Airport Expansion: Environmental impact statement not ready for public comment

Posted: Wednesday, August 06, 2003

The Juneau Airport will likely expand into surrounding wetlands to meet Federal Aviation Administration standards for runway safety zones, according to city officials.

"We recognize we are going to be impacting wetlands and we anticipate finding a mitigating solution that takes those impacts into account," said Allan Heese, Juneau's airport manager.

The Federal Aviation Administration has prepared a draft environmental impact statement for the expansion of runway safety zones at the airport into surrounding wetlands, but agency officials do not know when it will be available to the public for comment.

"We have prepared a preliminary draft EIS that is a document which is really for review internally by resource agencies who are cooperating agencies," said Patti Sullivan, FAA project manager for the Juneau Airport EIS. Sullivan added that cooperating agencies include the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Juneau's airport doesn't comply with federal standards for safety zones, the areas surrounding the runway constructed to lessen the chance of passenger injuries if a plane undershoots or overshoots the runway.

To comply with FAA standards, the city could either shorten the runway to accommodate the zones on city-owned land, or expand the safety zones into the wetlands and the Mendenhall River, which requires an EIS. In January, Sullivan said the EIS would be available for public comment in April.

Both options have opponents. Local residents have testified against encroaching on the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge. Airport officials have objected to shortening the runway, citing safety concerns.

"This is a very difficult environment to fly into and we want to provide the community, the pilots and the flying public as much of a safety margin as possible," said Heese. "Shortening the runway runs counter to that."

The FAA requires a safety area to extend 1,000 feet beyond the end of the runway and cover a 500-foot-wide rectangular area. In Juneau, the safety zones extend about 250 feet beyond the end of the runway and are less than 500 feet wide, according to the FAA. To comply without expanding into the wetlands, the runway would have to be shortened 870 feet.

The Juneau Assembly, concerned that some large planes might not land in Juneau if runway space is cut, passed a resolution in January asking the Federal Aviation Administration to be flexible as it considers new safety zones. Mayor Sally Smith and Assembly member Jeannie Johnson also visited Washington, D.C., in the spring and met with the Alaska congressional delegation, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young about the issue.

In response, Young added a provision to the FAA reauthorization bill now pending in Congress that prohibits the FAA from requiring any airport in Alaska to shorten its runway to comply with the requirement on safety-overrun areas.

"We have really appreciated the support (of the congressional delegation) recognizing the issue of our safety area," Smith said. "We are really encouraged that we are moving in the right direction for better safety."

FAA Administrator Marion Blakey visited Juneau from Washington, D.C. last weekend and promised to speed the process, according to Smith.

"She was willing to say they are committed to trying to get that EIS out, done and back to us as soon as possible," Smith said.

Smith said some of the wetlands likely will have to be developed to accommodate the FAA standards. She also said the city is experimenting with a special crushed-concrete surface material that may help errant planes slow faster in less space.

"The impact will probably not be as much of an incursion as it might have been because of all these conversations," Smith said.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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