FAA Publishes a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Palm Beach International Airport’s Airfield Enhancement Project

On September 26, 2008, the FAA published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the construction and operation of proposed airfield improvements to Palm Beach International Airport (PBIA) “to accommodate existing and projected aviation demand.”  Comments on the DEIS are due no later than November 24, 2008.  Since the Airport Sponsor (Palm Beach County) seeks to enhance capacity at PBIA, one would think that there would be a concomitant increase in environmental effects of the project over what would be considered the “no action” alternative, i.e.,  not doing the project.  However, the FAA claims that there will be a net decrease in environmental effects (after construction) because the project will not increase capacity above what is already planned and delays will be reduced.  See below for an analysis of that issue. That being said, the FAA admits to there being a shift in the noise contours and an increase in air pollution created by the airport, at least temporarily by the construction created by the Project.

The major “airfield improvements” that the FAA is requesting approval for are:

  • Modifications to Runway 9R/27L.  Relocate and construct Runway 9R/27L 100 feet south of its existing location to  length of 8,000 feet and a width of 150 feet.
  • Modifications to Runway 13/31.  Shorten the southeast end of Runway 13/31 currently 6,932 in length) by 3,412 to provide a standard Runway Safety Area and extend the northwest end of Runway 13/31 by 480 feet.  The total adjusted length of Runway 13/31 would be 4,000 feet.

According to the DEIS, “once constructed and operational, the improved Runway 9R/27L would be primarily used as an arrival runway, and existing Runway 9L/27R would be used as the primary departure runway. Because of its shortened length . . . Runway 13/31 would be used only by small, G[eneral] A[viation]-type aircraft.”

The FAA admits that Proposed Project will result in significant increases in noise. In 2013, the Proposed Project would cause 386 housing units and 957 people to experience a DNL 1.5 increase or greater.  By 2018 the number of affected housing units will increase by 423 and another 1,049 people.  Both of these increases are considered to be “significant impacts” under FAA criteria.  For these people, the FAA is deciding whether to offer:

  • Acquisition and relocation of homes;
  • Purchase of an avigation easement;
  • Sound insulation in exchange for an avigation easement; or
  • Purchase assistance.

Moreover, there will be impacts on property that do not experience an increase of DNL 1.5. FAA criteria does not consider these impacts to be significant, therefore no mitigation will be proposed for the Project.  The FAA states that the “Airport Sponsor [Palm Beach County] may initiate an update to their current FAR Part 150 Noise Compatibility Program to mitigate noise impacts to these additional homes.”

The FAA relies heavily on the assumption that the Proposed Project will not increase capacity beyond what is already forecast.  Thus, it claims environmental benefits based on the reduction of time that aircraft spend idling and taxiing due to a decrease in delays created by the Proposed Project.  This assumption, however, ignores the economic principle “induced demand,” that is, if delay times are decreased during peak hours, then the airlines will, most likely, schedule additional flights thereby increasing the number of aircraft on the runways, which will increase idling and taxi time.  This is not a concept that is foreign to the FAA, since it includes in its Benefit Cost Analysis Guidance for Airport Sponsor a specific formula that equates a decrease in delay time with an increase in aircraft operations.  See, p.41 and Appendix C of FAA Benefit Cost Analysis Guidance.

With respect to air quality, although the FAA admits to a short-term rise in emissions due to construction of the Proposed Project, the FAA claims that the Proposed Project will result in fewer emissions than if the Project is not constructed.  This outcome is based on the FAA’s assumption that increasing the capacity of the airport will not cause the airlines to schedule additional flights over and above those already forecast.  Thus, the decrease in emissions “is due to the reduced aircraft taxiing times associated with the planned improvements to the airports.”  Thus, if the airlines schedule flights over and above those already forecast, this benefit is eliminated or, at least, seriously diminished.  This would be an increase not only of “criteria pollutants” (i.e., Volatile Organic Compounds, Nitrous Oxides, and Particulate Matter) but also of “Hazardous Air Pollutants” and greenhouse gases.

Moreover, despite recent studies indicating that emission of pollutants above 3,500 feet above ground level has an effect on air pollutant levels on the ground (click here for a summary of the Taubman and the Clark studies, click here (on p.3) for a summary of the University of Maryland study), the FAA ignores the effect that such high level emissions will have.

In addition, although the FAA did “inventory” Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) at PBI, it did not perform a Human Health Assessment. The FAA claims that because the EPA has not set a “National Ambient Air Quality Standard” (NAAQS) under the Clean Air Act, it need not assess the impact that the Proposed Project will have on the emission of HAPs.  However, this ignores the NEPA requirement that all environmental effects of a federal project must be assessed. NEPA does not limit the air quality assessment solely to “criteria pollutants.”  Thus, a Human Health Assessment of the HAPs would be appropriate in this case.

A couple of final notes:

  • Comments on the DEIS are due no later than November 24, 2008.
  • That being said, it should also be noted that if one were to bring a lawsuit against the FAA after the FAA decides to implement this Project, that person is limited to raising issues before the court that he or she raised before the FAA. In other words, if no one comments on the Project on a particular issue prior to the FAA making its final decision, that issue may not be raised in a subsequent lawsuit.

More information regarding the Project can be found at the Project web site http://www.pbia-eis.com. Here are links to the separate Chapters, Figures and Appendices, if you do not want to download the entire DEIS.

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