For both environmental and pilot safety, Navy should scrap eastern N.C. landing strip plan

On April 19, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle struck a blow for common sense over political pressure when he issued an injunction temporarily halting work on a proposed jet practice field in Washington County. On Tuesday, the Navy filed a motion asking Boyle to reconsider his ruling, arguing that delaying the landing field affects the readiness of U.S. forces. That could be, but if it’s so, it’s the Navy’s own fault for arrogantly pushing the project forward on a site that is opposed by, among others, N.C. Gov. Mike Easley, U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the two counties where the strip would be located and an array of nonprofit groups from the Audobon Society to Concerned Citizens for a Sound Economy.

The Navy wants to put the practice strip just west of the 12,000-acre Pungo Unit of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The outlying landing field (OLF), as the proposed strip is called, would be used by pilots of Super Hornets, which are designed to operate from aircraft carriers, to practice landings and takeoffs. About 24,000 tundra swans migrate to the Pocosin each winter along with about 65,000 snow geese. It’s a world-class bird sanctuary.

Pilots would be flying near and even over the refuge. Efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discourage the Navy from choosing the Washington County site fell victim to political pressure. Attempts by the Audubon Society and other groups concerned about the wildlife, and by Gov. Easley, to compromise on a more favorable site elsewhere in North Carolina have been to no avail.

Judge Boyle’s injunction halts work on the landing site until lawsuits to stop the project filed by the governments of Washington and Beaufort counties and environmental groups, including the Audubon Society, can be heard.

The Navy flatly rejected a proposed site in Carteret County that has several major advantages, besides not being near a globally significant bird sanctuary. Apparently the Navy doesn’t want to coordinate its operations with other military activity. Among other things, that site would have involved the acquisition of only one large farm. The Washington County site involves the acquisition of about 70 pieces of property, including many from landowners who do not want to sell. Despite the unresolved lawsuits, the Navy has already paid about $3.7 million for five tracts in Washington County, totaling more than 1,000 acres. It wants 2,000 to 3,000 acres for the first phase of the project, but plans to acquire about 30,000 acres all told. In Carteret County, the Navy could already be constructing the site.

More appalling than the Navy’s disregard for the natural resources and will of the people of North Carolina is it’s apparent willingness to disregard the safety of its own pilots. Since 1985, the United States Air Force alone has recorded more than 38,000 bird-aircraft strikes. As a result of those strikes, 33 people died, 30 aircraft were lost and more than $450 million in equipment damage was sustained. Given such statistics, what on earth would possess the Navy to want to put a landing strip adjacent to a bird sanctuary?

If the Navy is in such a hurry, Judge Boyle might suggest that it consider an alternate location. If it decides to do so, besides saving a world-class bird sanctuary, it might save a few pilots’ lives and a few multimillion dollar planes bought by us taxpayers.