How do Navy training and testing activities impact the environment? We wrote a book on it
Imagine a project as deep and wide as the ocean. The U.S. Navy tasked Leidos to help evaluate resources in the sea space and airspace along the east coast of North America, portions of the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico. On a tight schedule and set budget, we completed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process in determining how Navy training and testing activities affect natural, physical, and human resources in a 2.6 million square nautical miles study area.
Leidos, in a joint venture team, produced the Atlantic Fleet Training and Testing (AFTT) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)/Overseas Environmental Impact Statement (OEIS). Deputy project manager Jamie McKee and program manager Carmen Ward led the Leidos team of marine biologists, natural resources specialists, environmental scientists, and GIS/data management specialists.
“The U.S. Fleet Forces refers to the AFTT EIS/OEIS as their premier, critical NEPA document necessary to support Navy and Marine Corps warfighter readiness. It has become the Navy’s template for all other at-sea NEPA documents,” said Ward.
“What won the Navy’s high praise was the consistent quality of our EIS sections, and the professionalism of our authors,” said McKee. “Our authors ensured the technical accuracy of each other’s work. Every team had a quality control senior technical reviewer for every step.
“And not only did teams have to know the Atlantic Ocean, they had to understand the Pacific environment, too,” said McKee. He explained that the Leidos team supported the Navy in simultaneously producing a counterpart EIS for the west coast (under a concurrent task order with many of the same authors for resource sections in both documents).
“It was a rigorous challenge to all authors and our editors as well,” said McKee, who specifically praised editors, Tara Utsey and Jennifer Combs for their painstaking edits of the multi-staged AFTT EIS.
This Leidos team used data from the Navy’s 5-year environmental surveys of this area and evaluated the impacts of the numerous training activities associated with species and components identified. Activities include sonar use; in-water explosions; radar and laser use; exposure to explosion byproducts and other materials; and physical interactions between aircraft, vessels, and other potential sea-based obstructions. They analyzed these activities against technical literature searches, found text to support their analysis, confirmed applicable regulatory requirements, and demonstrated in-depth understanding of relevant Navy mission issues.
Our technical experts prepared four EIS subject area sections: marine mammals, invertebrates, habitats, and public safety.
Marine mammals (how Navy ops affect dolphins, sea lions, manatees, etc.)
This section of the EIS is easily the largest at more than 700 pages. Marine biologist Amanda Robydek had the sprawling task of analyzing impacts from the Navy’s readiness activities on 48 marine mammal species, including federally protected species, known to exist in the AFTT Study Area. Though most live in saltwater, her study included other mammal species, like seals, that are occasionally on land, and manatees, that spend time in freshwater. The exact number of formally recognized marine mammal species is always changing, as are the laws that protect them.
“This project was daunting, not only in its large geographic scope and vast number of species being analyzed, but also because there are constantly emerging studies on how humans impact marine mammals,” said Robydek. “We were tasked to consider how the Navy’s activities, like releasing expended materials ― weapons casings, wires, and cables ― contributed to the overall marine debris found in the Atlantic Ocean.
“We knew some studies found large amounts of trash and plastic items in the stomachs of stranded whales. We had to evaluate whether the Navy’s actions significantly contributed to that or not. Injuries from boat strikes and entanglement in cables and wires were other concerns that our analysis addressed,” she said.
Marine biologist Bernice Tannenbaum, Ph.D served as another marine subject matter expert and quality control specialist for the mammal section. Tannenbaum's 38 years of experience writing for and managing NEPA projects for large and complex Department of Defense actions allowed her to help the team prepare the most complete and closest to perfect sections possible, thus speeding up review time and producing the best outcome.
Both Robydek and Tannenbaum are Leidos leaders in evaluating marine life impact of military readiness activities, including the use of active sonar and explosives. Much of their research focused on marine mammal ecology and population dynamics, behavioral and physiological effects of sound on marine life, and acoustic criteria and thresholds to assess effects of sounds on marine species.
Invertebrates (how Navy ops affect corals, jellyfish, sea anemones, etc.)
Natural resource specialists Rick Combs (primary author) and Charles Phillips (quality control) prepared an impact analysis for invertebrates that, like the mammals team, also looked at such categories as physical strikes, noise, and ingestion of expended materials. As the primary author of the invertebrates section of the AFFT EIS/OEIS, Combs conducted an extensive review of the literature on invertebrate biology, habitat use, and occurrence throughout the study area. He analyzed invertebrate habitat use, movement and behavior, sound sensing (invertebrates do not “hear” in the traditional sense), and threats in the context of Navy training and testing impacts.
A particular concern were eight species of invertebrates listed as Threatened or Species of Concern under the Endangered Species Act. Listed were seven shallow-water coral species and one deep-water coral species that could potentially be harmed by military readiness training and testing activities. As an example of this work, Combs points out that in the photo above of the Acropora cervicornis or staghorn coral that we can see the results of disease on some of the branches.
Habitats (how Navy ops affect different kinds of ocean floors)
This section of the EIS looked at changes to the ocean from the Navy’s operations in their quantities of explosives and other discarded materials on or near the ocean floor within the study area. Environmental scientist Brad Boykin authored the analyses of impacts on marine habitats as a result of these activities. Boykin worked with Navy experts on analyzing data for the habitats of the 2.6-million square nautical mile study area.
Rick Combs, serving as quality control reviewer for this section, said they considered water currents, sediment type, and the characteristics of expended items such as munitions and parachutes when determining “whether they would roll around, be carried by water currents, or be quickly covered up.”
Boykin evaluated the study area in terms of the distribution of major habitat types, including shorelines, bottom habitats, and artificial structures (such as shipwrecks and artificial reefs). Of particular interest was the potential for how Navy training and testing activities could impact hard bottom habitats. These habitats provide attachment points and may support a high abundance and diversity of marine organisms such as corals. Brad worked extensively with Navy personnel to calculate the surface area of various habitat types that could potentially be affected by detonations, operation of devices on the seafloor, and training and testing items deposited on the seafloor.
Marine environments worldwide are under pressure from a variety of human activities, such as coastal development, shoreline stabilization, and global climate change. Areas where heavy concentrations of human activity co-occur with naval training and testing activities have the greatest potential for cumulative stress on the marine ecosystem.
Public safety (how Navy ops affect safety when sharing the sea with the public’s commercial and recreational purposes)
The Navy has designated operating areas, warning areas, and restricted areas for both airspace and marine waters to indicate where and when it may not be safe for recreational and commercial activities to take place. The Leidos team, headed by environmental engineer Luis Diaz, wrote this section of the EIS to provide information to the Navy about their research findings. They looked at the Navy’s standard operating procedures and the potential for reduction of interaction that could possibly affect public safety.
For example, the Navy is required to conduct sinking exercises greater than 50 nautical miles from land and in waters at least 6,000 feet deep. For AFTT EIS, Leidos confirmed that the Navy selects the sinking exercise area in avoidance of established commercial air traffic routes, commercial vessel shipping lanes, and areas used for recreational activities. The confirmation of these standard operating procedures allow for the necessary separation of Navy units to ensure safety for Navy personnel, the public, commercial aircraft and vessels, and Navy assets. It is all part of keeping the public safe – all while the Navy trains and tests warfighting skills in the deep, blue sea.
Exceeding the client’s expectations
McKee and Robydek agreed that the entire joint venture team was committed to the client timeline for their real life reasons. Moreover, the science was fascinating.
“Our goal as a team was to exceed the Navy’s expectations by delivering high-quality analyses that incorporated the latest research,” said Robydek. “The Navy was up against hard deadlines to complete the EIS before their current authorizations expired, which put us under the gun at times. However, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet these challenges and to collaborate with the Navy and other marine mammal experts across the country.”
You can read the AFTT EIS in its entirety here.