Proposed Navy Expansion Could Bring More Undersea Explosions to Washington Waters

Environmentalists—some already mulling a lawsuit for underwater tests—say the Navy's new plan poses a broader risk to the Sound and its marine life.

The war on terrorism may not be openly fought here, but it increasingly will be practiced here. Under a new Navy plan, the waters of Puget Sound, Hood Canal, and the Washington coast will be used for more testing and training, officials say. The plan calls for deployment of more unmanned vehicles, including submersible and aerial weapons platforms, and an increase in war games off the coast, partly in a marine sanctuary.

In general, more stuff will get blown up and the use of sonar will be expanded, according to interviews and government documents. The public may not always be aware, since many of the exercises will be underwater. But fish are sure to notice.

"We're losing the Sound and now the Washington coast to the military on a month-by-month basis, and people are oblivious to it," warns Seattle activist Glen Milner, a longtime member of Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, which opposes the plans. "You're not going to realize this until a Navy or Coast Guard boat comes up to you and asks what you're doing in their waters."

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group based in D.C., says it was already mulling a lawsuit against the Navy for not taking precautions with its existing underwater demolitions here—as many as 300 per year in Puget Sound, the group says, citing federal documents. According to the PEER study, the Navy frequently uses C-4 plastic explosives underwater as part of its training.

One explosive exercise, off the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, caused an extensive fish kill a few years back, says PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, and the Navy's new plans pose a broader risk. "The Navy detonates in the shallow waters of the Sound and won't use bubble curtains to protect sea life," says Ruch, referring to an artificially created wall of bubbles that deadens sound and impact. "And so far they've refused to consider those alternatives."

More details of the plans should unfold in the next few weeks, starting with the release of a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on the effects of closing off more waters around Navy facilities for training and weapons testing, a plan quietly in the works since 2003. The Navy will also begin holding public meetings on a new proposal to expand training operations principally in its range off the Washington coast, which will require another EIS.

The impact of both proposals would widen the military presence in a region already host to eight major installations, 55,000 military personnel, and more firepower than most free nations. The Navy alone owns 28,000 acres of land in the Puget Sound region, the service's third-largest fleet concentration in the world.

Navy officials say they have to "optimize" weapons use if tests and training are to be realistic and therefore beneficial; they think Western Washington is an ideal proving ground with its combination of inland sea and open ocean. Navy spokesperson Sheila Murray confirms that the coastal plan, at least, could mean more undersea and airborne explosions, including torpedoes and missiles, and bring more frequent use of sonar from Neah Bay to Ocean Shores. However, "We can't be specific," says Murray, "due to security reasons."

Without knowing what the Navy is really proposing to do, it's impossible to figure out how to mitigate the damage, says Fred Felleman, a Seattle marine consultant and photographer active in the campaign to protect sea animals. He worries in part about more frequent use of active sonar in inland and coastal waters that can be harmful to whales and other sea life.

"The new operations should require permits or at least a thorough review," Felleman says, "which is near impossible given the classified nature of the operations."

According to planning maps, the Navy hopes to lengthen its already sizable underwater test ranges in Hood Canal, around Keyport (a town located on the Kitsap Peninsula) in Puget Sound, and in the coastal waters north of Grays Harbor. The three areas are part of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center at Keyport, whose activities include the use of robotic, mini-sublike devices and sea-floor-crawling robots employed to detect and destroy mines and gather electronic information. Small, manned subs containing Navy SEALs teams may also be tested. On the Navy's drawing boards are even larger versions of such subs, using supercavitation (i.e., high-speed propulsion) and cruising beneath the open sea at 100 knots.

Navy maps indicate the range around Keyport could double in size, extending from Liberty Bay near Poulsbo to Bainbridge Island. In Hood Canal, the Dabob Bay range would be extended to twice its size, stretching from the floating bridge at the mouth of the canal south to near Lilliwaup, Mason County. Grays Harbor's Quinault Range would be greatly expanded, almost 50 miles into the Pacific along the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

The Quinault is located inside an even larger Navy ocean range, the Northwest Training Range Complex that reaches down to Northern California, where exercises sometimes involve carrier strike groups (aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, cruisers, submarines, and support ships).

Extending the inland and coastal ranges will allow the Navy to close larger portions of open waters to civilian watercraft when necessary. Currently, the Navy reports, the Quinault Range is closed up to 15 days while sections of Keyport and Hood Canal are closed up to 60 and 130 days, respectively.

In separate actions, the Navy is also proposing to fence off and extend the security zone around its major West Coast ammunition arsenal on 2,700-acre Indian Island near Port Townsend, where the payload includes Tomahawk cruise missiles for Trident subs. In a recent notice in the Federal Register, the Navy said more security was needed to prevent accidents, "sabotage and other subversive acts," as well as "to protect the public from potentially hazardous conditions." Also on the security-zone expansion list are the Navy's Manchester (Kitsap County) Fuel Depot, the Bremerton Navy Yard, Whidbey Island, and the Bangor nuclear sub base on Hood Canal—where the Navy has also proposed using trained dolphins and sea lions to patrol a security perimeter and intercept boaters and swimmers.

The Navy isn't yet issuing specifics about its new coastal proposal, but a Navy Web site outlines the possible testing of "new weapons systems, vessels, and aircraft" including unmanned aerial vehicles, and more training on guided missile submarines. Also planned are "the establishment of an electronic combat emitter [used, for example, to train pilots how to deal with enemy radar signals],...increased net explosive weights for underwater demolition, development of air target services, and installation of surface targets."

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Coast Guard spokespersons in Seattle were unaware of the Navy plans, but the military has notified the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The state Department of Ecology thinks the Navy can do mostly what it wants without local intervention. "They have sovereign immunity on oil spills, for example," said the agency's Curt Hart. "We can't penalize a Navy ship for spilling in the Sound; they have to agree to reimburse us."

Navy spokesperson Murray confirms the newest plan includes an increased use of active sonar signals. Active sonar emits electronic pulses—used sometimes at powerful levels by the military (and commonly at a lower pitch by pleasure boaters) for tracking and underwater measurements—while passive sonar is used as an underwater listening device. Environmentalists claim the Navy has sometimes used its soundings irresponsibly, such as in 2003 when a guided missile destroyer, the USS Shoup, tested midfrequency direct sonar in U.S. and Canadian waters, causing almost a dozen harbor porpoises to beach along British Columbia's Haro Strait.

That incident, along with whale beachings in the Bahamas and the Canary Islands, among others, are behind an ongoing federal lawsuit against the Navy in California. "The Haro Strait sonar is an example of what can happen when precautions aren't taken," says Cara Horowitz, staff attorney for the National Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles, which last month won a temporary restraining order against the Navy's use of high-intensity sonar during war games off the Southern California coast (although the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last week temporarily stayed that order). "The Navy now has to take another look at its mitigation nationwide, including in the Northwest," says Horowitz, "and that could affect the Navy's plans up there."

Navy spokesperson Murray says the service expects to hear about sonar from the public at the coastal scoping meetings—starting Sept. 10 in Oak Harbor and continuing the following two days in Pacific Beach and Aberdeen before moving to Oregon and California. (Initial public meetings on the Keyport Range plan have already been held; more hearings should follow after the EIS is issued.) "I'm sure it [sonar] is going to come up," Murray says, "and I'm sure people are going to feel very passionate about it. We certainly understand. The Navy is committed to using active sonar, but we go to great lengths to try to be aware of potential effects on the environment and marine life."

Felleman, the marine consultant, says the proposal is ironic in light of the Navy plan to employ dolphins as guardians of its Trident nuclear sub base. "Now that the Navy is even recruiting marine mammals into service in the defense of Bangor," Felleman says, "it is all the more reasonable for them to be contributing to the protection and recovery of the wild populations."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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