Navy still targets Washington OLF site

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 26, 2007

The OLF battle continues.

Despite last week’s release of its Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) on the construction of an Outlying Landing Field in eastern North Carolina, opponents of the U.S. Navy’s plan to construct an Outlying Landing Field (OLF) in Washington and Beaufort counties have vowed to continue the fight.

Meanwhile, local officials in Bertie and Gates counties are keeping a close eye on this issue, one that has brewed since 2002. At that time, the U.S. Navy was considering a site in the Midway/Merry Hill area of Bertie County as one of five possible northeastern North Carolina locations to build the OLF. During a public hearing held in August of 2002, nearly 400 people packed the Bertie High School gym to voice their displeasure over the Navy’s proposal

Gates County was also close to a possible site in neighboring Perquimans County.

Locations were also studied in Hyde and Craven counties before the Navy opted for a site along the Washington/Beaufort County line.

On Thursday of last week, the Department of the Navy prepared its DSEIS in the case of the proposed OLF in eastern North Carolina.

The DSEIS was filed Feb. 23 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The purpose of the DESIS is to provide additional analysis of the potential environmental consequences associated with the construction and operation of an OLF to support Field Carrier Landing Practice operations of F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet squadrons stationed at Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana (Va.) and Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point. The analysis supplements the evaluation presented in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (Final EIS) for the Introduction of F/A-18 E/F (Super Hornet) Aircraft to the East Coast of the United States, which was released to the public in July 2003, and is not to be considered independent of the Final EIS.

The latest study failed to impress regional environmental officials. They said this second reanalysis fails again to accurately address the impacts on over 100,000 waterfowl in one of the most ecologically valuable and sensitive regions in the country. It also downplays the jeopardy to human life of putting top naval pilots and $70 million aircraft in harm’s way.

&uot;Once again the Navy has failed to thoroughly address conflicts, land use problems and threats to the unique wildlife and wildlife habitats of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge,” Larry Thompson, Executive Director of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation, said.  &uot;Hunters, anglers and wildlife-enthusiasts should be outraged by this latest attempt of the U.S. Navy to minimize the severity of the wildlife and habitat impacts that will come with construction of the OLF at this site.”  

At issue is a 30,000+ acre landing field facility for F/A-18 Super Hornet practice landings. As proposed, it would handle an average of 70 daily touch-and-go landings. The proposed OLF site is near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of the East Coast’s most important sanctuaries for wildlife. Encompassing parts of three counties, the refuge is part of the Atlantic Flyway for migratory birds and provides migratory habitat for more than 100,000 waterfowl including tundra swans and snow geese.

Opponents to the OLF say not only would the flights cause extreme noise disruptions to area wildlife, but the purchasing of farmland as a buffer around the landing field would adversely effect important foraging sources.  

It was the migratory bird issue that forced the Navy to go back and do further analysis and studies.  That came on the heels of a 2005 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle who wrote that “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.” Furthermore, he wrote that 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 [their] objectives with much less adverse impact on the environment.”

OLF opponents say the SEIS does not objectively satisfy many environmental issues.  Most notably are the waterfowl disruption studies.  One study was of captive wood and black ducks.  Tundra swans and snow geese are significantly larger in size than these smaller birds; snow geese wings span to seven feet.  Another study at the preferred site used a small Cessna airplane, vastly different in noise level that the Super Hornet F18.

The re-analysis claims that there will be only ‘minimal impacts’ on the waterfowl and refuge.  But Naval Bird Air Strike Hazard experts disagree.  Other sites in NC that were supposed to be analyzed objectively would be much more suited for the project.

Last week’s announcement also attracted political attention.

In a letter addressed to North Carolina’s Congressional Delegation concerning the DSEIS, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley expressed his frustration and disappointment with the Navy’s decision to again identify Washington County as its preferred site for the proposed OLF.

“Our Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources has repeatedly talked with the Navy leadership in charge of this project and our OLF Study Group has worked hard to identify viable alternatives,” Easley wrote. “As the draft SEIS shows, the Navy remains unwilling to even fully consider reasonable alternatives.”

Easley continued, “I believe this matter can be resolved, but spending millions of dollars to build the proposed OLF next to a world-renowned wildlife refuge for migratory birds is not an acceptable resolution.

Congress controls the purse strings for this project and Congress should withhold funding until the Navy is willing to consider reasonable alternatives.”

Congressman G. K. Butterfield (D-NC) made the following statement after the release of the DSEIS:

&uot;I’m certainly disappointed with the decision and I’m deeply concerned that the Navy continues to resist fulfilling its obligations to engage in a clear, full, fair and objective process carried out in the light of day. Without looking at all the possibilities, it’s still very difficult to believe that there isn’t a better, safer and more suitable place to build an Outlying Landing Field than alongside a highly active wildlife refuge.&uot;

Copies of the DSEIS have been distributed to libraries and publicly accessible facilities for public review. Locally, the DSEIS can be viewed at the Lawrence Memorial Library, 204 East Dundee Street in Windsor; the Bertie County Manager’s Office, 106 Dundee Street in Windsor; the Perquimans County Library, 110 West Academy in Hertford; and the Perquimans County Manager’s Office, 128 North Church Street, 2nd Floor, in Hertford.

Additionally, the Navy will host six public hearings on the DSEIS, to obtain public comment on the document.

Each scheduled public hearing will be preceded by an open information session to allow interested individuals to review information presented in the DSEIS.

Navy representatives will be available during the information sessions to provide clarification as necessary related to the DSEIS.

Each information session will occur from 4:30-6:30 p.m. followed by the formal public hearing from 7-10 p.m. Locally, public hearings have been scheduled for Tuesday, March 20 at Bertie High School and Wednesday, March 21 at Perquimans County High School, 305 Edenton Road, in Hertford.