Navy to make bombing study more rigorous

Protests lead to closer environmental scrutiny

By Kathe Tanner
The Tribune

The U.S. Navy has decided it must do more stringent environmental studies and accept more public comment before it can add about 3,000 test-bombing flights a year over Fort Hunter Liggett.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Duncan Holaday on Thursday called for a full environmental impact study of the proposal that would send F/A-18 Hornet fighter planes, carrying nonexplosive dummy bombs, to the fort from Lemoore Naval Air Station or from aircraft carriers in the Pacific Ocean.

The Navy had been in the middle of a less detailed environmental assessment, which could have been completed late this year.

Fort Hunter Liggett is a former Army tank base that abuts Los Padres National Forest near Big Sur. The fort is currently a training center for the Army Reserve. The Navy wants to transfer some of its bomber training flights from Fallon, Nev., to the fort to save about $3 million a year in fuel, among other savings.

According to U.S. Representatives Sam Farr and Lois Capps, the Navy was forced to do the lengthier study of what such a plan could do to the area's environment because of the volume and intensity of public and governmental concern about the flights.

When news of the plan surfaced in January, public response was swift and primarily negative. So many inquiries and letters were sent via the Internet to one Navy staffer that his e-mail inbox crashed. And in February, about 300 people went to a Navy open house in King City to get more information about the plan.

So what's the difference between what the Navy was doing and what it must do now? According to Mark Delaplain of the state Coastal Commission staff, who reviews the federal consistency of projects, "unless they have people working 48 hours a day just on this, the whole process will take longer &emdash; I'd hate to say how much longer, but it will be a lot."

An EIS is a more structured and comprehensive environmental assessment that will require greater documentation and communication with federal, state and local agencies and the public. It must also follow a set of events that include:

• a draft EIS, followed by a 45-day comment period;

• a response to comments submitted; and

• a final EIS.

All of that must occur before the Navy and the Army can say aye or nay to the test-bombing plan.

Right after Holaday's decision was announced, Farr said that this "is just a first step."

"This doesn't mean they're giving up," he said. "They're still interested in doing the project."

What it does mean, he added, is that the public process worked. "The squeaky wheel won. Hopefully, this will lead them to make the decision not to do the project at all."

A major piece of information Farr is seeking is "an understanding of all the flights at Fort Hunter Liggett. They're going to have to look at the cumulative impact of all the activity" of planes over the fort from the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and various reserve branches of the military.

"At a minimum," Farr said, "The Navy will have to have a better handle on who's using the airspace and have a complaint system for when they violate their own altitude restrictions."

Capps was also pleased with the Navy decision. "I still oppose the plan. I believe the more extensive study will show the true impact of the project on the Central Coast," including how it could affect the eco-tourism industry in San Luis Obispo County.

Some who attended the Navy's February meeting in King City say they are encouraged that the environmental report will be more complete.

"I don't think the Navy had much choice," said David Broadwater of Atascadero, who opposes the project due to environmental concerns.

Another project opponent who also has concerns over the environment, Steve Ela of Paso Robles, said he's glad the Navy must do the more intense studies. "But I certainly wish they'd said, 'We'll just forget it, folks.' This just means I've got to get to work again," Ela said with a sigh.

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