Source: U.S. Navy The U.S. Navy wants to expand its Quinault Undersea Tracking Range from 48 to 1,840 square nautical miles.
Don’t be surprised on the coast this summer if you see some strange submersible “vehicles” surfacing on the shore at Pacific Beach.
The secretary of the Navy is about to authorize a plan to significantly expand an underwater testing range along the Washington coast.
The action will increase the so-called Quinault Underwater Tracking Range from 48 square nautical miles to 1,840 square nautical miles, including some shoreline that primarily would be used for testing new high-tech underwater vehicles.
According to a summary of the plan — under review since 2008 — the Navy needs to extend its testing ranges along the coast and on Hood Canal because “the existing range complex is becoming increasingly incapable of satisfying the existing and evolving capabilities and test requirements of next-generation manned and unmanned vehicles.”
In addition to the expansion along the coast, the plan would increase ranges on Dabob Bay near Quilcene and on Hood Canal. The tests will include unmanned submarines or what are called “autonomous undersea vehicles” and submersible robotic equipment that can be used for underwater or shore surveillance.
Diane Jennings, spokeswoman for the Keyport Naval Undersea Warfare Center on Hood Canal, said testing likely will begin later this summer off the coast once a final 30-day public comment period on the expansion plan ends June 21. That is the final phase of an environmental impact statement process ongoing for two years since the plan was made public.
The plan has raised several concerns for environmental groups, Indian tribes, and fish and wildlife agencies, but the final environmental impact statement makes few changes to the original draft proposal.
“In general, we continue to be concerned with some of the increased Navy activity,” said George Galasso, assistant superintendent of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
NEW NAVY TECHNOLOGY
The Navy, Jennings said, has been testing along the coast for years, but needs a far greater area now because of the new technology. Some of the tests covered by the plan involve submarines, mine detection, different modes of propulsion, use of sensors and impact testing of experimental vehicles, some of them unmanned.
“For example, a torpedo could be launched from the ocean surface and later recovered from the sea floor,” according to one test outlined by the Navy.
“We will be testing undersea vehicles and torpedoes, but we don’t test anything with warheads on them,” Jennings said.
The number of off-shore testing days under the plan will increase from 14 to 16, while the Navy will have 30 days to test at the surf and along the shoreline, she said. Some of the specialized “vehicles” also come up out of the water onto the shore during testing.
“We don’t do a lot (of testing), and most of it is away from the shoreline, so you wouldn’t even know we were out there in most cases unless you were out in a boat,” Jennings said.
The Navy’s request for a larger testing area states it “requires a range complex with assets that provide a broader diversity of sea state conditions, bottom type, deeper water, and increased room to maneuver and combine activities.”
The Navy has been testing underwater off Kalaloch since 1981. It currently has a series of sensors permanently mounted to the sea floor to track surface vessels, submarines and other undersea equipment. The sensors are connected to cables that extend under the beach to a Navy facility and communication tower on National Park Service property.
“They have a lot of different purposes and we need a lot of different test environments,” Jennings said.
Jennings said she doubts beaches will need to be closed as a result of the tests, and that most of the shore activity likely would occur off Pacific Beach.
After several public meetings in 2008 and a comment period on the plan, the Navy concluded the expansion would not cause any short-term or long-term environmental impacts.
“Minimal cumulative impacts would occur, and natural or cultural resources would not be irreversibly or irretrievably committed as a result,” the document states.
The Navy also concluded the expansion would not harm “essential fish habitat.”
“The action would not jeopardize the continuing existence of any listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat,” according to the EIS.
But Barry Thom, acting regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, on April 10 wrote a letter to the Navy directly contradicting that statement.
“The proposed project may adversely affect essential fish habitat for Pacific coast groundfish, coastal pelagic species and Pacific salmon through activities that contact and disturb the substrate or that leave behind expended materials,” Thom wrote.
When the expanded area was examined in the initial public review and comment process, several tribes, including the Quinault and the Hoh, also expressed concern the wider testing area would be a challenge to treaty rights and natural resources protection. The Quinault response specifically requested that the proposed shore-landing activity be done “off Quinault reservation lands.”
“A stated concern was that the Navy’s proposed action must not interfere with, diminish or otherwise alter any of the Quinault Indian Nation fisheries that occur in the usual and accustomed fishing rights and jurisdiction,” according to a Sept. 16, 2008, exchange of letters between the Navy and the tribe contained in the final report on the plan.
The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary also took issue with the size of the expanded area along the coast and argued the Navy should comply with more stringent environmental safeguards and review in the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, as well as Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary regulations.
“This represents an expansion to an area approximately 40 times the size of the existing area used by the Navy for testing operations within the sanctuary,” wrote Carol Bernthal, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary superintendent in another letter contained in the final EIS.
Bernthal said her agency has “concerns about the accidental loss and abandonment of equipment, potential contaminant impacts (from fuels or batteries, for example),” and potential harm to the ecosystem.
Galasso said officials from the Marine Sanctuary have recently been trying to open up better channels with the Navy to get a better understanding of the expansion plan and the testing.
Although the Navy continues to take the position that marine sanctuary regulations don’t apply, there is some cooperation now that didn’t exist before.
“The way we’re seeking to improve that is to improve our communications with the Navy, to try to meet with them on a regular basis,” Galasso said.
Marine Sanctuary officials also are reviewing another ongoing environmental statement about expanding exercises by the Navy’s Pacific Fleet off the coast.
“That would involve the surface fleet, larger ships and maybe aircraft,” he said.
Ultimately, Galasso added, the Navy and the Marine Sanctuary should be able to find some common ground.
“There are actually areas of potential for collaboration in the way of research in the sanctuary,” he said. “We both work in similar types of environments and we both have interests — for slightly different reasons — about what’s going on in the ocean, physically and chemically.”