California Attorney General Joins Action over Airport Expansion

NOVEMBER 7, 2002

California's attorney general has joined the battle to halt expansion of the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport. The expansion project has been under fire from attorneys for the conservation organization Earthjustice.

The Mammoth Lakes Town Council has been urged to rescind some of their previous decisions related to the airport project, and council members have met with legal counsel in closed meetings recently in anticipation of threatened litigation.

The Attorney General of California, Bill Lockyer, filed a formal complaint and request for injunction against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the U.S. District court in San Francisco on Sept. 24. The Attorney General's complaint "seeks relief from the FAA's unlawful approval of the Project [Mammoth Yosemite Airport Expansion] without adequate environmental review under NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act)."

The proposed project seeks to expand the airport to accommodate jet aircraft as large as a Boeing B-757. Changes would include widening and lengthening the existing runway so it can be used by large jets and building other facilities to serve commercial-passenger traffic.

Lockyer stated, "The FAA's action in approving the Project without adequate environmental review deprives the People of California of the right to an adequate public review process essential to NEPA. The areas of controversy are located within California and their development or non-development will directly affect California lands and interests.

"We believe the FAA wrongly concludes there will be 'no significant impact' from increases in air traffic and runway upgrades seeking to accommodate commercial jets as large as the Boeing 757," Lockyer said. "At issue is the adequacy of the environmental impact reviews and failure to address the many questions raised by state and federal agencies about the substantial effects airport expansion will have on the environmentally sensitive and ecologically important region."

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Norman Mineta, is also listed in the complaint for his "activities" as the head of the department. Marion Blakey, the Administrator of the FAA, is also "sued in her official capacity."

Lockyer's complaint states that the original project, the subject of several environmental impact reports (EIR), raised "substantial concerns" by a number of state and federal agencies and these concerns were not adequately addressed. The complaint also states that members of the public had expressed concerns over the analysis of the airport expansion project.

The lawsuit challenges the adequacy of the FAA environmental impact review and notes that "as the FAA itself has acknowledged, the Airport, once expanded, will serve as a gateway to the eastern Sierra, facilitating increased use and development of the eastern Sierra Nevada." The complaint notes that the FAA forecasted 900 Boeing 757 takeoffs and landings per year and 800 Boeing 737 takeoffs and landings per year by 2022.

"In spite of the controversy engendered by the Project, and the substantial objections and concerns of numerous State and federal agencies having relevant expertise and responsibilities concerning the area's resources, in December 2000, the FAA issued a Final EA (Environmental Assessment) "which was substantially similar to the Draft EA," the complaint declared. The FAA signed the Finding of No Significant Impacts (FONSI) in December 2000 and adopted the Final Environmental Assessment. Lockyer asserted that "by issuing the FONSI, the FAA violated its duty to take a 'hard look' at the potential impacts of the Expansion Project."

The second cause of action in Lockyer's complaint focuses on the FAA's failure to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS) evaluating the commercial development connected with the airport project. The complaint alleged that the FAA violated NEPA by failing to consider, analyze, and disclose the environmental impacts of these connected actions in an EIS.

The complaint's third cause of action alleges that the FAA failed to prepare an adequate environmental assessment, and this violated NEPA. Alternatives to the project were the center of this section of the complaint, and Lockyer asserted that the project's proponents didn't "explore all reasonable alternatives." A fourth cause of action asserts "arbitrary and capricious issuance of a FONSI in violation of NEPA," and the fifth cause of action alleges "violation of the administrative procedure act."

The Attorney General has asked the court to issue a mandatory injunction compelling the FAA to comply with NEPA and prepare an EIS. The court has yet to act on the matter, and the state's attorney is awaiting a reply to the state's complaint.

Cooley Godward and Earthjustice wrote the Mammoth Lakes Town Council, in a letter dated Oct. 25, advised the council that the actions taken at their Sept. 18 council meeting "were improper and unlawful," and the environmental attorneys urged the "Town Council to reconsider its actions."

Earthjustice and Godward, on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, California Trout, Inc., and the National Parks Conservation Association, have legally challenged the council's approval of airport expansion and development contracts signed at the Sept. 18 meeting. The letter states that the Town Council had acted prematurely in signing a "design contract" and "engineering contract" before the environmental impact review process was completed. Further, the letter outlined that the Town Council signed contracts for work that is not within the scope of the early environmental documents (1986 EIR and 1997 "Subsequent EIR").

The letter says that the airport expansion project authorizes the widening of the airport's runways and taxiways, and "neither the EIR nor the SEIR mentions widening of the runways or taxiways." Additionally, the letter states that the design contract involved a terminal building that is "larger than any building contemplated by the 1986 plan, the 1997 plan, or the SSEIR (Supplement Subsequent Environmental Impact Review)."

The letter alleged that the expansion plans violate the California Environmental Quality Act's (CEQA) procedural requirements in that the council's approval of the airport expansion project is being done in a "piece-meal fashion."

Source: Mammoth Times