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Navy Will Move Ahead on Facility Expansion

Environment: Coastal Commission had ordered a halt to radar center project, but base officials say they are complying with all state and federal laws. Panel may sue.

May 25, 2000|COLL METCALFE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PORT HUENEME — Navy officials said Wednesday they will move ahead with an ambitious plan to expand a radar testing facility at Port Hueneme, ignoring a ruling by the state Coastal Commission that ordered a halt to the project.

"We believe we are complying with all state and federal laws with this project and that's as far as we had to go," said Charles Giacchi, executive director of Port Hueneme's Naval Surface Warfare Center. "We have gone to great lengths to comply with the Coastal Commission and satisfy their concerns and we don't believe we can do any more."

The Navy's decision sets the stage for a potential courtroom showdown if the commission decides to file suit against the Navy to force a compromise.

"That's an avenue the commission could and may pursue," said Mark Delaplaine, federal consistency supervisor for the commission. "The commission came in with a very reasonable recommendation and the Navy chose to reject it."

At issue is the commission's request that the Navy include a civilian expert on a panel that will monitor health issues related to the radar facility, formally known as the Surface Warfare Engineering Facility or SWEF.

The state said a civilian was necessary to answer questions of objectivity that arise when government agencies, such as the Navy, monitor themselves.

The Navy refused, which commissioners felt smacked of arrogance.

"It's just good PR," Delaplaine said. "At no time did the commission say there were problems with the project, they just wanted to help the Navy get the public's confidence."

The commission could file suit in federal court claiming the Navy is not complying with standards outlined in the Coastal Zone Management Act, which the state oversees.

Specifically, its case could center on the Navy's refusal to abide by the panel's recommendations to ensure reasonable margins for public safety.

"The commission does have a case it could pursue," said John Buse, managing attorney for the Environmental Defense Center. "There is some reason to believe the Navy is not complying with federal law in meeting the commission's recommendation to guarantee health safety."

The Coastal Commission, which has its next meeting in June, is scheduled to discuss its options regarding the Navy expansion.

Beyond a federal lawsuit, Delaplaine said the two sides could meet again with mediators to resolve the impasse or drop the matter altogether.

The most favorable course, he said, would be to seek a compromise outside the courts.

"I don't think either side wants this to end up in court," Delaplaine said. "But it's the commission's decision and they will ultimately choose what they feel is best."

As part of its expansion plans, the Navy applied to the commission for permits to install lasers, microwave transmitters and receivers, satellite communications and other equipment.

Officials at the base maintain the expansion is critical to maintaining the Navy's defensive and offensive capabilities and, when completed, would serve as the hub for weapons and warfare tests involving bases throughout the country.

An independent review of the proposal concluded in March determined the facility would pose no threat to people or area wildlife, but added that some precautions were required to ensure safety.

The review panel forwarded a list of recommendations and last month the Navy agreed to a number of those restrictions. The only sticking point left was inclusion of a civilian on the health survey panel and the Navy refused to budge, saying it had already done enough.

"We want the public to know that we have gone through extensive efforts to ensure safety of SWEF operations, to provide the information to panelists to make a determination and taken additional actions to satisfy all concerns," said Capt. James Phillips, commander of the surface warfare center.

Some residents near the radar facility also are objecting to the Navy's plan, insisting that the installation of lasers and microwave beams poses potential risks for base employees and neighbors.

Silver Strand resident Lee Quaintance, who leads a group of residents opposed to the expansion, said the Navy's decision to move ahead despite the Coastal Commission's objection indicates the facility is not as safe as the military maintains.

"If it is so safe then why wouldn't they allow an outside expert to sit on the panel?" he asked. "What do they have to fear?"

Navy officials made their announcement Wednesday surrounded by a number of county officials who support the plan, for both moral and economic reasons.

Supervisor Judy Mikels said that the project, which could generate as much as $29 million in business over the next five years and add another $150 million to area payrolls, is the right thing to do, particularly in the age of shrinking defense budgets.

"We need to keep in mind the safety of our sailors," she said. "They don't stand a chance if they don't have the weapons to protect themselves."

Although no date has been set for the expansion project, Navy officials said it will start soon and continue for the next three years.

And the Navy said it will just wait for the Coastal Commission's next move, but hopes the issue would soon be put to rest.

"It's up to them as to how they want to proceed," Giacchi said. "I'd hope this is the end of it."

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