Willie Drye – 2004-07-16 12:19:22
PLYMOUTH, NC (June 21, 2004) — A special committee appointed by N.C. Gov. Mike Easley compiled a long list of environmental and economic reasons why the U.S. Navy should not build a huge training airfield in Washington County, one of the state’s poorest counties.
The Navy wants to build the airfield on 30,000 acres of prime farmland in northeastern North Carolina. It would be used to train pilots flying jet fighters. The proposed site is only about five miles from the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. During the winter, the wildlife refuge is home to about 100,000 migratory birds, including geese and tundra swans.
The plan has sparked intense opposition in the sparsely populated region, and groups that don’t often find common political ground — such as Audubon North Carolina and the National Rifle Association — have joined forces to oppose the airfield.
Criticisms of Navy Plan
The report makes the following points about the Navy’s plans:
• The wildlife refuge provides winter habitat for 25 percent of the tundra swans in eastern North America.
• International scientists rank the refuge as one of the 50 most important in the world.
• Building the airfield could have “a number of adverse impacts” on the birds using the refuge during the winter.
• The proposed site has the worst hazard rating for possible collisions between fighter jets and birds of any military jet training field in the nation.
• The Navy says it has experience managing bird strike hazards, but it did not provide the committee an example of a site where it had successfully managed a hazard potential similar to the one that would exist at the Washington County site.
• The study group doesn’t understand why the Navy needs so much land for the airfield.
• The Navy will impose restrictions on what farmers can grow on the land, and this will hurt the farmers economically.
• The airfield would remove at least $185,000 in tax revenue every year from Washington County, which is perpetually strapped for cash.
• The airfield could harm the quality of life in Washington and Beaufort counties and offer little benefit in return.
• The Navy should be more precise about the flight patterns jets will follow in using the airfield and do an accurate demonstration of how noise from the jets would affect residents.
• The study group doesn’t think the reasons the Navy cited for passing up a potential airfield site in nearby Carteret County were significant enough to justify not putting it there.
• Until the Navy resolves these and other concerns, the study group recommends putting the airfield at another site in North Carolina.
A $186.5 millionStalemate
“From everything that was presented to the Governor’s study group, it is clear that the Navy’s choice on the landing field is a mistaken one and that viable alternatives exist,” said Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina. “What is less clear is who has the will and wisdom to end this costly stalemate, work on a new location, and get on with supporting the training our pilots require. We need true leadership, not just political maneuvering, from our elected officials and from Navy commanders.”
The debate over whether to build the $186.5 million airfield has been heating up since April, when a federal judge issued a temporary injunction to halt work on the project. Judge Terrance Boyle said he saw many flaws in the Navy’s plans and told Navy officials they could not resume work until he’d heard arguments in lawsuits filed by opponents of the project.
Washington and Beaufort counties, Audubon North Carolina, and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed the suits. Boyle, a staunch conservative who once worked for former US Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C, will hear a Navy request to reconsider his injunction June 30.
The squabble over the airfield has spread well beyond North Carolina. In May the Washington Post said the debate “is fast becoming one of the most contentious ecological battles in the country.” Country music legend Willie Nelson wrote a letter to President Bush asking him to stop the Navy’s plans, and the Boston Globe, New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and other newspapers have reported the dispute.
Many of North Carolina’s most prominent elected leaders are opposed to putting the airfield in Washington County, where more than half the residents are black or some other minority and the poverty rate is well above the national average. US Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat, and US Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a Republican, have said the airfield should not be built there.
Gov. Easley, a Democrat who will seek re-election in November, has said he also opposes putting the airfield in Washington County, but he has not commented on the study committee’s report. Sid Eagles, retired chief judge of the NC Court of Appeals, chaired the 17-member panel. Despite the many questions his committee raised about the Navy’s plan, Eagles recently told The News and Observer of Raleigh, NC that his committee avoided drawing any conclusions about where the airfield should be built.
Local leaders in Havelock, NC, which is near a Marine Corps air station that would gain 798 civilian jobs under the Navy’s plan, want the airfield built in Washington County despite the opposition there. The Havelock group told a local newspaper they fear that if opponents stop the airfield from being built in Washington County, federal officials will retaliate by closing bases in the state. But at the urging of US Rep. Frank Ballance, D-N.C., money for the airfield recently was removed from the House of Representatives’ version of the National Defense Authorization for the coming fiscal year.
Airfield opponents are hoping the US Senate also will delete money for the airfield from its version of the proposed defense budget.
Report submitted by Willie Drye. 252/793-4430 (home) 252/217-8531 (cell) email@example.com