No people, large animals to be harmed in electronic warfare training, Navy says — but it has its risks
By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
That's the estimate of time it could take for “the liquid tissue” of the eye to be damaged by close proximity to the electromagnetic radiation emitted by three electronic warfare trucks the Navy wants to deploy in Clallam, Jefferson and Grays Harbor counties, Navy official Jerry Sodano said Friday.
The Pacific Northwest Electronic Warfare Range project would entail the first use of electromagnetic radiation for the Navy training that pilots now simulate by internal aircraft controls.
(EDITOR'S NOTE — Previous story: "For war games next year, Navy wants to post trucks with electromagnetic radiation equipment on West End" —
The Navy's environmental assessment, which includes plans for protecting people and large animals, found no significant impact from the $11.5 million warfare training project, planned to be operational on the West End by September 2015.
But the Navy's environmental assessment was not specific about the intensity or maximum potential exposure of the vehicles' electromagnetic emitters.
Dean Millett, district ranger for the Pacific District of the Olympic National Forest, had issued a draft notice of a decision earlier this month in which he had agreed with the Navy's finding of no significant impact, clearing the way for a Forest Service special permit.
He canceled the decision Thursday and reopened public comment because of “renewed interest . . . from members of the public who were unaware of the proposal,” notice of which was not published in North Olympic Peninsula newspapers.
Comment is being accepted through Oct. 10 on the environmental assessment, which is at http://tinyurl.com/PDN-Electrowarfare.
The state Department of Natural Resources must still issue permits for its logging roads.
The camper-sized trucks would be dispersed on 15 sites reached by Forest Service roads.
The exercises would be conducted by training aircraft from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island that would target the vehicles' aimed electromagnetic radiation.
The purpose is to train to deny the enemy “all possible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation (i.e. electromagnetic energy) for use in such applications as communication systems, navigation systems and defense related systems and components,” according to the environmental assessment.
Extended exposure to electromagnetic radiation could cause a health hazard, the Navy said in the environmental assessment, available at http://tinyurl.com/PDN-Electrowarfare.
Trucks will be ringed with warning tape of up to a 101-foot radius.
“Basically, it's a no-loiter area,” Sodano said. “If people want to pass through those areas, it's OK.
“Most of the areas will be at ridge lines and cliffs. [Hikers and hunters] will be walking behind the emission of the antennae.”
The perimeters would be marked with triangular red-and-yellow warning signs with the admonition: “Warning/Radio Frequency Hazard Personnel Hazard Exists In This Area/Keep Moving.”
One of the two crew members staffing each truck would be on watch to shoo away intruders, and vehicles would be moved if hunters and campers refuse to leave, Sodano said.
“We can ask, we can use our skilled use of influence, but we can't force anyone to do anything out there, and we don't want to,” Sodano said.
“The point is to pull back, and pull back without any effect on the environment.”
The trucks also would stop emitting and move if animals are in the area, according to the plan.
The emitters would operate on a radio frequency band from 4 to 8 gigahertz (GHz).
“Common systems that typically operate in this range of frequencies include satellite communications, some Wi-Fi devices, cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) equipment and weather radar systems,” said Robbi Mangra, a Navy electromagnetics expert, in a Friday email.
Mangra is head of the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance branch of the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command in San Diego.
But frequency is only one of several factors to take into consideration, Mangra said.
“There are many factors that go into determining the maximum safe distance to an emitter. One of these factors is frequency, but frequency is not the entire story,” he continued.
“Power density and duty factor are just a couple of the additional variables that go into the calculation for maximum permissible exposure.
“For instance, your Bluetooth device has little effect in close proximity because it is such low power (and low power density).”
Mike Welding, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island spokesman, said last week that any antennas emitting electromagnetic energy carry some radiation.
“As a general answer, if someone is in the exclusion area for more than 15 minutes, that's a ballpark estimate for when there would be some concern for potential to injure, to receive burns,” he said.
The trucks, equipped with antennas mounted 14 feet off the ground, would be targeted by aircraft flying 90 miles off the coast.
“The pilot has to achieve an ID of the emitter, locate it and simulate a 'harm shoot,'” Sodano said.
Navy officials did not know the impact of the emissions on small animals.
“Human tissue is directly susceptible to shock or burns” similar to those caused by a microwave oven “when metallic objects,which have absorbed high electromagnetic radiation, are touched,” according to the environmental assessment.
“There are no conclusive direct hazards to human tissue as a result of electromagnetic radiation.
“Links to DNA fragmentation, leukemia, and cancer due to intermittent exposure to extremely high levels of electromagnetic radiation are speculative; study data are inconsistent and insufficient at this time,” according to the assessment.
Crew members staffing the trucks would be protected by being under the tower, which is pointing the electromagnetic radiation upward, Sodano said.
Welding said aircraft would fly above 9,000 feet while conducting the exercises.
There could be a 10 percent increase in flights caused by the increased use of the Electronic Warfare Range, he said, and possibly some noise.
“In most cases, we will operate these emitter vehicles at remote locations on the Olympic Peninsula,” he said.
The project would include installation of communications equipment at a 16th site located at an existing government communications facility on Octopus Mountain on state Department of Natural Resources land in western Clallam County.
Three of the mobile emitter sites would be about 10 miles northeast of Forks in Clallam County.
Six would be in Jefferson County within 10 miles of the Quinault Reservation, while another would be in Jefferson County 15 miles southeast of Forks and four would be in Grays Harbor County.
Notice was given to the Makah, Quileute, Hoh and Quinault tribes.
Written public comments should be submitted to Greg Wahl, a Forest Service environmental coordinator, at 1835 Black Lake Blvd. S.W., Olympia, WA 98512.
Questions or comments about the project should be directed to Wahl at email@example.com or 360-956-2375.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.