A controversial airport expansion project in the eastern Sierra Nevada will get a much-needed dose of scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration, thanks to a strong nudge from environmental groups. Under pressure from a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, California Wilderness Coalition, and Natural Resources Defense Council, the FAA in a July 24 letter announced that it did not make a final decision in December 2000 about the potential environmental impacts of the proposed expansion of the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport nor approve a revised airport layout plan or any FAA funding for airport expansion. Instead, any final decision must await further FAA study.
According to the FAA, it is still analyzing the environmental issues surrounding the proposed expansion and cannot make a final decision until this analysis has been completed. Prior to the lawsuit's filing, the FAA had refused to respond to inquiries from concerned environmental organizations and the California Attorney General's office about the finality of a decision, issued December 21, 2000, that the expansion would not have any significant environmental impacts. At the same time, local proponents of the airport expansion claimed that the FAA had made a final decision and would be funding a major portion of the proposed expansion's costs. Following the FAA's announcement, last week, on August 9th, the parties to the lawsuit stipulated to dismiss the case for the time being, expressly allowing for reinstatement if the FAA's final decision does not adequately address the full environmental consequences of the airport project.
"This is an important victory for the environment and residents of the Mammoth region," said Trent Orr lead attorney for Earthjustice. "We fully expect that the FAA will now fulfil its duties under the National Environmental Policy Act and prepare the required environmental review for the project." The environmental groups' lawsuit, filed May 15, 2001, challenged the FAA's failure to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the project's many significant impacts.
The proposed airport expansion would convert a small private plane and commuter facility into a major regional airport, landing B-737s and B-757s, carrying over a hundred of passengers each, with the aim of serving tens of thousands of tourists every year. Projected air traffic would vastly increase the need for more facilities -- hotels, condominiums, cabins, restaurants, shopping centers, rental car agencies, road upgrades, parking lots, and traffic signals -- to support the large influx of visitors. The result would be rapid growth in and around the small town of Mammoth Lakes.
The airport expansion would bring thousands of new visitors to the doorstep of Yosemite National Park and several wilderness areas, exacerbating existing problems with overused facilities, air quality and traffic. The project could also affect the habitat of endangered and threatened species in the area, including the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, Owens tui chub, and bald eagle.
"We brought suit because the potential for urban sprawl and damage to pristine natural areas had not been considered by FAA and in the local community," said Orr. "NEPA was designed to identify serious environmental problems and allow communities to make informed choices. FAA's December finding made a mockery of that process, but the agency appears to have realized its error."
Mammoth is a busy place during the summer and winter tourist seasons. This project proposes to double the number of visitor-days with tourists arriving by plane. Owen Maloy, a Mammoth resident and Sierra Club spokesman said, "People need more information about how this will change our area. Our town depends on tourism, but there is risk of destroying the very scenic values that attract visitors."
"The beauty of the surrounding environment is this town's true natural resource. It would be a tragedy to see this irreplaceable resource damaged by poorly-planned development not subjected to proper environmental review," said Johanna Wald, spokesperson for NRDC.
While the FAA has acknowledged that it is still consulting with state and federal agencies about the impacts of the project, its announcement falls short of promising the level of environmental review sought by environmental groups.
"It's difficult to see how the FAA could bypass the requirements of NEPA yet again," Orr added, "but we will be vigilant."
Trent Orr, Earthjustice, 415-206-0898
Owen Maloy, Sierra Club, 760-934-9511
Courtney Cuff, NPCA, 510-839-9922
Johanna Wald, NRDC, 415-777-0220
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