The Monroe County Commission has raised several concerns after reviewing a recently released 2,000-page U.S. Navy report outlining significant increases in fleet training off Key West.
John Abbott, director of environmental sciences for Fort Lauderdale-area engineering and planning firm Keith & Schnars, worked with county staff to review the extensive draft environmental impact statement.
On June 20, he presented the commission with eye-opening statistics regarding increases in flight training operations, gunnery exercises and air-to-air missile launches, among other things.
"It's basically for the entire western Atlantic basin and covers the entire Gulf of Mexico and parts of the Caribbean. There are many range complexes, and one of those is the Key West range complex," Abbott said. "The Navy has more time for training close to home and they need this EIS to work with increased testing and comply with the Endangered Species Act."
Part of the proposed activity includes exploding anywhere from 10 to 60 pounds of C-4 explosives under water. Commissioner Heather Carruthers raised concerns about the impact that could have on the Keys land, for example, softening the cap rock.
Abbott also said the increased training is expected to take a toll on marine life. He used the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin as an example, referring to the entire Atlantic Ocean and the gulf.
Abbott said the planned training could "change behaviors," meaning dolphins stop feeding or dive differently as a result of the noise. Instances of dolphins' temporary hearing loss are expected to increase nearly 500 percent, from 8,000 per year to 45,000 per year.
The Navy released the EIS, which was supported by "nine or 10" technical documents, early this month and the county has until July 10 to provide comment and ask questions.
Among the Navy's proposed increases in training:
• An increase in air combat maneuvers off Key West such as dog fights between planes, from 5,700 per year up to 6,840 per year.
• An increase in "air platform testing" from 10 per year to 12. Abbott said aircraft are "pushed to the limit" during such testing.
• Gunnery exercises: Fighter jets shoot at banner targets using a medium-caliber machine gun. The number of exercises would increase from 36 each year to 70, and 56,000 non-explosive rounds would fall into the water.
• Air-to-air missile exercises: This training is not conducted now. Abbott said jets would shoot an air-to-air missile at airborne targets eight times per year.
• Flare exercises: 4,512 flares would be released by jets. They're released as counter-measures to divert incoming missiles and burn up nearly completely.
• Chaff: Another counter-measure jets release to divert missiles. Abbott says there are a "couple million" aluminum-coated glass fibers in each of 30,000 canisters released each year.
• Mine neutralization: Navy divers practice planting blocks of C-4 explosives (10 to 60 pounds) on inactive mines.
According to Naval Air Station Key West spokeswoman Trice Denny, a separate EIS dealing with air operations at NAS Key West is expected to be released Friday.
"That studies the effects of new aircraft that could train at the station and future operations. It comes out Friday and will be open for a 45-day comment period," she said.
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