In a last-ditch appeal to halt a series of controversial rocket tests on Joint Base Lewis McChord, Nisqually tribal chairman Farron McCloud hand-delivered a letter to the White House on Tuesday.
Tribal officials were hoping the letter would persuade President Barack Obama to intervene and stop the firing of practice rockets from the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems on JBLM, adjacent to the Nisqually reservation, according to Nisqually vice-chairman Chris Olin.
It didn’t, and the startling blasts began, albeit slightly off schedule, on Tuesday morning. The tests were supposed to start at 9 a.m. but were pushed back to 9:30 a.m., then 9:45 a.m. before beginning at 10:10 a.m.
“So far, so good,” JBLM spokesman Joseph Piek said about 1:20 p.m. Tuesday, after the first two series of test firings had been completed. “So far, everything is going according to the plan.”
Soldiers will fire 27 practice rockets from the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, through Thursday.
The Army is using the test rockets to gauge the noise pollution from their launch. The results will help the military evaluate whether HIMARS exercises that now take place at the Yakima Training Center can be moved closer to home.
The Army announced late Tuesday that the rocket firings were under its prescribed 130-decibel threshold and that the firing will continue as scheduled.
The HIMARS rockets were originally scheduled to be fired in March, but there was insufficient clearance over trees on the base. A 10-acre timber sale cleared an area for this week’s rocket launches.
Piek said Tuesday that readings from off-base sensors showed noise levels from the firings were below the maximum threshold of 130 decibels. He did not know the exact readings.
Piek said he’d traveled to various places near the base, including Lacey and the Nisqually Valley, to listen to the firings Tuesday morning.
He said from his perspective the noise “sounded much more muffled” than similar firings he’s witnessed at the Army training center in Yakima.
The tribe and military were monitoring the noise levels at a number of locations on the reservation.
“Damn,” said Olin after hearing the first test from a wooded bluff on the reservation above the Nisqually River. “That was loud. ... That made me jump. I didn’t expect that.”
Olin and his wife, Laura, went to the area known as Cyamuc to listen for the noise. It’s less than a mile from the impact range on JBLM.
“I figure if we’re going to hear much, we’re going to hear it here,” Olin said.
They waited for more than an hour for the first test. Meanwhile, crows squawked noisily in moss-covered branches of trees, a red-tailed hawk screamed as it glided nearby, and a train whistled as it made its way through the farm-rich area of Thurston County. There was the occasional sputtering of what Olin described as “small arms fire,” a typical training noise that tribal members are used to hearing from the neighboring military base, Olin said.
Olin said he and other tribal leaders were worried about the impact of the rockets’ noise on people and animals in the community.
From the Olins’ vantage point, there was no indication that a test rocket had been fired, so they were startled by the impact noise. Chris Olin later described it as louder than “a 5-inch salute at a fireworks show,” which is traditionally a big blast before a grand finale.
“That thud was deeper, and it carried,” he said. “We could see the birds migrate out of the tree lines.”
Because the tribe wasn’t sure what to expect during the tests, it sent its babies and young children in day care to Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mound, which is owned by the Chehalis Tribe, and its elders to Little Creek Resort near Shelton, which is operated by the Squaxin Island Tribe, Nisqually spokeswoman Debbie Preston said.
Other tribal members, community members and tribal employees were urged to stay on the reservation and report their experiences by filling out a survey, which asked them four questions: how loud it sounded (barely audible, could be heard over traffic or loud enough to startle me), whether the noise caused mental or physical discomfort, if it affected other people or animals, or if there was any effect on property.
David Troutt, the tribe’s natural resources director, waited for the second practice rocket near a home off Church Kalama Drive Southeast.
“It definitely rolls up the valley, doesn’t it?” he said afterward. “We’ll just have to evaluate what it all means at the end of the day.”
The first firing recorded a level of 120 decibels at the the tribe’s Clear Creek Fish Hatchery, which is on JBLM, Preston said. The tribe was studying the blasts’ impact on 1.2 million Chinook salmon eggs that were recently spawned and fertilized and sitting in trays at the hatchery, Troutt said.
“Any kind of shock, any kind of motion, any kind of movement can cause mortality,” he said.
Yelm Mayor J.W. Foster said he was indoors, and he didn’t hear the tests. But he said his wife heard the rocket noise at their house because she was outdoors.
“It was not disruptive, it did not even disrupt our livestock at this end of town,” Foster said. “I was a little disappointed. I grew up back in the ’60s, and we had sonic booms all the time. And it was just fun when you heard your mom get mad because her knickknacks were shaking off the shelf.”
Noise modeling for DuPont predicted that the blasts of the practice rockets would be masked by noise from Interstate 5 and trees, and that turned out to be true, city administrator Ted Danek said.
“We couldn’t hear anything at all,” he said. “Not a sound.”
As of 1:20 p.m., no one had called a hotline the Army set up to field complaints about the noise, Piek said. That number is 253-967-0852.
Four more series of firings are scheduled for Wednesday, at 9 a.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. A single series of test firings is scheduled for 9 a.m. Thursday.
“We sincerely appreciate the patience of the Nisqually Tribe, as well as the support of everyone in the surrounding communities,” JBLM Commander Col. Daniel S. Morgan said in a Tuesday night statement.
Staff writer Kenny Ocker contributed to this report.