PORT TOWNSEND — A small chorus sang songs of peace during the Navy’s open house in Port Townsend as people learned about the Navy’s proposal to increase special operations training around the Puget Sound.
More than 150 people packed into Blue Heron Middle School on Wednesday night to air their concerns about the Navy’s plans and to learn about what the increased training would mean for people locally. The Navy received about 75 written comments.
Many who attended expressed environmental concerns, but also said they were upset about the ever-increasing presence of the military in the area.
“This is part of the whole militarization of this entire region,” said Jean Walat. “We’ve had the sonar underwater, the growlers overhead, the impacts to [Olympic National Park] and now this is accessing the beaches.”
The Navy unveiled its draft Environmental Assessment on its proposed special operations training Jan. 18 and is asking the public to comment on the 267-page document until Feb. 21. It can be seen at https://navfac.navy.mil/NSOEA.
Comments can be emailed to [email protected], or sent by mail to Naval Facilities Engineering Command Northwest, Attention: Project Manager, EV21.AW, 1101 Tautog Circle, Suite 203, Silverdale, WA 98315-1101.
“The intent of the proposed training is to build trainees’ skills, experience, and confidence by challenging them in a location with dynamic weather and land/cold-water conditions,” according to the 267-page draft Environmental Assessment published Jan. 18.
The proposed training area on the North Olympic Peninsula includes the shoreline from Port Townsend to the end of the Toandos Peninsula. That includes county parks such as North Beach and state parks such as Fort Worden, Fort Flagler and Fort Townsend.
Training would include diving and swimming, inserting and extracting trainees and or equipment using watercraft, launching and recovering watercraft, using unmanned underwater vehicles, moving on foot over the beach, hiking to an observation point and using observation techniques, simulated building clearance training, high-angle climbing and using small unmanned aircraft systems, according to the draft Environmental Assessment.
The Navy says the proposal would “support intermediate and advanced small-unit naval special operations training in increasingly complex, cold-water maritime, and land environments.”
Many said during the meeting they would have rather have had the Navy host town-hall style meetings instead of open houses.
“If you want to put out a lot of information in a way most people won’t access because it’s overwhelming, if you want to break up any opportunity for community dialogue … this is the way to do it,” Laura Tucker said.
“If you want to get accurate information, if you want to hear how your community feels about things, this is absolutely not the way to do that,” she added.
Francesco Tortorici echoed that sentiment.
“This isn’t a public hearing, this is a dog and pony show,” he said. “In a public hearing, everyone else gets to hear what their neighbor is saying and it’s on record. Anything that’s said [here] is not on record.”
Tortorici said Navy officials were answering his questions, but the answers weren’t satisfactory. He said he doesn’t understand why the training can’t be conducted elsewhere.
“We have sensitive areas and they’re going to be coming with submersibles through sensitive grasses, fish habitats, wildlife habitats,” he said. ” I think we need to be minimizing our impact, not increasing.”
Navy Spokesperson Sheila Murray said the Navy has made public outreach efforts far beyond what is required for an environmental assessment (EA). The Navy was not required to host public outreach meetings several months ago and it was not required to host three open houses on the draft environmental assessment, including the one Wednesday, she said.
“The only thing that is required is public comment for the draft portion of this EA,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to get their questions answered and get correct answers from subject matter experts.”
Anna Whalen, a Navy environmental planner and the project manager on this EA, said the top concern she has heard is about the Navy training in public places.
Some raised concerns about seeing the Navy train on public beaches and at state parks, though, ideally, no one would ever know any training had taken place, Whalen said.
“One of the main goals of that training is to leave no trace and to be undetected,” she said.
She said instructors dressed as civilians would make sure the public isn’t around when training starts. Much of the training would be at night.
The training would stop if anyone in the public stumbled upon the training, officials said.
As far as environmental risks of the training, she said there are few. She said the Navy would avoid “very sensitive areas” and that officials on support craft would be on the lookout for whales.
“Most of the other types of activities they are doing are similar to anyone else, which is walking across the beach, walking in the woods,” she said.
“Birds might fly away, the squirrels might move out of the way, but they’re going to keep doing what they do.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].