Air National Guard delays public hearing and proposed modification of airspace, at governor’s request
AUGUSTA - The Air National Guard has postponed a planned public hearing that had been set for Sept. 2 at the University of Maine Farmington, and with it a delay in an attempt to modify the military operation areas which consist of most of Franklin County's airspace.
After a meeting between concerned residents, the county's state representatives and Maine Department of Transportation officials a few days ago, Gov. John Baldacci wrote a letter to ANG Col. William Albro at the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
In the letter, Baldacci outlined the issues raised by MDOT, the Attorney General's Office and residents of Western Maine in regards to a recently-released draft version of an Environmental Impact Study. That EIS came to the same conclusions as the less-intensive Environmental Assessment, released in 2007; namely that altering the Condor 1 and Condor 2 MOA minimum-altitude requirements to aid in ANG training would not have a significant effect on the region.
[Editor's Note: the draft version of the EIS can be [found here].]
Currently, ANG pilots must stay 7,000 feet above the earth throughout much of Condor 1 and Condor 2. The exception to this rule are military training routes, or "MTRs" which make up roughly 53 percent of the area. In the MTRs, F-15 and F-16 jets are allowed to fly as low as 500 feet off the ground. This system has been in place for roughly 30 years.
The ANG has consistently argued that the MTRs do not allow for the maneuvering necessary for some training, namely Low Altitude Awareness Training, Low Slow/Visual Identification training and Slow Shadow intercept training. The modification, the EIS says, would allow the ANG to meet its training requirements.
Many residents, however, have expressed concerns about the effects of the jets' sudden, loud sound bursts on the health of people and animals; the potential for mid-air collisions with recreational light aircraft; and potential economic impacts on western Maine businesses that depend on quiet, peaceful settings to function.
These concerns led the governor to write a letter in July 2008 to the ANG, requesting an EIS be drafted. The Federal Aviation Administration, who has the ultimate authority over U.S. airspace, determined that an impact study should be conducted in January 2009.
Now that the EIS has been released, however, several issues have been raised on the document's accuracy and fairness.
MDOT Chief of Planning Kat Fuller, whose agency was asked by the state to conduct what she termed as a "cursory review" of the EIS, said that the MDOT found a "number of areas [the ANG] had skipped over or hadn't done enough for."
In Baldacci's letter, under the heading "Maine DOT's Assessment:" the governor states that "The DEIS (draft EIS) does not respond to all [Council of Environmental Quality] regulations...."
"In fact," the letter reads, "the text of the EIS would suggest that the EA was simply reissued under a new name."
Fuller noted today that the MDOT had conducted the review at the request of the governor's office, due to the agency's familiarity with similar documents filed with the Federal Highway Administration. Their focus was on the administrative quality of the EIS, whether the right questions had been answered and right information had been included, not on whether the answers and information was correct.
"Maine DOT does not have staff with the specialized analytical skills to assess the validity of the noise impact analysis," the governor's letter reads, "which is likely the most significant impact to the area with the possible exception of safety. The ANG should provide funding to hire an independent noise analyst to review and make findings on this section of the EIS."
The letter also includes eight questions raised by local residents. The complaints range from concerns with the draft EIS' findings to not having adequate notice for the Sept. 2 public hearing on the report. Under the heading "Attorney General's Assessment:" the governor also lists two concerns of the AG's office; that the National Park Service had not been consulted about the affect of the Condor MOA modification on the Appalachian Trail, and that the Penobscot Nation, which owns 60,000 acres in the MOA, had not been consulted.
"As you can see," Baldacci summed up, "these assessments strongly suggest that more work needs to be done to assure me and the people of the Western Maine that no significant impacts will result from the proposed changes to the Condor MOA."
[Editor's Note: A copy of the governor's letter can be found here.
In response, the ANG released the following statement today:
"The Air National Guard has postponed a public hearing originally scheduled at the University of Maine, Farmington Wednesday, Sept. 2, at 6 p.m. on the draft Environmental Impact Statement Modification of the Condor 1 and Condor 2 Military Operations Areas used by the 104th Fighter Wing, Massachusetts Air National Guard. The public hearing will be re-scheduled at a later date."