Basic environmental analysis steps include:
- Define the project scope,
- List project alternatives,
- ID the environmental “baseline” [the now conditions the project may change],
- ID project and project alternative environmental impacts,
- Determine if impacts may exceed certain “red flag” thresholds, for instance air quality contaminant levels,
- Prepare a state EIR or federal EIS if impacts may be significant,
- Mitigate significant impacts.
How do the FAA and County finesse the foregoing steps?
Ploy 1: Minimize the Project Scope.
As noted in Blog #4, the County and FAA have minimized project scopes over the past 7 years by carving one large Palomar project [expanding the Airport beyond the basic transport general aviation airport required by Carlsbad Conditional Use Permit 172] into smaller ones to avoid preparing a comprehensive EIR or EIS.
Consider a recent FAA variation on this theme: When the FAA assesses use of a new plane at Palomar, the FAA limits its analysis to the number of planes and flights the Palomar tenant estimates in the short term. For instance, assume the FAA assesses the impacts of 2 new large planes flying 10 times a day at Palomar over the next 3 years.
Once the FAA performs this analysis and certifies the plane for use, it does not matter if the numbers of planes and flights increase 5-fold. Why? Because NEPA triggers an environmental analysis only when a discretionary approval is initially required.
Once given, the approval is golden. In other words 2 planes and 10 daily flights over 3 years are assessed even though the Palomar tenant may handle 10 planes and 50 daily flights over a long period.
Similarly, the County minimizes the project scope by granting only short term permits to initiate the service. Presumably, if the County grants a 1-year permit, the County only need analyze 1 year of environmental impacts.
Ploy 2: Curtail the Project Alternatives.
The FAA’s July 2012 California Pacific Airline assessment identified 2 planes that CPA wishes to use. The assessment then said no analysis of other planes was required.
Why? Because the FAA defined the project as CPA flying from Palomar with the specified aircraft. This conclusion makes no sense. Other planes might be quieter, safer, or use engines less polluting.
The FAA assessment also said that it made no sense to consider as an alternative CPA planes leaving from other airports. This conclusion does make sense. The legitimately defined project was to save North County residents the time and expense of traveling to San Diego International Airport. This goal could not be achieved without flying from Palomar.
Why would it make sense for the FAA to consider other planes? Because if such other planes were shown to be quieter or less polluting, the FAA could impose mitigation measures on CPA even though the FAA certified the planes that CPA wished to use.
Ploy 3: Fudge the Environmental Baseline.
An environmental assessment goal is to learn how tomorrow’s project impacts today’s baseline. How much will noise, traffic, and air pollution change? The FAA fudged the CPA analysis in several ways. For example, the FAA CPA assessment stated at page 4-21:
“Since the number of aircraft operations would only increase by seven percent as a result of the Proposed Action it is deduced that the increased demand for… resources would be equal to or less than seven percent, which would likely represent an insignificant impact. Furthermore, airport activity experienced just five years ago (215,000 annual operations in 2007) was 25 percent higher than the projected future, with-action conditions (161,350 annual operations in 2016). Therefore, any increase to vehicle usage or demand for commercial services, rental cars, shuttles, taxis, and airport parking would result in levels below those experienced in 2007.”
The quoted language sounds reasonable. But its logic fails for at least two reasons:
- Apples & Oranges. The number of Palomar planes do not determine the number of shuttles, taxis, and rental cars needed. Rather, the number of Palomar passengers determines this need. Currently, Palomar handles less than 100,000 passengers per year. Only 10,000 more Palomar flights per year carrying 80 passengers would increase passenger levels from 100,000 current to 900,000 future. So the FAA assessment reference to a seven percent or twenty five percent aircraft operational increase is inherently flawed.
- Incorrect Dates. In essence, FAA argues that Palomar 2016 increased operational impacts should be less than Palomar 2007 impacts. The FAA uses the wrong baseline year. The baselines for traffic, noise, and air pollution are the existing 2012 levels.
For more ploys the FAA and County use to avoid proper environmental analysis, see next week’s Blog #11.