2003-11-14 / Columnists

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken
On The Bayfront By Elisa Hinken

Okay, I confess: I am not a hard-core environmentalist. I don’t compost everything usable that comes out of my kitchen. Supermarket shopping bags do go into the garbage after use. Driving the car around the corner, rather than walking in really cold or hot weather suits me just fine. However, I do draw the line in favor of the environment when our health and safety is concerned. I read a very disturbing report this past week, which I want to share with you. Af ter reading this, please call your elected representatives and let them know how you feel about this issue. As constituents, your voices in these matters are very important.

Just when we recently said "au revoir" to the Concorde, we have another airport dilemma to deal with. The Federal Department of Transportation wants to enact a bill that gives them ultimate authority over construction at the airports without consideration to protecting communities, the environment and public health. Under this piece of legislation, the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA") does not need to conduct any studies at their discretion. At our expense, all laws and opportunities for hearings will be thrown out the window!

In an effort to accelerate airport expansions around the country, some in Congress are all too willing to sacrifice the public’s voice in this process and the consideration of environmental and public health impacts. Subchapter III of House Report 108-240, Vision 100, the Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act, concentrates authority in the federal agency that is the proponent of airport expansion, the Federal Aviation Administration ("FAA"), at the expense of other agencies whose mission includes protecting communities, the environment, and public health. Rather than seeking efficiency through better cooperation and coordination, the FAA conference report seeks speed by reducing who is included in the decision.

Section 47171(j) provides that all other Federal and state agencies "notwithstanding any other provision of law, shall be bound by the project purpose and need as defined by the Secretary [of Transportation]".

Section 47171(k) provides that all other Federal and state agencies "shall consider only those alternatives to the project that the Secretary [of Transportation] has determined are reasonable."

This language shuts out other federal and state agencies with valuable expertise, weakens or eliminates essential checks and balances, and disenfranchises affected communities. The role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the study and design of airport expansions could be dramatically curtailed.  The U.S. EPA brings vital expertise to bear in the analysis of air pollution and public health impacts.

The language also could trump existing environmental and public health protections. For example, regulations governing wetlands permits under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act require the Corps of Engineers to evaluate "fish and wildlife values," "water quality," "conservation" and "aesthetics" and other factors in determining whether a permit serves the public interest.  The Corps has an affirmative duty to avoid "unnecessary alteration or destruction" of wetlands. Nothing requires the FAA to take these factors into consideration and the conference report language could relieve the Corps of its existing obligation to do so.  In fact, it could prevent the Corps from fulfilling its mission and obligations.

The bill could also eviscerate the substantive standards under Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act. Section 4(f) prohibits the use of parks, historic sites, recreation areas, and wildlife and waterfowl refuges for transportation projects unless no prudent and feasible alternative exists. Language giving the FAA complete authority to determine the range of reasonable alternatives, especially combined with the phrase "notwithstanding other provisions of law," arguably overrides the substantive standard in 4(f) that protect parks and other cherished resources.

For more information, contact Sharon Buccino, Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council, 202-289-6868, sbuccino@nrdc.org, Or Greg Smith, Transportation Analyst, Friends of the Earth, 202-783-7400 x 198, gsmith@foe.org.

My thanks to Ida Sanoff, a well-known advocate for the environment for sharing this story with me.

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