Governor requesting supplement to draft EIS for low-flight proposal
AUGUSTA - In the latest response in a series of letters between state agencies and Air National Guard, the governor has asked the ANG to prepare an additional Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
The document requested by Gov. John Baldacci would require the ANG to delve further into addressing issues ranging from noise analyses to impact studies on civilian aircraft safety to spelling out the necessities of low-flight training over western Maine.
"Considering the significance and extensiveness of concerns for the potential impacts that would be imposed on the State of Maine," Baldacci wrote to Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt III, director of ANG, on Dec. 29, 2009, "the citizens of the State of Maine and I respectfully request that a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) be completed and published with significant lead time notification of the required public hearings."
The ANG is asking the Federal Aviation Administration to modify Condor 1 and Condor 2, military operation areas that have encompassed most of Franklin County for 30 years. Currently, ANG pilots must stay above 7,000 feet throughout the MOA, unless they're training in military training routes, or MTRs, where pilots can fly as low as 500 feet off the ground.
Supplemental EIS are usually prepared after a final version of EIS has been issued. New information, previously-unstated impacts and alternatives can be contained within a Supplemental EIS, which has its own public comment period and public hearing, much like the EIS process.
In addition to requesting more data about the impacts of the low-flight proposal and more information about the necessity of LOWAT training, Baldacci asked the ANG to readdress two alternative proposals: expanding the Adirondack Airspace Complex, near Fort Drum in New York, or expanding the Yankee MOA, located over New Hampshire.
"The DEIS does not adequately demonstrate that expanding the existing [MOAs] are economically infeasible alternatives," the letter reads, "or would impose greater environmental impacts than the proposed expansion of use at the Maine CONDOR...."
The ANG had previously stated that the Adirondack option was too small, at 15 nautical miles by 35 to 45 nautical miles (depending on season). The Yankee MOA, the ANG has said, is configured for the training of the pilots of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, better known as "Warthogs;" low-flying aircraft designed to attack targets on the ground.
The governor's letter also includes another look at several points of contention that some state agencies and residents have been debating with the ANG.
Two major issues raised by the Maine Department of Transportation's review of the draft EIS have related to safety and noise levels. These two issues have been central talking points for those opposed to the airspace modification. In regards to safety, the MDOT has requested a more in depth look at local airports (there are six within the MOA) and civilian air traffic numbers (the MDOT claims that more than 43,000 flight operations take place within the MOA annually).
In a response directed toward Baldacci's earlier letters, Wyatt wrote in a letter, dated Dec. 1, 2009, that the draft EIS already includes a "required safety assessment to consider how the proposed action would affect the potential for accidents within the affected airspace."
The safety assessment can be found between pages 4-6 and 4-10 of the draft EIS, located here, off the MDOT website.
However, in the Dec. 1 response, Wyatt also wrote that "Without an analysis of the 43,340 operations, a clear understanding of flying operations is difficult to assess.... Consequently, further investigation will be required to validate current operations to assess safety considerations."
Baldacci's letter called the safety assessment referred to by Wyatt, "a basic impact analysis," and asks that the requested supplemental draft EIS contain the results of "further investigation."
"The additional investigation and analysis suggested by the DEIS to validate safety considerations should be included in the requested SDEIS," Baldacci wrote, "to provide the decision-makers a complete safety analysis prior to committing to a particular Condor flight location and/or height."
In regards to concerns over the noise of the F-15 and F-16 jets, the governor's response reiterates a request by the MDOT that the ANG hire an "independent noise consultant." The findings of this consultant, Baldacci suggests, could appear in the requested supplemental draft EIS.
This may be a sticking point for the ANG, however. In previous communications, Wyatt noted that "all contractor noise work is reviewed by [United States Air Force] specialists."
The governor raised other, specific concerns with the draft EIS. These include "conflicting statements" about the presence (or lack thereof) of a migratory route for waterfowl within the Androscoggin River Watershed, that the draft EIS is "deficient in analysis of noise impacts to eagles," that the number and timing of sorties be capped, that a previous attempt to modify the MOA in the 1980s be referenced, and that more socioeconomic impact studies be conducted. Finally, the governor included a list of 20 specific issues with the draft EIS, ranging from mislabeled figures to repeated references to "environmental assessment" rather than EIS to misspelling "Carrabassett" as "Garrabassett."
In a Dec. 31, 2009, letter to Lt. Gen. Wyatt, Maine's Attorney General Janet Mills is also requesting additional study be conducted on the proposed change to lower flight training to 500 feet off the ground over western Maine. Mills testified at the Nov. 14, 2009, public hearing conducted by the ANG and held in Farmington, in which she spoke out against the proposal, noting that the EIS draft provided only incomplete, inaccurate or no new information.
"After reviewing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and the recent comments from our Governor and members of the Legislature and after listening to the testimony of dozens of western Maine businesspeople, environmental experts, military veterans and other citizens, I strongly concur with the request of our Governor that a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement be completed and published in order for the ANG to respond to the substantial scientific and socioeconomic concerns raised concerning the current DEIS.
"Such an in depth supplemental analysis is called for to reassure the officials and citizens of Maine that the proposed action is based on science and actual need, and not on mere convenience and opportunity," Mills wrote.
The response and request of a supplemental draft EIS by the governor also met approval with local state Rep. Thomas Saviello (R - Wilton), who has been a critic of the ANG's draft EIS as being incomplete from a technical standpoint.
"The Governor and I often differ in our approaches to what should be done at the state level, but in this case we are on the same page," Saviello said. "I thank him for staying engaged."