Judge Invalidates Navy's Environmental Assessment on Airspace

JULY 14, 2005

U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle ruled Wednesday that the Navy was wrong to say Marine Corps jets would have no significant impact on wildlife or the environment when they roar through combat maneuvers over pristine reaches of national seashore and wildlife refuges on the North Carolina coast. Boyle invalidated the Navy's judgment, agreeing with environmentalists that the Navy failed to take a hard look at the impact in the area within and around two portions of airspace in eastern North Carolina.

The Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, which is near the disputed airspace, said in a prepared statement Thursday that what it calls military operations areas "are completely compatible with the environment." Base officials will continue to pursue the airspace restriction after reviewing the judge's ruling, according to the statement.

Boyle had separated the airspace issue from a related dispute over the Navy's plans to build an outlying landing field in Washington and Beaufort counties.

The ruling means the Navy must complete a broader environmental assessment if it wants the airspace, said Derb Carter, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented environmentalists in the airspace case.

"All parties agreed that the geographic area underlying the proposed MOAs is environmentally sensitive and unique. The available evidence and the federally protected status of many parts of the region ... indicate a significant impact is likely," Boyle said. That should have led the Navy to conduct a broader environmental impact statement sizing up the potential harms, he said.

After deciding that military jets would have no environmental impact, the Navy asked the Federal Aviation Administration to close access except by the military to the blocks of airspace above 3,000 feet and under 18,000 feet altitude. The FAA is considering the request.

One portion runs nearly the entire length of the Cape Lookout National Seashore in Carteret County. It would be used for 1,460 flights a year for high speed access into already restricted airspace. The second section stretching over five counties and four national wildlife refuges would be used to practice air combat maneuvers and formation flying by jets flying more than 2,400 sorties a year.

In the OLF case the Navy wants the field to train Navy pilots for nighttime landings on aircraft carriers. Local residents and environmentalist groups sued, accusing the military of picking a site near a wildlife refuge dense with migrating birds without conducting proper environmental studies. Boyle agreed.

The Navy's appeal of the OLF decision to a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., is scheduled to be heard July 20.

Source: Associated Press