The Federal Aviation Administration has decided the possible environmental impacts of proposed Juneau Airport construction projects need a closer look than they've been getting so far.
There's debate over whether the FAA decision will delay the projects. And there's concern that it will cost the airport money that could be spent on other projects.
The FAA announced today that four major projects will require an environmental impact statement before they can be approved. They are the runway safety areas -- basically, extensions at either end of the runway, an aviation development area, a snow-removal equipment building and an approach lighting system.
``Juneau Airport did the original environmental assessment for the projects and we found that you have to have an EIS before they can be approved,'' said FAA spokesman John Clabes this morning. An EIS takes more work than an environmental assessment.
Clabes said he could not comment on the reasoning behind the decision.
But Alaskans for Juneau issues coordinator Laurie Ferguson Craig said she thought comments on the environmental assessment from a number of agencies and ``people who understand wetlands'' had an effect.
Among critics of the assessment was Fish and Game habitat biologist Ben Kirkpatrick, whose recommendations included consideration of an alternative to the proposed runway safety areas that does not extend the taxiway from its present location, and the necessity of a description of how impacts on bird and fish habitat impact will be mitigated.
``Further analysis of affected habitats, project alternatives and mitigation impacts is required,'' he wrote in his comments.
Supporters of the projects had hoped the FAA's judgment about the airport's assessment would be a finding of no significant environmental impact, although most area residents who testified at a hearing on the airport's preliminary environmental assessment in February were of a mind that the document and the projects are flawed.
``This is a pretty positive turn of events,'' Craig said. ``(With these projects) we're looking at a loss of nearly 70 acres of wetlands.''
The FAA itself mandated the construction of the 2,000-foot-long runway safety areas -- which will extend into wetlands -- but included within that mandate the proviso ``where practicable,'' Craig said.
``Wetlands are high-value,'' she said. ``And it may be possible to reduce the size of the (runway safety areas).''
Jordan Creek drainage problems at the airport, bird hazards to aircraft and a proposal by a wildlife-hazards investigator to cut down a large swath of trees near the airport are other issues that are likely to be addressed by an EIS, she said.
Two criteria dictate whether an EIS is necessary, Airport Manager Allan Heese said this morning: the level of controversy generated by the impacts and whether the impacts are severe enough to be mitigated away.
Mitigation entails the enhancement of one wetlands area for the loss or destruction of another.
Heese said the EIS requirement is not likely to delay airport projects such as Phase 2 of safety area construction, scheduled to begin in March 2002. ``We did a fairly thorough environmental assessment,'' he said.
However, the money the FAA spends on the expanded study is likely to be taken away from other FAA-funded projects at the airport.
``These are dollars that we would have used for other projects we've been planning, such as reroofing of the terminal and equipment purchases,'' he said.
Though Heese expected no EIS-generated delays, his predecessor expressed considerable doubt at the February meeting.
Former manager Dave Miller worried that a full environmental impact study could take two to seven years to conduct. ``You can `thorough' this thing to death,'' he said.
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