WINGATE – Crawford Windsor can remember the day as a teen when he went to the dock and found his father’s boat, the Cleta W., sunk, machine-gunned by what had to have been a Navy plane.
So when newspaper accounts said the Navy planned to resume bombing and strafing runs over Bloodsworth Island, which had been halted in 1996, Windsor, now 79, was more than a little interested — and worried.
He joined dozens of local residents Wednesday at a public forum at the Lakes and Straits Volunteer Fire Co., where Navy officials from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station (Navair) answered questions about the possible uses of Bloodsworth and nearby islands. It was the last of several public meetings on the issue.
The same day that they were meeting in Wingate, however, Navy Secretary Gordon England was in Washington testifying to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., that “there are no plans for any kind of increased operations on Bloodsworth.”
Navy officials said that is true — even though their pitch Wednesday included possible uses for Bloodsworth Island that included dropping non-explosive, or inert ordnance, strafing runs, and amphibious exercises for Navy SEALs.
The key phrase, they said, is “possible use.”
Navair has had official control over the islands since 2001, but the law requires that it have an updated environmental assessment if it wants to preserve the option of using the islands again in the future.
Navair spokeswoman Kelly M. Burdick said it is important that people remember that this is a draft proposal, and that public comment will be taken into account should use of the island ever be needed.
“We’re not going to do anything without consulting with local delegates and the public,” Burdick said, adding that this plan would need to be formally finalized first.
Some people at the Wingate meeting said they felt better after hearing specifics about the proposals. But many, like Windsor, who remember what it was like to live with the Navy’s use of the islands until not even a decade ago, were reserving judgment.
“I’ll bet they broke a hundred dishes,” Windsor said of the vibrations that came from the Navy’s use of live ordnance back then.
Navy officials said most of the worries at Wednesday’s meeting concerned the potential impact on the crabbing industry, the central profession for many in the small, shoreline communities near the island range.
Louis Seras, a waterman who grew up in that area, was concerned that resumed use of the island by the Navy would cut into watermen’s already limited hours. State regulations enacted at the start of the 2004 season limit watermen to an eight-hour day with set start and finish times.
“All of us are on a time limit now, you can’t go back in the water,” Seras said.
Roger Morris, another waterman, said that the “season is only nine months of the year and if you lose any time, it cuts into your everything.”
“We’ve assured them we can work around them,” said Cmdr. Mike Capasso, a range safety officer with Navair who was at Wednesday’s session.
He said there could be an occasional need to run an operation before 2 p.m., while watermen are still working, but that the Navy would work to avoid that kind of situation. If the Navy did need to run an exercise while boats are on the water, Capasso said, ranger boats would notify them an hour beforehand and watermen would be allowed back after the operation, which would likely last one to two hours.
Capasso also said that because there is a cap on air traffic above the islands already, there should not be an increase in sound pollution from jets flying overhead.
But some remained concerned about the effect bombing and strafing runs could have on the environment, including their crabs.
Jim Swift, of Navair’s natural and cultural resources management branch, said that many waterman said some of the best crabbing in the area can be found in the Holland Strait, directly southeast of Bloodsworth Island.
Cmdr. Eric Mitchell said the Navy already “drops a lot of ordnance in the bay” at other sites, anywhere from 500 to 2,000 pounds of concrete-cast inert bombs in one day. The ordnance creates reefs for fish, he said.
“Anything foreign you put in the water is going to have an effect,” said Scott Wilson, a waterman from Wingate.
The Navy also said that a bird sanctuary on the northern tip of Bloodsworth would be off-limits should the Navy resume use of the island. The Navy recently spent millions putting up heron nesting structures and Swift said that the heron rookery would be a “no-drop zone.”
The Navy would also minimize flight traffic between Nov. 15 and April 30, during the nesting season — and officials also said the Navy would try its best to limit use of the islands from April through December, during the crabbing season.
Despite those pledges, some locals remain uneasy.
“These boys might tell you this and that,” Windsor said, but “they’re out for getting it.”
— CNS reporter Kevin McCullough contributed to this story in Washington.
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