A coalition of environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, re-filed a lawsuit today in federal district court to force the Federal Aviation Administration to consider the environmental impacts of an airport expansion project in the town of Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra Nevada. The suit seeks to compel an Environmental Impact Statement on the project.
Environmentalists had put the suit on hold in August 2001 with the understanding that the FAA would continue to review the project and at a later date issue a final decision on whether further environmental study was needed. FAA approved the project in July 2002 without requiring any further study.
The original Environmental Assessment/Finding of No Significant Impact by FAA failed to address the impacts of converting the small airport into a facility able to bring in thousands of tourists every year. The Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, California Trout, and Natural Resources Defense Council brought the lawsuit.
The proposed expansion would convert a small private airplane facility into a major regional airport, landing B-737s and B-757s, carrying over a hundred passengers each. Projected air traffic would vastly increase the need for facilities -- hotels, condominiums, cabins, restaurants, shopping centers, rental car agencies, road upgrades, parking lots, traffic signals, etc. -- to support a large influx of visitors.
"With this project, Mammoth will be subjected to urban sprawl in a pristine scenic area close to wilderness and threatened wildlife," said local resident and Sierra Club member Owen Maloy. "We already have many visitors who drive in from Los Angeles and the rest of California. This project proposes to double the number of visitor-days with tourists arriving by plane. People still don't have enough information about how this will change our area. There is risk of destroying the very scenic values that attract visitors." The local chapter and group of the Sierra Club have endorsed the lawsuit.
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area currently supports approximately 1,000,000 skier-days per year. The owners seek to remake Mammoth in the image of Aspen and Sun Valley by attracting more out-of-state skiers to justify more real estate development. The project proposes to double the number of skier-days each winter, and vastly increase summer visitation as well. Mammoth Mountain will help fund the proposed expansion by "loaning" Mammoth Lakes the local funding share required under FAA guidelines for airport expansions. Mammoth expects to receive a federal grant to cover the difference.
"It's a shame we were forced back into court over this issue. The community is simply asking for a full EIS that would make explicit the potential costs in terms of additional sprawl, reduced air quality, traffic, noise, and negative impacts to the aesthetic quality of the area, so people can make informed choices," said Susan Britton, an attorney for Earthjustice who is representing the plaintiffs.
Growth induced by the airport expansion could also adversely affect several protected species in the area, including the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, sage grouse, Owens tui chub, and bald eagle. Increased tourism in the area would increase air pollution, and noise pollution.
"Mammoth Lakes is the eastern gateway to such national treasures as Yosemite National Park, and the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas, and is itself a special place, with several unique species and habitats. A full-blown EIS would address impacts to these resources resulting from the airport expansion, which the FAA has thus far ignored," said Michelle Jesperson, spokesperson for the National Parks Conservation Association, another co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
"The FAA's logic is absurd," said CalTrout's Conservation Director Jim Edmondson. "To approve this project, with its increase in tourists, will require more development and, thus, more water withdrawals, more storage and handling of toxic jet fuels, more traffic, more noise, and other incompatible elements putting the area's fisheries and other elements of this fragile ecosystem in harm's way."
"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 contemplated in the environmental review," said Johanna Wald, spokesperson for co-plaintiff NRDC.
Susan Britton, Earthjustice, 510-550-6725
Trent Orr, Earthjustice, 415-206-0898
Owen Maloy, Sierra Club, 760-934-9511
Michelle Jesperson, NPCA, 510-839-9922 x22
Jim Edmonson, CalTrout, 818-865-2888
Johanna Wald, NRDC, 415-777-0220
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