On Monday, April 28, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Zimmerman ruled against the Federal Aviation Administration for illegally approving a proposal to expand Mammoth-Yosemite Airport in Mammoth Lakes, California, without fully considering the environmental impacts of the project.
Citing concerns raised not only by environmental groups but also by state and federal agencies, Judge Zimmerman rejected the FAA’s claim that it had satisfied National Environmental Policy Act requirements through its preparation of an Environmental Assessment and ordered the FAA to prepare and adopt a full Environmental Impact Statement before construction of the airport expansion can commence.
In his ruling, Judge Zimmerman found:
“At bottom, many deficiencies in the [Final Environmental Assessment] can be attributed to defendants’ myopic view of the airport project. . . .Common sense dictates that improving an airport to introduce regular commercial air service in an area known for, and reliant on, tourism, will have a substantial impact on a number of environmental factors. . . .The FEA’s conclusion that the project would have no significant impact on endangered or threatened species strains credulity.”
The original Environmental Assessment/Finding of No Significant Impact by FAA fails to address the impacts of converting the small airport into a facility able to bring in thousands of tourists every year.
The proposed expansion would convert a small private airplane facility into a major regional airport, landing B-737s and B-757s, carrying more than 100 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. The pubic has yet to receive a full accounting of what effects the proposed expansion would have on the Mammoth community and the natural resources of the region.
“The National Environmental Policy Act requires agencies to ‘look before they leap’ into projects that may have vast environmental consequences,” said Susan Britton of Earthjustice who is representing the coalition. “This ruling reaffirms the public’s right to know that the federal government has done its homework before approving large projects.”
The Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, California Trout, and Natural Resources Defense Council brought the lawsuit that led to today’s decision.
“This project proposes to double the number of visitor-days with tourists arriving by plane,” said Sierra Club member Owen Maloy who lives in the region. “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.”
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 would help fund the proposed expansion by lending Mammoth Lakes the local funding share required under FAA guidelines for airport expansions. Mammoth expects to receive a federal grant to cover the difference.
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 could 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 place with spectacular natural beauty. A full-blown EIS is needed to address all impacts resulting from the airport expansion, which the FAA has thus far ignored,” said Michelle Jesperson of the National Parks Conservation Association, another co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
CalTrout’s Southern California Manager, Jim Edmondson, said, “Airport expansion would 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. It just makes sense to understand what we are getting into.”
The decision issued today also resolves a similar lawsuit filed by the California Attorney General’s Office over the airport plan.