The Navy's expansion of loud, low-flying Growler jet training flights on Whidbey Island drew a lawsuit on Tuesday from Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who alleges the Navy did not do enough to examine the flights' impacts on people and wildlife.
In a state that has long hosted military bases -- and welcomed billions of dollars of Defense Department spending -- the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle marks a rare court challenge of a Pentagon decision from state political leaders.
It results from a Navy decision to increase by roughly 33 percent the number of EA-18G Growlers operations from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, which has alarmed and angered some residents on Whidbey and San Juan Islands, as well as the Olympic Peninsula.
Ferguson's lawsuit alleges that a Navy environmental review of the expansion unlawfully failed to fully measure the impacts to public health, as well as bald eagles, tufted puffins and other wildlife that, due to the noise, might have feeding and breeding disrupted.
"The Navy has an important job, and it's critical that their pilots and crews have the opportunity to train," Ferguson said in a statement. "That does not relieve the federal government of its obligation to follow the law and avoid unnecessary harm to our health and natural resources."
Gov. Jay Inslee, in a written statement, said the expanded Navy training could result in disproportionate impacts on the state's environment, health and quality of life.
Navy public affairs said in a statement it would not be appropriate to comment on pending litigation. The Navy completed a "thorough and comprehensive" environmental impact statement that addressed all the comments received during a six-year period, the statement said.
Navy officials in the past have said they did extensive modeling of the noise impacts as part of their environmental review, and that the training is vital to military preparedness.
The Growler aircraft, which jams communications and launch systems, is a frontline force in the U.S. military electromagnetic warfare. The Navy currently has 82 Growlers based in Oak Harbor; it approved an expansion of up to 36 more.
The training involves both an Oak Harbor base airstrip as well as a second airfield near Coupeville, which would have 24,100 takeoffs and landings, a fourfold increase over earlier levels. Most of them would simulate landing on a ship, and involve brief touchdowns on the airfield.
In early December, the Navy, citing a "fundamental difference of opinion," terminated talks with state and local groups about easing the impacts of the expanded Growler training, and in March rejected a request from a federal advisory council to undertake additional monitoring of flights over Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve near Coupeville.
"It is simply not an acceptable place to have so many jets," said Rob Smith, the northwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association. "It's a bad problem that is getting worse."
Some critics, including Smith, have suggested more training could be conducted at other sites in the Western United States.
The state lawsuit seeks a judgment that the Navy has violated the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal laws by relying on a "legally deficient" environmental review to support the expansion.