Lawsuit Filed over Lack of EIS for Mammoth-Yosemite Airport


OCTOBER 3, 2002
MAMMOTH LAKES, CALIFORNIA

A coalition of environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, re-filed a lawsuit on Sept. 24 in federal district court in San Francisco, to force the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to consider the environmental impacts of the Mammoth-Yosemite Airport project. The suit seeks to compel an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project.

Environmentalists had put the suit on hold in Aug. 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. The FAA approved the project in July 2002 without requiring any further study.

The original Environmental Assessment, and the Subsequent Supplement to the EIS from the FAA had a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). Environmentalists stated the growth induced by the airport expansion could also adversely affect the environment.

The Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, California Trout, and Natural Resources Defense Council brought the lawsuit. The proposed expansion, according to the environmentalists, would convert a small, private-airplane facility into a major regional airport, landing B-737s and B-757s, carrying over a hundred passengers each. Their concern centered on the projected air traffic and the increased need for facilities, hotels, condominiums, cabins, restaurants, shopping centers, rental-car agencies, road upgrades, parking lots, traffic signals, and other amenities needed to support the extra 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 group of the Sierra Club, the Range of Light Group, has endorsed the lawsuit.

Mammoth Mountain Ski Area currently supports about 1,000,000 skier-days per year, and the project seeks to "fill up the slow times in the season and mid-week," said Bill Manning, Mammoth-Yosemite Airport Director. "We are an FAA commercial airport, and we are capable of handling 757s today. We can do that now," Manning stated. Manning also explained the airport is currently configured to handle the air traffic described in the EIS requirements from 2000, and "larger, fewer, and more-efficient aircraft are better."

Mammoth Mountain has assisted the Town of Mammoth Lakes by providing local funding for the proposed project (required under FAA guidelines for airport expansions), and the Town 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 (representing the plaintiffs).

"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.


Background

The Mono County Airport Land Use Commission prepared an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) in 1986, and the EIR addressed the airfield improvement program started by the county. The project required review under both the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and by the FAA as the lead agency. This document was certified by the Mono County Board of Supervisors in 1986.

The proposed airport project was evaluated in the 1986 EIR/EA, included in the Airport Land Use Plan for the creation of an Airport Development District.

The Town of Mammoth Lakes purchased the airport from Mono County in September 1992, and the 1997 airport-expansion program was environmentally reviewed in a 1997 EIR. This report evaluated environmental issues relative to changes in the project proposal, and new information since 1986. The Town certified the 1997 Subsequent EIR/EA as adequate. There was no FAA action taken at that time.

In December 2000, the FAA prepared a Final Environmental Assessment document, and this document contained an environmental evaluation of the currently proposed project. The Town determined the project would require a Supplement to the Subsequent EIR (SSEIR) and thereby bypassed the need to prepare an Initial Study (under CEQA guidelines). The Town certified the Final SSEIR in March 2002 and recently signed a draft agreement with the FAA for airport-expansion funding.

Source: Mammoth Times