most of that price are the ones who live in central Whidbey, where the Growlers make their practice landings. To the residents of central Whidbey, the Growlers represent a significant threat to their health and welfare – more than a threat, actually, since damage has already been documented – and, ironically, these central Whidbey residents also find that their freedom is restricted during the jets’ practice flights.
For the past ten years, I have been in the mix of people working to restrict, if not eliminate, the impact of the Growlers on Whidbey Island. The people of central Whidbey have persistently tried to negotiate with the Navy, while working from a considerably smaller base of power. The history of this organizing goes back more than two decades, starting with failed attempts to contain the Navy’s use of a less noisy jet called the Prowler. When the Prowler was replaced by the much louder Growler in 2008, local community members reasserted their opposition to the jet noise.
Over the years, the community of central Whidbey and the Navy have disagreed over how to measure that jet noise. The community insists on measuring the immediate decibel levels of the test flights as they occur, which show demonstrably injurious levels. The Navy insists on measuring that same sound on the basis of an internationally established airplane noise measurement, which averages airplane noise over a whole year, as is done for commercial airports. The Navy thus claims that the Growler (which only flies some 120 days a year) produces an acceptable level of noise, comparable to the level produced by commercial aircraft, and the Navy arrives at this conclusion by making the assumption that the noise produced by the Growler should be considered evenly across 365 days per year. The Navy simply refuses to accept that egregious noise levels are consistently and continually recorded by citizen monitors and federal agencies.
These differing approaches to “scientific measurement” demonstrate the different impacts of disparate levels of power in a public conflict. The side with more power is more able to have the last word. But the good people of central Whidbey have taken on this challenge, and they have had some notable successes.
Opposition to the Growlers was renewed and intensified in 2012 with the formation of a local organization called the Citizens of Ebey’s Reserve (COER). This group has focused on protecting the beautiful and cherished landscape of Ebey’s Landing, a designated National Historical Reserve, from the impact of Growler jet noise. The Navy responded to the formation of this new citizen group by characterizing COER as a bunch of NIMBY home-owners trying to protect their property values. Initially, local elected officials were unwilling to side with COER against the Navy-base community and the Navy itself.
Over the years, however, COER has continued to organize. We funded several independent studies of high-decibel Growler test flights, which have demonstrated negative community impacts in a number of areas – personal health, wildlife, tourism, real estate, and our local tax base. We have also drafted some viable relocation strategies for the Growlers, proposing to site them, for example, in spacious military bases in sparsely populated central Washington. And most importantly, we have successfully recruited more people to support this cause.
Two major developments in the public sphere have helped to accelerate our organizing. First, the Navy announced in June 2018 that it planned to increase the pace of Growler test landings nearly fourfold. This motivated many COER members to support the formation of a new coalition effort, along with other similar citizen groups throughout Washington State. This coalition was named Sound Defense Alliance (SDA). The formation of this coalition has accelerated our organizing in a number of impacted communities, especially on the Olympic Peninsula and the San Juan Islands.
Our persistent work has continued to develop a wider base of supporters, which has in turn attracted increased interest from elected officials. For example, we were invited to present our data to U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell during a meeting on Whidbey Island, concerning impacts of the naval base on the community. As a result, Senator Cantwell expressed considerable empathy for the plight of all involved, which signaled a high level of political support for our cause. Subsequently, our House Representative, Rick Larsen, began to pull away from his original steadfast support for the Navy and became willing to meet more openly with anti-Growler organizers.
The other major public development that has also accelerated our organizing involves a series of extended, strategic lawsuits. These have forced the Navy to conduct extensive, federally mandated, environmental impact studies related to the noise of the Growlers. We were especially pleased that our State Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, became an important ally and joined us in a lawsuit to force the Navy into more transparency. Over the course of four years and many hearings, the courts have become increasingly sympathetic to our position. Most notably, Judge Richard A. Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington wrote a ruling in our favor this past August, in which he wrote, “Despite a gargantuan administrative record, covering nearly 200,000 pages of studies, reports, comments, and the like, the Navy selected methods of evaluating the data that supported its goal of increasing Growler operations. The Navy did this at the expense of the public and the environment, turning a blind eye to data that would not support this intended result. Or, to borrow the words of noted sports analyst Vin Scully, the Navy appears to have used certain statistics ‘much like a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, not illumination.’”
With extended and united opposition to the painful noise of the Growlers, the anti-Growler cause has achieved some important successes. The Navy still holds the upper hand, to be sure, which is mostly because they can always use their “ace card” – claiming that the jets are important to “national security.” And the Navy is giving absolutely no indication of any willingness to relocate the jets away from Whidbey Island. But they cannot rely any longer on unchallenged support from the courts for whatever they propose.
I draw two key lessons from my work with COER and SDA. First, when strategic planning is applied by a committed cadre of widely diverse community members, highly effective forms of long-term organizing emerge. This was well documented in Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works, and it has been my experience working in opposition to the Growlers.
The second lesson I take from my work with COER and SDA is this: Persistence is essential. I have been so impressed with the persistence of the community leaders who have opposed the Growlers for decades now. And I have no doubt that they will continue to persist. The powers-that-be have enormous assets at their disposal – financial, legal, and political. But they cannot ultimately overcome the commitment of persistent, civil, nonviolent opposition that offers a more just and viable alternative. ~~~
Tom Ewell is active with Quaker Voice on Washington Public Policy and with Friends Committee on National Legislation. He is a member of Whidbey Island Friends Meeting (NPYM).