Before the Navy’s final assessment of a proposed 30 percent increase in helicopter activity in Imperial Beach, Naval Base Coronado Commanding Officer Capt. Yancy Lindsey made a presentation outlining current and possible future operations at the City Council’s June 1 meeting.
Several members of the public also came to voice their opinion.
Speaking about alleged violations of helicopter flight paths, Lindsey said the Navy closely monitors daily flight traffic. According to their own assessments, no evidence was found of increased violations of flight paths or course rules.
“Some statements have been made that it happens 50 to 75 percent of the time,” he said. “I can tell you that is not what we see. That is not the data that we are collecting.”
He encouraged residents to utilize these resources, and said the hotline has only received 15 calls from Imperial Beach this year.
In terms of future increases, staff of the California Coastal Commission will decide next week whether to approve the Navy’s proposal or bring the matter before the commission. Ultimately, the commission can request more evaluative testing be done before increasing helicopter activity.
A decision was originally expected May 28, but that deadline was extended to June 3.
On May 18, echoing the sentiment of the Imperial Beach City Council, city staff and Mayor Jim Janney, Congressman Bob Filner sent a letter to the secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to request that an environmental impact statement be carried out for the proposed increase in helicopter activity.
An environmental impact statement would require a deeper assessment of the effects of proposed actions on the environment and quality of life of local residents.
Around the same time, Congresswoman Susan Davis added language to a draft of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act instructing the Navy to continue working with local communities and to “develop a noise reduction strategy.”
A copy of letters sent by the Congressman and Janney can be found in the pdf section of this story next to the photos.
Michael Bixler, the former mayor of Imperial Beach and port commissioner, said he is disappointed in the public process he has observed since the release of the draft report in February.
He believes time for public disclosure, discussion, analysis and fact-finding should be extended.
John Munns of Imperial Beach said he opposes an increase in helicopter activity. Lately, he said, he has noticed an increase in activity, and he thinks a 30 percent increase could impact people's health and quality of life.
“I work at home much more now,” Munns said. “And I can’t even open my windows during the day and have a conversation on the phone. I can’t do any day or night voice recording due to the noise.”
Living in his home for 31 years near the training facility, Jeff Knox said he believes an environment impact statement is necessary.
“We are also making a 30 percent increase in the amount of jet fuel going over the Tijuana National Estuarine Research Reserve and over our homes,” he said.
“Already we have to wash off our plants and things at least once a week, otherwise we just get covered in soot.”
But Navy pilots need a place to train, Lindsey said.
“I think the events in Pakistan about a month ago show the importance of helicopter pilots,” he said, referring to the Navy SEAL operation to kill Osama bin Laden. “The importance of these fields where these pilots can train is invaluable. Without that, we cannot do what our nation asks us to do.”
Lindsey called the opinions of engaged residents and city leadership valuable to the process and that they proved helpful in assessing the draft environmental assessment compiled by the Navy.
“There are many of those comments that we have taken aboard and we are including in the environmental assessment,” Lindsey said. “It is vital for involvement in the community and your community has been involved.”
Lindsey said his main purpose in attending Wednesday’s council meeting was to talk about course rules for aircraft at Naval Outlying Landing Field Imperial Beach, formerly known as Ream Field.
Lindsey said course rules are locally established paths for aircraft operations at Naval Air Station North Island and Ream Field to allow safe and expeditious handling of aircraft, reduce noise impact and to ensure Navy activity does not conflict with traffic at adjacent airfields.
All routes are coordinated with the FAA, he said.
Normal airfield hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with no activity on weekends and federal holidays.
“We do not foresee a need to expand operations beyond these operating hours to provide the increase of traffic noted in the environmental assessment,” Lindsey said.
Fixed-winged aircraft must fly at an altitude of at least 500 to 1,000 feet. Lindsey said limits are lower for helicopters landing and taking off since that is the purpose of training at Ream Field.
“But we self-impose and try to stay above Imperial Beach to the greatest extent possible,” he said. “Above 1,000 feet or 800 feet over the beaches.”
He said operations do not normally operate on Runway 9, but the field’s other landing strip, Runway 27, is currently closed for construction, and that requires helicopters to fly closer to the homes and property of Imperial Beach residents.
“Unfortunately, we did not have the money to finish the construction,” Lindsey said. “We have the money now and hope to have construction of Runway 27 complete by the end of the month.”
As a result, Lindsey said, operations remain in the boundaries, but helicopters occasionally cross the fence line.
Dante Pamintuan, a resident of Seaside Point, said his focus is on the safety aspect of the course rules. He said there are no consequences for course rules violations since they are only guidelines, and that if helicopters occasionally fly over the fence and over homes, they lose sight of the control tower.
“If that happens just one time it is a potential safety hazard and an accident waiting to happen over homes,” Pamintuan said.
He said the solution is very easy, and he’s asked the Navy to continue to use the five helicopter pads at the south end. When using the other runway, he said, you can barely hear the helicopters, but when they come in off the northern runway, there are many safety issues that go beyond noise and air quality.
“I am a former Marine Corps officer,” Pamintuan said. “I was stationed aboard the USS Okinawa. I was a combat cargo officer. I know the helicopter patterns. I know the realistic type of training the pilots need. They don't need this runway. I know the captain said it’s valuable. It’s not valuable.”
Pamintuan said this is not only about Seaside Point residents and complaining neighbors. He said it’s about all of Imperial Beach and that he completely opposes the plan.
“The EA is flawed,” he said. “We are hoping the Navy will conduct an EIS or the Navy will be sued. If Imperial Beach wants more visitors to bring business and revenue, an increase in helicopter won't do it.”
Lindsey said the Navy is collecting, analyzing and answering questions concerning the letters and comments from the city and residents of Imperial Beach. Additional analysis and assessments are in process for the final version of the environmental assessment.
He said work is currently in progress in the Tijuana Estuary and at Oneonta Elementary School. The final EA goes up through the chain of command to the chief of Naval Operations for approval.
Two types of noise tests are included in the draft assessment.
CNEL or community noise equivalent level testing evaluates noise levels over a 24-hour period. SEL or sound exposure level testing evaluates decibel levels when a helicopter flies directly overhead.
SEL testing was done in seven locations in Coronado, Point Loma and along the Silver Strand, but Seaside Point and Oneonta neighborhoods were not included since they are not considered part of the flight path, Navy officials said.