More community engagement planned in advance of NE17

U.S. Navy officials say they plan meetings with the city of Cordova and other local governments, and discussions with stakeholders at several events to address concerns over the joint military exercise Northern Edge 2017.

The Navy is working closely with the Alaska Command and the U.S. Pacific Command to improve its communications with the coastal communities of Southeast Alaska, said Dennis V. McGinn, assistant secretary of the Navy Energy, Installations and Environment.

In a letter responding to concerns voiced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, McGinn said the military would work with local stakeholders “to ensure they are fully aware of NE17 training activities and the measures that will be put in place to minimize environmental impacts.

“The Navy is committed to protecting the environment while meeting our national security obligations,” McGinn told Murkowski. “We are aware of and appreciate the unique environment in the Gulf of Alaska, including its critically important natural resources.”

As outlined in the military’s “Gulf of Alaska Navy Training Activities Final Supplemental environmental Impact Statement/Overseas Environmental Impact Statement” released in July, the military will take proactive steps to avoid harming marine species in the Gulf through use of protective measures and work to avoid conflicts with civilian activities (fishing) during training events, he said.

“It is important that we clearly convey the scope of NE17 activities and, together with the regulatory community and scientific experts, address concerns and, if needed, dispel misinformation related to the exercise and environmental impacts,” McGinn told Murkowski.

McGinn’s letter of Oct. 7 came in response to Murkowski’s letter to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, urging the Navy to connect and interact with concerned Alaskans about the timing, location and potential impacts of Northern Edge. The senator said she felt that communication is to avoiding a repeat of the miscommunication leading up to Northern Edge 2015.

Murkowski said she would be following the Navy’s efforts closely and hold them accountable to their promises, so that Alaskans are assured that fishery conflicts will be avoided and marine resources will be protected during the upcoming exercise.

In 2015 Murkowski introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to require the military to engage with communities about planned training exercises at least six months in advance.

McGinn said the military officials plan to meet with local governments in Cordova, Kodiak, Homer and Seward, and hold discussions with stakeholders at events including the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, COMFISH, the Alaska Marine Science Symposium and Alaska Forum on the Environment.

Also planned are attendance at other local, regional and statewide events to initiate a two-way dialogue with coastal communities, fishing interests, the scientific and environmental community and others, McGinn said.

NE15 involved several thousand troops from all four branches of the military, and the use of ordinance in the Gulf of Alaska.

In advance of NE15, more than 100 boats and hundreds of onlookers joined in a peaceful protest on May 16, 2015, against the Navy’s planned training exercise in the Gulf of Alaska that look place a month later.

The Eyak Preservation Council, in organizing the protest, said the exercises were taking place during the most prolific breeding and migratory periods of the area’s marine supported life, including salmon, whales birds and more, as they made their way toward Prince William Sound and beyond.

Just 10 days before that protest, the City Council of Cordova passed a resolution formally opposing NE15 in the Gulf of Alaska, saying that “no scientific information or traditional knowledge demonstrating that the training activities can take place without negatively affecting salmon, whale, bird and other marine habitats.”

Marine conservation biologist and former University of Alaska professor Rick Steiner also criticized the military exercises in the Gulf, which involved live shelling, numerous surface explosions, aerial drops and intensive deployment of active mid-frequency sonar systems that have been linked to acoustic damage and stranding events in marine mammals.

“The Navy should confine its live-fire and active sonar exercises far offshore and to the winter months, in order to minimize risks to marine mammals and the coastal ecosystem,” said Steiner. “The Navy should also dial-down its plans for five years of expanded Gulf of Alaska war games starting next year.”

The Navy rejected Steiner’s suggestion that it accommodate independent scientific observers during NE15 to confirm effectiveness of its mitigation measures.