Update: Governor opposed to low-flight proposal as hearing approaches
Update: Governor John Baldacci, in a letter addressed to the director of the Air National Guard sent today, has stated he is in opposition to the modification of the Condor military operation areas. Please see the bottom of the article for a summary for his latest comments.
FARMINGTON - On Saturday, Nov. 14, from 2 to 6 p.m. at UMF's Lincoln Auditorium, residents of western Maine will get their chance to be heard on an environmental impact study issued for a proposal to lower the minimum altitude for military training flights above much of western Maine.
The Air National Guard 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, which cover 53 percent of the MOA. In the MTRs, pilots can fly as low as 500 feet off the ground.
However, the MTRs are one-way flight corridors, which prohibits many types of low-altitude training. Additionally, these MTRs are not directly connected with the Condor MOA; a pilot cannot move freely from low-altitude flight in a MTR to the high-altitude Condor MOA without receiving clearance from Boston Central International Airport.
The ANG wants to lower the minimum altitude throughout the Condor MOA to 500 feet, allowing for free-flowing movement from higher altitudes to lower ones. ANG representatives say that the change will allow pilots to conduct Low Altitude Awareness Training, Low Slow/Visual Identification training and Slow Shadow intercept training.
In western Maine, some business owners and residents have expressed concern over the proposal. Specifically, their concerns have included the introduction of bursts of sound as jets move from high altitudes to low ones and the potential for mid-air collisions with recreational light aircraft. This change, some have stated, could adversely affect the region's tourism industry.
The ANG has responded to these concerns by pointing out that the total number of flights in the region would be decreasing, thanks to the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station and other adjustments. Furthermore, ANG representatives say that the amount of time jets spend at the lower altitudes will decrease, from 30 minutes to 10 minutes, as the pilots will no longer need to stay in the MTRs for their entire flight.
As part of the FAA's process for altering the Condor MOA, the ANG conducted an Environmental Assessment, known as an EA, which stated that the change would have a minimal impact on the region. However, in 2008, Maine Governor John Baldacci asked the FAA to require the ANG develop an Environmental Impact Study, which was described as a more-intensive version of the EA.
The ANG asked the governor's office to reconsider. In early January 2009, Massachusetts Air National Guard Capt. Matthew Mutti, with the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Mass., said that an EIS wasn't necessary.
"We argue that we don't need it (an impact study) because the Condor airspace has been operating there for so long," Mutti had said. "It was established 30 years ago - a long time ago - for both high and low altitude training. The (environmental) impact won't change."
However, the ANG eventually agreed to develop an EIS. The draft version of the document was released in late July 2009, with a public hearing to collect comments scheduled for August. However, Baldacci asked for more time, after the Maine Department of Transportation, the Attorney General's Office and residents came forward with concerns about the draft EIS.
"...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," Baldacci concluded in a letter addressed to ANG Col. William Albro at the Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.
Although agreeing to delay the hearing by two and a half months, the ANG has said that the governor's concerns have been addressed in the draft EIS. This was stated in a letter addressed to Baldacci on Sept. 10.
"The National Guard Bureau," ANG Director Lt. Gen. Harry Wyatt wrote, "in conjunction with Major General Libby's office, has ensured all of your summary points are addressed in the current draft EIS for the modification of the Condor MOA, according to the guidance and laws of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970."
In late October, Maine's Senators Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Congressman Michael Michaud wrote letters to ANG officials, highlighting concerns with the draft EIS. They noted that the EIS does not list its authors, or their qualifications, what additional studies beyond those conducted for the EA were incorporated into the EIS, or what the document cost to draft.
Michaud's letter also points out renewed worries about safety, noting that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association have added their own concerns in with the MDOT and some residents.
"For example," Michaud wrote, "the AOPA has noted that according to the Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center, radar coverage and communications within the footprint of the proposed MOA is intermittent to nonexistent below 7,000 feet, potentially creating greater hazard for general aviation aircraft."
The senators wrote that they were alarmed by the possibility that the FAA was already leaning toward approving the modification, prior to the completion of the EIS.
"We understand that the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) formal approval of the airspace modification would take place after the Air National Guard submits the final EIS," Collins and Snowe wrote in a letter addressed to the FAA on Oct. 30, "but our constituents are very concerned that the FAA may have already determined to approve the airspace change."
Specifically, the senators' concern that the FAA potentially had already made a decision mirrors that of state Rep. Thomas Saviello, of District 90, who pointed out the following sentence, which can be found on the page 1-14 of the EIS:
"Upon completion of the EA in March 2009, the FAA concurred with the EA's findings that the Proposed Action would not have significant impacts. The ANG has independently elected to proceed with an EIS for the Proposed Action in response to requests from several elected officials and the general public."
Saviello has stated that he's not necessarily against the proposed modification, and that he wants ANG pilots to have opportunities to train. His issues are with the process and the EIS itself. An environmental manager at Verso Paper who has reviewed and submitted similar documents of his own, Saviello said that in his 30-year career, the ANG's EIS was "the worst I have ever read."
"I do want our pilots to have the absolute best training to defend this country," he wrote in a letter to Collins. "But I want their work to be done right."
The ANG has maintained throughout the process that the low-flight operations are a necessary part of the pilots' training and that the terrain in western Maine offers the best and safest opportunity for that training, compared to other options. Furthermore, ANG has constantly said that the change will actually reduce the low-flight impact throughout the Condor MOA as a whole, as fewer jets will spend less time at lower altitudes and not be concentrated in the flight corridors.
On Nov. 13, Baldacci wrote a second letter to Wyatt, partially in response to the director's letter following the governor's request for more time. In this new letter, Baldacci thanks the ANG for the postponement but says he is "disappointed" that his concerns were given "no further consideration."
"While I am grateful that the Air National Guard postponed the hearing for approximately 60 days," Baldacci wrote, "I am deeply disappointed that no further consideration was given to the questions outlined in my letter."
Baldacci went on to say that he was also disappointed that the ANG would not be including the findings of the Brookings Report and the Fermata Study in the draft version of the EIS. Those two studies, conducted by independent think tanks, place a high priority on Maine's "quality of place" and stress the importance of tourism. The ANG has said that those studies will be cited in the final draft of the EIS, but Baldacci has complained that does not give the state adequate time to respond.
"I continue to assert that the questions raised in my prior correspondence strongly suggest that more work needs to be done to assure me and the people of Western Maine that no significant impacts will result from the proposed changes to the Condor MOA," the governor wrote. "As such, I wish to register my opposition to this proposal. I do not believe that serious consideration has been given to the impacts on the people of Maine nor has the appropriate level of due diligence been conducted in this process and in the Draft EIS."
The hearing on Nov. 14 is designed to give people a chance to add their own comments into the draft EIS, with those comments being sent to the FAA along with the document. The hearing is Saturday, Nov. 14, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., at the University of Maine at Farmington's Lincoln Auditorium.
The ANG has also extended the public comment period until the end of the year, with written comments about the proposal and draft EIS being accepted until Jan. 1, 2010.
The draft EIS can be viewed here.