SAIPAN – On Wednesday, U.S. Navy representatives hosted a public meeting in the Seaside Room at Kanoa Resort, where members of the of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands community were invited to watch videos, examine posters, ask questions and leave comments about the supplemental environmental impact statement for the Mariana Islands Training and Testing plan, or MITT.

This year's supplemental EIS is one step forward in the Navy's efforts to extend the MITT another five years. According to John Van Name, planning program manager for the Pacific Fleet, this will be the MITT's third iteration.

"The MIRC, the Mariana Islands Range Complex in 2010 was the first environmental impact statement that we did here," he said. "That gave us a five-year authorization that lasted to 2015."

"Our 2015 Mariana Islands Training and Testing – we changed the name, we shouldn't have but we changed the name – (included) basically the same activities; we opened the aperture, looked at a larger study area so we can capture training that goes on as units sail in and out of the Marianas and also we did a better job of incorporating any testing-type activities."

He added, "But the 2015 EIS gave us another five-year authorization. That expires in August 2020."

Van Name and his colleagues explained that the supplement to the 2015 EIS was necessary in order for the Navy to renew their authorization for military training and testing for the next five- to 10-year period.

"We've got Marine Mammal Protection Act authorizations that need to be renewed," he explained, adding that the authorization would be for the "harassment and taking of marine mammals."

"Along with that, the National Marine Fisheries Service, we have to reconsult under the Endangered Species Act (regarding) the species under their jurisdiction – scallops, hammerhead sharks, endangered corals, endangered whales like the humpback whales," he said. "We're also going to go back out and supplement our analysis for the essential fish habitat under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation (and) Management Act.

"We're also going to work with the offices of planning both here in the CNMI as well as Guam to update and provide a consistency determination with the Coastal Zone Management Act."

In addition to the various environmental authorizations, the Navy is seeking to renew its programmatic agreement under the National Historic Preservation Act; the last programmatic agreement was signed in 2009 and pertained to the MIRC. It expires this coming December. Since February, the Navy has been holding monthly NHPA Section 106 consultation meetings in which members of the public can point out at-risk potential historic properties that should be preserved, or at least considered, in the process of renewing the programmatic agreement for the MITT.

When asked why the MITT wasn't expanded to include all of the military buildup activities in the Marianas, Van Name said "if there never was a buildup, never was a CJMT (CNMI Joint Military Training), the Navy still has the need to conduct this analysis now, so we can get new authorization by August of 2020."

"We don't rely on the CJMT and their analysis doesn't rely on us. The buildup doesn't rely on us. The MITT is a free-standing document that has its own ebb and flow and its own timelines. And again, the primary driver for the timeline is the Marine Mammal Protection Act authorization."

Capt. Kerry Abramson, the environmental counsel for the Pacific Fleet, said that the supplemental EIS for the MITT would be used by the National Marine Fishery Service to "determine the parameters of our permit."

"It's actually forecasting into the future and looking at what our impacts may be," he said.

When asked about the challenge of collecting public input on esoteric policy-driven actions that involve laws, military practices and scientific information far outside the realm of common knowledge, Capt. Abramson said, "We're striving to make the document more reader-friendly. We recognize that there's a lot of science involved. There are a lot of Navy terms, there is a lot of terminology that people aren't generally familiar with."

"If you look at other environmental impact statements, (the stacked pages) could go from the floor to my neck," he continued. "We've done a really good job of streamlining this one to make it concise. ... Now it's in two binders."

All public comments, concerns and questions must be submitted by April 2.

"You have the opportunity to give comments, suggestions, ask questions and those comments, suggestions and questions must be considered by the person that's ultimately going to make the decision on what activity and action we're going to pursue," said Capt. Abramson.

Van Name said that Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer is tasked with that decision.

Sophia Perez is a features writer for Marianas Variety.