THE NAVY'S PROPOSAL FOR AN OUTLYING LANDING FIELD (OLF)
A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
Introduction and Time Line
The Navy's Proposal
A Question of Need
Justifications Added to the Final EIS
Justifications in the Supplementary EIS
Alternatives to an OLF
The State's Position
The Wildlife Refuge
US Fish and Wildlife Objections
How Much Noise
Hazards to Pilots
Navy BASH/BAM Plans
The Supplementary EIS
The National Environmental Policy Act
The Perquimans County Site
AEA has consistently maintained that the Outlying Landing Field proposed for eastern North Carolina is not needed and the Navy should use existing facilities for training Super Hornet pilots.
In 2003 we launched two post card campaigns requesting the Navy to use existing facilities to save farmland, wildlife, the environment, the growing economy of the region--and a quarter billion taxpayer dollars. Angered by the Navy plan to move the noise of training from Virginia to North Carolina, citizens signed over 5,000 post cards that were mailed to Navy officials.
AEA stands by its original contention that the Navy has not demonstrated a need for a new OLF. Facilities at the Fentress OLF in Virginia are under used and facilities at Cherry Point Marine base in North Carolina are adequate to handle the two squadrons that will be assigned to it.
The Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required by a federal court because the original EIS was found to be deficient does not justify the need for an OLF.
In its documents the Navy has discussed an assortment of concerns: excessive noise in Virginia, the need for surge capacity, training schedule conflicts, bad weather, and light pollution at Fentress. Despite the Navy's concern for light pollution at Fentress, it still plans to use that OLF at night for training, in addition to the proposed OLF, in order to avoid disrupting sleep patterns and family routines of sailors involved in training. While these are reasonable concerns, we cannot find any data to support the need for a new OLF that will cost taxpayers 231 million dollars and will be used only 10 to 15 hours a week.
Nor can we find accurate data on economic losses created by the loss of family farms, the loss of income from eco-tourism, the loss of economic growth from arrested development, and the loss of wildlife habitat in eastern North Carolina.
Based on the fact that existing OLF facilities can adequately handle current military needs, and due to the fragile nature of the ecosystem in the target region, we are urging the Navy to suspend or abandon all efforts to locate an OLF in eastern North Carolina. We urge the Navy to use existing facilities.
We here present an in-depth discussion of the issues surrounding the Navy proposal for an OLF in eastern North Carolina. We will be referring to three Navy documents: the Draft EIS, published in 2002; the Final EIS, published in 2003; and the Supplementary EIS, published in 2007, required by the courts because of deficiencies found in the Final EIS.
INTRODUCTION AND TIME LINE
"It is precisely because of community concerns over jet noise that we are carefully exploring the establishment of an additional outlying field (OLF) to accommodate Super Hornet training."
Commander of the Atlantic Fleet, Robert J. Natter made that pronouncement in 2000 to placate Virginia Beach citizens angry enough to sue the Navy over aircraft noise at Oceana Naval Air Station. This statement ignited a firestorm of opposition by North Carolina citizens who refuse to see their communities and a national wildlife refuge torn apart because Virginia citizens are complaining about noise.
In 2003 the Navy published a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) with the proposal to construct a practice airfield on prime farmland next to a wildlife refuge in eastern North Carolina.
In 2004 opponents successfully took the Navy to court claiming that the Navy's study, though voluminous, was deficient under requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.
In 2005 the Navy was ordered to take a hard look at alternative, less environmentally damaging sites and produce a new, Supplementary EIS.
In February 2007 the Navy released the SEIS. The thousand-page document, put together by outside consultants falls far short of the study called for by the courts. The Navy is still justifying its original choice with a convoluted analysis of issues that defies logic and common sense. Public hearings are scheduled for March and April in North Carolina counties considered as possible sites for an OLF. An additional public hearing is scheduled for Charlotte, NC to give residents in the western part of the state a chance to express their views. A final decision is expected later in the year.
In March 2007, immediately after the publication of the SEIS, the governor of North Carolina, Mike Easley, called on North Carolina's congressional delegation to withhold funding for an OLF in North Carolina until a suitable site can be located. Stating, "I am more than willing to work with the Navy, but they have not responded in kind," he went on to request the aid of Ducks Unlimited members and hunters to oppose the site.
Revelations that huge populations of wildfowl would be controlled by "standard techniques" outraged people across the state. Among the "standard techniques" is the use of poison when necessary.
In quick succession, regulatory agencies voiced objections to the Navy's poposal. The NC Wildlife Resources Commission objected to the use of the highly toxic chemical Avitrol and requested Congressional intervention on behalf of this environmental resource.
The NC Department of Health and Human Services warned of the highly toxic nature of the poison and urged the Navy to consider alternate sites.
The NC Department of Agriculture objected to the loss of 30,000 acres of farmland and up to $6 million annually.
The US Fish and Wildlife, listed as a cooperating agency on the Navy document, strongly opposed the Navy's choice.
Residents are attending hearings in record numbers to register their objections.
North Carolina Senators, Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr support the Navy. Senator Dole, while sympathetic to opponents, states that the process should be allowed to go through official channels. Senator Burr says there should be no interference in the Navy's choice regardless of impacts on people or wildlife.
The issue is complex. It involves disrupting livelihoods, tearing up communities, destroying farmland, and rendering a wildlife refuge virtually barren.
The Navy's own documents do not demonstrate need. Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars will be wasted. Navy documents cited in the lawsuit reveal a callous disregard of the law of the land and a blatant abuse of power that could happen anywhere in the United States if not checked.
THE NAVY'S PROPOSAL
The US Navy has proposed acquiring about 30,000 acres to build an Outlying Landing Field (OLF), at a cost of $231 million, within four miles of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on prime farmland in eastern North Carolina. The refuge is part of the Atlantic Flyway and is an internationally important wildlife area where over 100,000 tundra swans and snow geese spend the winter.
Pilots would practice simulated aircraft carrier landings in new Super Hornet jets that would be split-sited between Oceana in Virginia and Cherry Point in North Carolina. Ten squadrons with two replacement squadrons complete the fleet, for a total of 144 planes. Oceana is slated to receive 120 planes; Cherry Point 24.
The Navy estimates 31,650 take-offs and landings annually at the site, day and night, (about 650 during a five-day week, or 125 a day, as frequently as every three minutes). Extremely noisy Super Hornets would routinely fly over the refuge at low altitudes during approach, landing, and holding patterns.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Navy must produce an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to justify its plans. This document begins as a draft and undergoes public hearings. Once the final document is released, a Record of Decision must be signed by the Secretary of the Navy before the project can begin.
The Navy's original study focused on five counties in North Carolina as possible sites for an OLF: Perquimans, Bertie, Washington, Hyde, and Craven. While military bases covet squadrons and the boost to the economy that comes with them, the Navy frankly admits that an OLF will result in a net loss to the economy of the area. Counties, except Craven (home to the Cherry Point base) were united in their opposition to an OLF anywhere in the region.
Super Hornet squadrons are currently training at Oceana and Fentress facilities, but North Carolina will not receive squadrons until an OLF is in place.
A QUESTION OF NEED
In the 2002 draft EIS, the Navy stated that: "Existing facilities at NAS Oceana and NALF Fentress were found to meet all the requirements to support the FCLP (training) operations of the Super Hornet squadrons." An OLF is needed, the Navy adds, "to enhance quality of life and provide mitigation of noise and population encroachment ... at NAS Oceana and NALF Fentress."
(Note: Oceana Naval Air Station is in Virginia Beach, Virginia; Fentress is a training field in Virginia near Oceana.)
The Final EIS recommended that 8 squadrons plus 2 replacement squadrons be based at Oceana (120 planes) and 2 squadrons be based at Cherry Point (24 planes), with an OLF in Washington County.
According to the draft EIS, the Fentress OLF, with 140,000 take-offs and landings annually, was only operating at 65 percent capacity. The 120 Super Hornets destined for Oceana would add about 27,000 take-offs and landings, or about 20 percent of the total. The phase-out of F-14's which had been training at Fentress, opens up additional capacity.
The Navy has stated that facilities at Cherry Point are adequate for training the two squadrons destined for that base. In fact, training of four or more squadrons could take place at the base if a parallel runway were constructed at far less cost than the proposed OLF.
Doggedly, the Navy maintains that there is "a very clear and urgent need for this facility," according to spokesman Ted Brown.
Complaints from Virginia Beach
Citizen complaints and lawsuits in Virginia had become increasingly strident. During unruly public hearings in Virginia Beach citizens reiterated their demands to move the noise to North Carolina. Powerful Virginia congressmen were working hard to keep all the aircraft in Virginia but send the noise to North Carolina. Virginia's Senator Mark Warner had long tenure as Chairman of the Armed Forces Committee.
Decades earlier, the Navy had spent $58 million of public money to purchase easements around Oceana, a Navy base since World War II. However, the Navy had never enforced the easements. The land was developed. Today, although residents in upscale housing are clamoring for noise relief, neither city nor residents want easements enforced and housing condemned. It has become more politically expedient for the Navy to export the noise to North Carolina.
Ironically, even with an OLF in North Carolina, noise will not be reduced in Virginia Beach. Regardless of where pilots train, they must still leave and return to Oceana. In fact, noise will actually increase because the new Super Hornets are so loud. There will be a slight reduction only in the neighborhood of Fentress training field, which lies in a much less developed, semi-rural area of Chesapeake, and where complaints have been minimal.
JUSTIFICATIONS ADDED TO THE FINAL EIS
Since the idea of exporting noise from Virginia to North Carolina did not seem to fly with North Carolina citizens, the Navy changed its tack in the final EIS, published in 2003. Now the specter of the global war on terror was brought into play. There was an urgent need, the Navy said, for "surge" capacity, or periods of intense training prior to deployment of a fleet or even several fleets to respond to international trouble spots.
The fact is that, while the Navy needs the facility available for 24 hours a day, training Super Hornet pilots at the OLF will take place in about ten hours a week. Surge operations would result in a 50 percent increase, or an additional five hours, for a total of 15 hours a week. Surge training would be followed by periods of inactivity while the fleet is at sea.
Excessive light at Fentress training field, which is surrounded by 48 percent farmland, had not been raised as an issue in the draft EIS. Now light pollution was causing degraded training. However, the Navy maintained that despite light problems, Fentress would still be used for day and night training.
The Navy did not substantiate any of its concerns with hard data. It did note that shortly after deployment for Afghanistan, the Navy was ordered to prepare seven carrier strike groups for deployment to Iraq, which "required extraordinary efforts." Given the success of these campaigns, current pilot performance and safety is apparently meeting expectations.
In fact, data on the Naval Safety Center web site shows dramatic decrease in aircraft mishaps during the past three years. The Navy anticipates even more improvement in their safety record in 2007 and 2008. "The mishap rate through March 14 (2007) was. . .the best rate in history through this date."
Perhaps training schedules and the expertise of training personnel are more critical to successful training of pilots than the actual facility and its location.
JUSTIFICATIONS IN THE SUPPLEMENTARY EIS
Without an OLF, the Navy states in its Supplementary EIS, "These training operations (at current facilities) would maintain pilot proficiency; however, the training is not ideal and varies from realistic scenarios that a pilot may face at sea." We would respectfully submit that this is not an ideal world, and no training on land can duplicate conditions at sea.
An OLF, the Navy says, would:
Increase scheduling capacity. The Navy states that Fentress is now so busy that conflicts "several times each year" force some squadrons to train at other bases. No hard data on flight schedules at Fentress is included. The effect of the retirement of F-14's on capacity at Fentress is not discussed, nor are scheduling conflicts "several times each year" adequately defined. Does this imply that aircraft other than Super Hornets will be using the OLF? If so, this has not been thoroughly discussed.
Decrease costs associated with sending detachments to other bases for training "several times each year." No data substantiates these costs. No data is presented on fuel costs created by flying daily 100-mile round trips to an OLF in North Carolina.
Decrease fatiguing of air frames created by sending detachments to other bases "several times each year." Air-frame fatigue during level flight is negligible. Decrease in fatigue life of an air frame occurs during take-offs, landings and maneuvers. No matter where a plane is based, it must take off and land in order to train. No data substantiates this claim of additional fatigue damage.
Reduce late-night operations. With two OLFs (Fentress and Washington County), squadrons could complete nighttime training during early evening hours. This would reduce late-night noise around Oceana and Cherry Point and give crews more lead time for maintenance. Eliminating late-night and early-morning training would allow crews to maintain undisturbed "sleep patterns and circadian rhythms."
Enhance quality of life for sailors. Late-night training and training at other bases "disrupt service members' family routines."
Reduce impacts from inclement weather. When weather is locally bad at Cherry Point and Oceana, training could take place at the North Carolina OLF.
The Navy's concern for the "sleep patterns" and "family routines" of its flight personnel, a transient population, is admirable. It is unfortunate that the Navy is not as concerned about "disrupting" entire lives and livelihoods of a permanent population that has deep roots and generational ties to the land.
ALTERNATIVES TO AN OLF
According to the SEIS, operations at the OLF can be condensed into about ten hours a week, with an increase to fifteen hours a week during surge operations.
In a vain effort to work with the Navy to find less invasive solutions, state officials and private citizens in North Carolina have suggested a variety of less environmentally damaging alternatives to the OLF:
Use under-used existing facilities, such as Fentress to train Virginia's squadrons.
Use already existing and under-used facilities at Cherry Point to train North Carolina's two squadrons. The Draft EIS recommended this option. Cherry Point has four under-used runways.
Time-share under-used air space and facilities with other services. For example, Open Grounds Farm in Carteret County, near Piney Island Bombing Range. The Navy maintains there would be conflicts with bombing operations, but hunters claim it is used intermittently. What are the facts? Historically, OLFs and bombing ranges have worked on the west coast.
Construct a parallel runway at Cherry Point, which could handle training for 48 planes. (This was unanimously supported by NC elected officials.)
Meaningfully investigate alternative sites.
We would add one additional suggestion: Save taxpayer dollars by using common sense, not political expedience, to allocate aircraft to under-used bases. It makes no sense for the Navy to build a new facility when it is closing others.
Yet the Navy remains intransigent. For 10 to 15 hours of training a week which could take place at existing facilities, the Navy is planning to eradicate huge flocks of birds, destroy a wildlife area, ruin an economy, and displace people whose roots lie deep in the land.
The Navy frankly admits that any community in which an OLF is placed will experience a net loss in its economy.
At least 100 families, most of them with generational ties to the land, would be permanently displaced by the proposed OLF. Countless others would be subject to the earsplitting noise of Super Hornet practice day and night.
It should be remembered that residents in Virginia who are complaining about aircraft noise around Oceana have voluntarily purchased property near an already existing military base. Ironically, these NIMBYs (Not in my Backyard) are pushing hard, with Navy blessing, to dump the noise on North Carolina residents. It is ironic that North Carolina residents cannot legally use the issue of noise to refuse the siting of an OLF in their state.
So North Carolina residents have no choice in the matter. Many have served in the military and say they would gladly give up their homes if they felt the Navy really needed this OLF. Several have complained about being harassed by representatives of the Navy. Very few have caved in and sold their land. There is no question that the Navy offerings will leave families with much less net worth than they now have.
The Navy would purchase or condemn 30,000 acres of farmland to act as a buffer around its airstrip. This is land that farmers had counted on for retirement income and legacy for children. The acreage would be sold to the Navy and leased back to the farmer.
Farmers would become Navy tenants. No longer could they plant economically sustaining corn, grain and soybeans because these crops attract birds. Farmers would be told what to plant and how and when to harvest and would, in effect, become the Navy's instruments for eradicating the birds.
The Navy estimates a $6.9 million loss in the agricultural economy in Washington County. In a state that is consistently leading the nation in loss of farmland, this represents yet another blow to the agricultural economy.
Counties could no longer collect property taxes on the acreage. The loss of this acreage is likely to increase tax rates as strapped local governments struggle to provide basic services.
A comparison of the city of Virginia Beach with Washington County is enlightening. Median household income in Virginia Beach is $45,000; 9 percent of adults and 13 percent of children live below poverty level. Minority residents make up 34 percent of population.
Washington County, on the other hand, has a median household income of $28,000, with 21% of adults and 29% of children below poverty level. Washington County ranks 91st out of 100 counties in North Carolina in per capita income. Minority residents make up 55 percent of population.
Executive Order 12898 requires government agencies to determine whether proposed projects will cause undue hardship to poor and minority communities. Here is what the Navy says in response to comments critical of its position on this issue: "The Navy did identify and consider environmental justice issues as required. . .There may be disproportionately high and adverse impacts on minority and low-income populations."
The idea of having their heritage torn up by a Navy landing field and being the dumping ground for Virginia's noise did not sit well with North Carolinians.
The comment by Rear Admiral Turcotte (who was fuzzy on exactly whether it was North Carolina or South Carolina that was targeted for an OLF) that the site was "in the middle of essentially nowhere" was not well received, either.
Admiral Natter did not win any friends when he threatened protracted lawsuits if people did not cooperate. And statements by the current commander, that we should not let emotions get in the way of this decision, demonstrate how out of touch the Navy is with the general public. A consistently heavy-handed approach by Navy brass has dismayed opponents.
A groundswell of opposition has quickly organized itself. Over a period of five years, opposition, once localized, has spread across the state. Councils of government from more than 25 counties in North Carolina pledged to oppose the plan.
More than 100 regional and national environmental groups, sportsman's organizations, property rights groups, environmental justice groups, civic and farm organizations have voiced opposition. Newspapers across the state, dailies and weeklies, have published editorials and letters in opposition. (For a complete listing of opponents, see the No Olf website, www.noolf.com.)
More than 3,000 people in this sparsely populated, rural area of the state attended public hearings after the Draft EIS was published. More than 2,000 people mailed letters of opposition to their state senator, Mark Basnight. People spoke eloquently of their love for the land and their expectations that they would be spending the rest of their lives in homes that had been in families for generations. Dismay and anger at Navy plans came through. "When you sit down to dinner in Virginia Beach, remember that the food you eat was grown on our land."
Prayer vigils, strategy sessions, rallies, parades, press conferences, caravans to Raleigh, bus trips to plead their cause to members of Congress in Washington DC have consumed the lives of people who have been living in limbo for five years. One 2003 meeting that Senator Dole arranged between opponents and the Secretary of the Navy became moot when it was learned the Secretary signed the Record of Decision within hours after the meeting.
Finally, in 2004 The National Audubon Society, the NC Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife successfully launched a lawsuit against the Navy. The Southern Environmental Law Center and Kennedy Covington, a Charlotte law firm, handled the case pro bono. (For more details, see The Lawsuit.)
THE STATE'S POSITION
State officials initially took a tepid position toward the opposition. Unaffected counties initially took a hands-off position toward the opposition. Its strength took everyone by surprise. After all, this was a sleepy backwater with a scattering of fishermen and farmers.
There were reasons for the state's hands-off policy. In exchange for accepting an OLF, North Carolina stood to receive 4 squadrons, or 48 planes, cash cows for communities around Cherry Point--and insurance against the long arm of BRAC. Maybe the opposition would just go away.
Base Realignment and Closing is both carrot and stick that the military holds over states. Millions are spent by states lobbying the military. Consultants are hired, preferably those with current connections to the military. Elaborate presentations are staged. It helps to be enthusiastic about noise, too. Cherry Point's slogan, emblazoned on the main gate, is "Pardon our Noise. It's the Sound of Freedom."
But the process can be a horse race. During the mid-nineties, three bases vied for a new generation of Hornets coming off the assembly line. Florida's Cecil Field, already housing some of these noisy planes, occupied a sprawling 33,000 acres that could provide a noise buffer against populated areas.
North Carolina's Cherry Point, with its auxiliary facilities, was about the same size, lobbied hard, was actually the front runner. Virginia's Oceana, small at 7,000 acres and in the middle of a growing city, was the dark horse that won all squadrons. Cecil Field, the Hornets' original training base, was closed. Virginia's US Senator John Warner, a former Secretary of the Navy, chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee at that time.
Stung by the unexpected rejection in the mid-nineties, North Carolina lobbied hard for the next generation of fighter planes, the Super Hornets. Meanwhile, Virginia Beach citizens lobbied hard to get Super Hornets but send the noise to North Carolina.
As would be expected, NC's Division of Coastal Management found the OLF in Washington County consistent with land use plans. Opponents could not understand why the state would sacrifice one county for the sake of another.
Then came the Final EIS and the Navy's artful juggle. Two squadrons, not four, for North Carolina. No guarantee that the squadrons would be permanent. And new conditions for the OLF not discussed in the draft.
The Navy now planned to purchase outright 50 square miles of land with no easements. Aircraft other than Super Hornets would use the site, and "surge" operations would result in periods of concentrated training.
Opposition ratcheted up by several notches. During the height of the Iraq war, opponents of the OLF were branded unpatriotic because they would not give up their homes for national defense. But the Navy still had not demonstrated a clear-cut need.
The political tide would soon turn. Pressure was put on the governor to open a dialog with the Navy to find a more acceptable site. The option of using existing facilities is never mentioned. State officials are careful to promote their support of the Navy; there is always the spectre of BRAC in the background.
The dialog has been going on for three years. The Navy has rejected all suggestions.
Based on additional Navy demands in the Final EIS, Division of Coastal Management reversed its position on compatibility. State environmental agencies noted major deficiencies in the Navy's documents. Only a few are listed here:
No comprehensive plan to manage natural resources.
No data on wildlife resources, recreation, eco-tourism, fisheries (though research on the Florida manatee was cited)
No comprehensive field surveys
No data on extent of habitat alteration
No discussion of post-crash procedures to contain contamination by jet fuel, hydraulic oil
No discussion of impacts to dense black bear population (though research on polar bears was cited)
No discussion of severity of bird-aircraft collisions
Erroneous inferences, characterizations of wildlife and habitat based on scientific studies that do not apply
US Congressional District 1, the proposed home of the OLF has been fortunate to have a series of representatives who have supported opposition. Among these, Eva Clayton, Frank Ballance, and G.K.Butterfield. Reps. David Price and Arthur Williams have also supported opposition.
As stated above, the Governor of North Carolina has requested the state's congressional delegation to work toward removing funding for an OLF in Washington County. Although a final decision is not expected until late in 2007, there is already a line item in the federal budget for work on an OLF in Washington County in2008.
North Carolina's US Senator Dole has not taken a position on the OLF. She has instead stated that she wants her constitutents' message to be heard by the Navy but steadfastly maintains that there should be no interference in the system. US Senator Burr has stated that the Navy should be allowed to do what it wants, regardless of wildlife or citizens.
THE WILDLIFE REFUGE
Established as an "inviolate sanctuary" (Navy characterization) for migrating birds, the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last remaining wilderness areas on the Atlantic Flyway. Under federal protection, winter populations of tundra swan and snow geese, virtually unknown here 25 years ago, have grown to majestic proportions. The history of the refuge is an unprecedented success story.
More than a decade ago the US Fish and Wildlife Service presented a brief but eloquent Environmental Impact Statement that discussed a proposal to merge vast tracts of wilderness in eastern North Carolina into the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The tract most in jeopardy from an OLF is the Pungo Unit.
It was critical that local communities approve the proposal because once a refuge is created, its acreage is removed from county tax rolls. Strong support has come from the farmers who manage planting on the agricultural units to attract wildlife--and willingly donate 20 percent to birds, black bear and other creatures.
The refuge's ponds, wetlands and impenetrable thickets support 200 bird species, 40 reptile and amphibian species, and 40 mammal species. It is home to one of the densest black bear populations in the country.
Bald eagles have been sighted. Red wolves, re-introduced to eastern North Carolina several years ago, have expanded into the area, and a den was recently discovered near the proposed runway. Their nocturnal vocalizations are necessary to maintain the pack. Super Hornet flights will surely interfere. Red wolves are classified as "non-essential experimental" by the Navy so are not discussed in any great detail in the Supplementary EIS.
In winter, surrounding farmlands provide critical food sources to more than 100,000 migrating snow geese and tundra swans that spend their summers on arctic breeding grounds. These birds are protected under international treaty.
As waterfowl populations dwindled during the middle of the 20th century, momentum developed to protect migrating birds that winter in the United States and breed on the tundra in Canada. Billions of dollars in revenues from bird watchers, outdoorsmen, fishermen, and hunters were being lost by both countries because of declining natural resources.
In 1986, Canada and the United States pledged to restore disappearing wetlands and waterfowl populations and entered into the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Although the agreement is international in scope, its success depends on the strength of partnerships among federal and state governments, conservation groups and private individuals. The proposed OLF is a distinct violation of this international agreement.
US FISH AND WILDLIFE OBJECTIONS
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has consistently argued that an OLF is not compatible with a wildlife refuge. Shortly after release of the Draft EIS the agency took the unprecedented move of producing a brochure for the public outlining Navy plans and possible effects on the refuge.
Initially, the Department of the Interior supported the USFWS position but eventually the Department caved into pressure from the administration and USFWS was forced to rescind the publication.
A sixteen-page letter of objections written by the Service to the Navy was reduced to little more than three pages by Interior. This and other letters from wildlife biologists have urged the Navy to seek out the decades of research accumulated by the Service and to investigate other, less environmentally sensitive sites. For the most part, the Navy has ignored their suggestions, preferring to use its own hired consultants.
Refuge biologists are now prohibited from talking to news media or the public about the proposed OLF. Inquiries must now be directed to the FWS public affairs office in Atlanta.
USFWS is cited as a cooperating agency in the Navy's Supplementary EIS. The agency's objections are reduced to a tenuous "uncertainty [that] can only be resolved after the facility is operational."
In a surprise appearance at an OLF hearing, the Director of the USFWS strongly reiterated the department objections.
HOW MUCH NOISE
What exactly is all this fuss about? How loud is a Super Hornet? That depends. Are you talking about decibels (dB) or DNL dBs? Usually, noise is measured in decibels. Crickets singing on a summer evening produce a noise level of about 40 decibels. A high-speed jet flying overhead at low altitudes can produce as much as 120 decibels.
That may sound like the plane is only three times as loud as the crickets, but decibels are measured in powers of ten. Put another way, every time a noise is doubled, there's only an increase of three decibels. For instance, if two planes are flying overhead and each produces 60 decibels, when you "add" the sounds, the total only comes to 63 decibels. The noise of the jet is actually about a hundred million times louder than crickets singing on a summer night.
Since the noise of planes can be irritating to people and wildlife, the FAA has approved the use of another measurement for noise around airports and airfields: DNLs, or Day Night Average Sound Levels. A complicated formula is used to figure DNLs but, simply put, it means that quiet times are blended, or averaged, with noisy times. Theoretically, this has the effect of making the noisy times seem not so noisy.
DNLs do not exist. They are imaginary numbers. They do not tell us what the loudest event is in a 24-hour period, nor do they tell us how many noisy events there may be in a 24-hour period.Unfortunately, our ears do not average noise over a 24-hour period. We hear and react to each noise as a separate incident.
The Navy uses lots of paper and ink to define and defend DNLs around the OLF. They draw noise contours to show us that at three miles from the landing field the noise will be 60 DNL dB, about the level of ordinary conversation.
The actual noise of a Super Hornet three miles from the landing field is 90 dB, a thousand times louder than 60DNL db.
At an altitude of 1000 feet a Super Hornet generates 113 dB. At 600 feet it generates 117 dB. Note that the noise is more than doubled as altitude decreases by only 400 feet. Put another way, the noise created by a single Super Hornet is equal to the noise created by 16 F-14s flying in close formation. Super Hornets will not be flying singly when they are training.
Given that communities in eastern North Carolina are used to background noise not much louder than crickets singing, the noise of Super Hornet training will be especially disturbing. The effects of the noise on children is a major concern. Studies show that health and behavior of children can deteriorate under the duress of loud noise.
HAZARDS TO PILOTS
Swans and geese are big. They are unpredictable. Flocks can rise and circle for no apparent reason. They fly for miles to and from feeding grounds, night or day. More than 100,000 of them regularly spend the winter on or around the site of the OLF. Noise from low-flying aircraft will disturb them. Big birds and noisy aircraft do not mix well.
The Navy's own rating system classifies bird collision hazard as "severe" for 50 percent of the year. During a Navy test flight near the proposed site, the pilot was forced to take evasive action.
Experts say the bird hazardin Washington County is so great it cannot be controlled. A former Air Force Bird Hazard Strike Team Leader says, "I cannot consider a worse place to situate an airfield for jet training." A consultant hired by the Navy for the study called this "the most dangerous location on the East Coast for a landing field."
There is good historic reason for pilots to be wary of birds, particularly large birds like the tundra swan, which has a wing span of 7 feet. During a twenty-year period beginning in 1980 the Naval Safety Center recorded about 20,000 bird strikes, with a loss of 25 aircraft, or about one each year.
NAVY BASH/BAM PLANS
The Navy is confident that it can eliminate bird risk. It will formulate a Bird Avoidance Model (BAM) plan to minimize Bird Aircraft Strike Hazards (BASH).
The BAM plan calculates how many ounces (not numbers) of birds exist in a given area. The Navy considers Risk to be Low at less than one tundra swan or snow goose per square mile. This would require an almost total extermination of birds in order to keep pilots safe. Radar, if it is used, can tell pilots where the birds are at a single moment, but it cannot predict where they will be ten seconds later.
So the plan is to eliminate the birds. The Navy will replace some croplands with turf and manage planting and harvesting in fields to make them unattractive to the birds. For instance, cotton could replace corn, soybeans and wheat, cash crops for farmers. Starvation caused by habitat destruction is the keystone.
But there will always be hangers-on. Fireworks, chemical repellents and dogs would be used on birds that refuse to leave. More stubborn birds would be poisoned or shot. Poison would be used on small birds. Larger birds like swan and geese would be shot.
The Navy's Final EIS was successfully challenged in two courts of law.
During discovery, internal Navy documents revealed that a twisted, fraudulent path had been followed prior to publication of the EIS.
The decision to place the site in Washington County was based on "reverse engineering." Choice of site had apparently already been made at high levels for political reasons and an "uneasy" staff then had to frame the document to justify the choice. Original criteria for siting an OLF were altered to suit the choice. Documentation was eliminated, ignored or twisted. Conclusions were not necessarily based on facts.
Listen to naval aviator Commander John A . Robusto, the OLF team's principal member on operations. He writes in an email to a colleague, "Very uneasy. Up until the preferred OLF site was chosen, everything made sense and all decisions could be logically explained. Now we have to reverse engineer the whole process to justify the outcome."
The idea of "split-siting" of squadrons actually detracts from efficiency and readiness. Again, from Robusto, "In a nutshell, they (Secretary of Navy staff) want us to fabricate reasons why split-siting...[is] beneficial to operational readiness. I have explained several times that there is zero operational benefit to split-siting."
In yet another email to a colleague, "I totally believe you that there are a bazillion swans in the area. I've seen them and had to pull off at low levels several times because of them.....Operator's perspective: This is a big problem."
Plaintiffs argued that the Navy did not establish a need for an OLF and failed to rigorously explore alternative locations. Nor did it study the cumulative impacts of the OLF and proposed military airspace and use by other military aircraft. The sudden revelation of "surge operations" should require a new EIS.
The balance of harm, they argued, was weighted on the plaintiffs' side because 100 families would be permanently dislocated and irreparable harm would occur to waterfowl because of low-altitude flights and loss of prime foraging areas.
The Navy argued that the balance of harm was weighted on the defendant's side. The "ripple" effects of delay would affect training for years. Pilots receive degraded training at Fentress (though that facility would continue to be used at night for training after an OLF was constructed and is being used at present for Super Hornet training). Existing facilities could not be modified because of scheduling conflicts.
The Navy assured the court that, even after investing millions on the facility, it could be impartial about evaluating harm to wildlife. At present they did not know enough about the effects of training noise on waterfowl to render a judgment. The birds, they said, have accommodated nicely to noise from the occasional truck that travels the wilderness roads.
US District Court Judge Terrence Boyle found that the balance of harm was weighted on the plaintiffs' side. The duty of the Navy to protect the country did not automatically prevail over NEPA requirements. The Navy failed to give specifics on how delay would affect training. Once land is purchased with taxpayer dollars and construction begins, the Navy could not be impartial. Federal District Court Judge Terrence Boyle also said internal e-mail messages "strongly suggest" that the Navy had selected the rural North Carolina site to ward off protests over adding more flights to the Norfolk, Va., landing field.
On the question of the need for an OLF, the judge noted that pilots had performed well in recent wars despite degraded training and the OLF site will not be ready until three years after the Super Hornets are to arrive. Finally, he said, the Navy's decision might have been a clear error of judgment.
In his words, "construction of the OLF would irreparably harm the natural habitat of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and would negatively affect the bird population through the increased noise that would be produced by the Super Hornets, the loss of essential nourishment for the birds through the loss of neighboring farmland, and the increased danger of utilizing the various lakes and refuges by the birds through the threat of collision with the planes." The Navy "...failed to meet its burden under the National Environmental Policy Act, ... inappropriately minimized the impacts of the OLF ... and failed to rigorously explore alternative locations that could meet [its] objectives with much less adverse impact on the environment."
The decision was upheld on appeal and the Navy was ordered to present a Supplementary EIS which would rigorously explore alternative locations.
THE SUPPLEMENTARY EIS
In February 2007 the Navy released the Supplementary EIS. Despite new findings that the endangered red wolf and bald eagle also inhabit the land, the Navy again identified the Washington County site as the preferred location for an OLF.
Despite the judge's call for an even-handed approach, the Navy concentrated its research on a single site, Washington County. Alternative sites suggested by the State of North Carolina were given short shrift. No sites in Virginia were studied.
"The Navy's Chief of Naval Operations admitted during a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing that the Navy's focus is to make the preferred site work rather than to consider other possibilities," North Carolina Representative G. K. Butterfield, whose district includes Washington County, stated during a hearing in Bertie County.
The idea of using the adequate facilities that already exist at Cherry Point and Fentress, near Oceana did not warrant consideration, nor did the idea of time-sharing a site.
Instead of seeking reasonable alternatives, the Navy still prefers to spend tax payer dollars to degrade prime farmland and eliminate bird populations in order to conduct its training.
NATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY ACT
The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, is the cornerstone of our environmental laws, a fundamental bulwark of democracy that forces government to be responsible to the people. Without NEPA, federal agencies would have license to do just about anything they wanted--log national forests, pave wetlands, or build an OLF without answering to anyone.
NEPA sets up a procedure, the Environmental Impact Statement, for examining every government proposal that will have environmental impacts. NEPA is the tool that requires the Navy to lay out its plans and allows us to comment on them. It means the Navy can't plunk an OLF on a piece of land and say, "Trust us. This is a good thing." Through Environmental Impact Statements and the hearings that accompany them, people are kept informed.
The spirit of NEPA is expressed in the quality of the environmental impact statement. Is data relevant? honest? meaningful? understandable? Have alternative, less intrusive courses of action been considered? Are conclusions justified? When data is missing, or conclusions arrived at unfairly, then people must speak up in pursuit of fairness. In the case of this Navy document, although hundreds spoke, it was necessary to take the issue to the courts in the interests of fairness because the document was deficient in its analysis.
Government agencies do not have to choose the least environmentally detrimental alternative when they are planning a project. They must, however, take a hard look at all the options available, including the option of doing nothing.
They must assess what environmental damage is expected in all options, and they must demonstrate why the need for the project outweighs the damage that might occur to the environment. They must also define any expected cumulative effects of damage over time and in consonance with other actions in the area.
THE PERQUIMANS COUNTY SITE
The center of the landing field in Perquimans County would be located two miles from the Up River Friends Church, four miles from the Winslow Grove Church, 5 miles from the town of Winfall, which houses two schools and a nursing home, and 7 miles from the town of Hertford the county seat. Almost 600 people and over 250 homes would fall within the area of concern for noise. Maximum decibels (dBs) range from 110 at the Up River Church to 76 in the town of Hertford.
About 1400 acres of farmland within the core area of the OLF would be converted to turf grass to discourage wildfowl. An additional 16,000 acres of cash crops, including corn, soybean and winter wheat would be controlled to discourage wildlife by planting alternative crops (e.g., cotton, which is already being over-produced).
The farms in question have been in families for generations and in some cases several generations of a family live on and are sustained by the property. The farms are both a source of retirement income and an inheritance for future generations of farmers. Families who were bought out would become, in essence, tenant farmers, leasing land they had once owned from the Navy and planting and harvesting according to the dictates of the Navy.
With eloquence, speakers at the OLF hearing in Perquimans County held in March 2007 chided the Navy for their arrogance and wastefulness, repeatedly pointing out that the Navy had never substantiated its need for an OLF. They were dismayed at the disrespect the Navy was showing to the residents of eastern North Carolina. They were angered at being considered less worthy than residents of Virginia Beach. They resented being asked to compensate for the Navy's poor planning. A farmer commented that he would be irresponsible if he allowed his cow to deposit its waste on a neighbor's property.
From a youth, "Our church is on sacred ground. You don't mess with God." From a resident, "May God forgive you trespassers."
These are the questions which the Navy has not answered with clarity and precision: