Airport Accused of Suppressing Runway Studies

Open-government advocates and environmentalists say the San Francisco International Airport is illegally blocking access to draft studies on the environmental impacts of its proposal to fill San Francisco Bay with new runways.
“We’ve been stonewalled,” said BayKeeper Jonathan Kaplan. “I think the airport and the city are depriving the people of their right to participate in a very important decision. The airport wants the media to be writing about flight delays, not about catastrophic environmental impacts.”
The airport proposes to fill two square miles for new runways to curtail flight delays in bad weather, which can shut down two of four current runways.  The new, bigger ones would function in all weather, although opponents point out that most delays are not weather-related, and other options could prevent those that are. [See Terrains Winter 2000, Winter 2001.]
On April 23, two weeks after rebuffing a request for the studies by BayKeeper and Alliance for a Clean Waterfront, airport officials also refused a similar order from San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. In 1999 and 2001, the airport issued gag orders on science panels assessing the studies.
The studies are required for state and federal environmental impact assessments of the plan. But the airport claims that a 2000 agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forbids the release of the preliminary data, or even a list of the studies under way.
Environmental advocates say that the airport is flouting city and state laws that mandate public access to draft studies.
The data in question — largely the results of computer modeling — predict the new runways’ effects on everything from the tidal flushing of South Bay toxics and stirring up of old industrial contaminants to the viability of fish, bird, and seal populations. Environmentalists are particularly concerned that the runway fill could cut tidal flows to the South Bay, rendering it stagnant and allowing increased deposits of industrial chemicals, heavy metals, and DDT breakdown products.
“The effect of the runways cannot be mitigated,” said Richard Zimmerman, chair of the airport task force for the Loma Prieta Chapter of the Sierra Club. “The impact of ten years of construction [would] degrade the entire Bay, not just a small percentage near the airport.”
The airport has already announced plans to restore North Bay wetlands as “environmental mitigation” for the construction. But there are few places to restore in the South Bay — where the construction would happen. As interpreted by a 1990 pact between the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US EPA, federal law requires a developer targeting wetlands to mitigate “when practicable, in areas adjacent or contiguous to the discharge site.”
In a study released last year, the airport identified the Cargill salt ponds — which span the southern perimeter of the Bay from Redwood City on the west side to Fremont on the east — as the only South Bay land available for mitigation. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in June that restoration of the Cargill salt ponds would be paid for by the state and federal governments and private foundations, and would not serve as airport mitigation. Another possibility — NASA-owned Moffett Field wetlands in Mountain View — is the subject of a Superfund cleanup that explicitly forbids tideland restoration.
According to environmentalists, the lack of mitigation options leaves the airport under pressure to find minimal potential damage to the South Bay — and to hide data.
“The first draft [of the environmental studies] probably said that there would be effects on the South Bay,” said Daniel  Cooper of San Francisco-based Lawyers for Clean Water, who was involved in the Sunshine Task Force filing. “They probably said ‘holy shit,’ and that’s why they’re not releasing it.”
Darwin Helmuth, project manager in the San Francisco Planning Department, said the department has no position on whether the documents should be released. But if they were, “we would be dealing with comments and questions and phone calls,” he said, “and we would never get the draft done.”
Airport spokesperson Kandace Bender told Terrain that the press — which in recent months has reported on the airport’s financial problems and a decrease in air traffic since September 11 — has been unfair to the airport.
“Don’t believe anything you’re reading in the other papers,” she said, “because they’re all getting it wrong.” Financial problems haven’t hampered the planned runway expansion and it will likely involve restoring the Cargill salt ponds, she claimed.
As of July, the data had been seen only by project staffers and the Peer Review Panel, a group of scientists hired by the airport to analyze the studies’ methodology.
Panel members, in fields from hydrology to marine mammals, have cited their confidentiality vow in declining to comment.
But a source close to the panel told Terrain that panelists at their May meeting “trashed” the airport for inconsistencies between data and conclusions in the studies, conducted by contractor URS Corp. on behalf of the airport and the FAA. At least one analysis indicated severe environmental consequences, said the source.
In September, the panel is expected to release its analysis of the data, but not the data on which the analysis is based; those will be excised to prevent public access, said the planning department’s Helmuth. The data will be released in the draft EIR, expected no earlier than January 2003.
The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows the FAA to withhold preliminary documents used to formulate a draft of its own documents. “That’s our standard agreement,” said FAA spokesman Jerry Snyder, referring to the airport pact, “not just with San Francisco, but with every airport we conduct this kind of work with.” The FAA owns the documents, will use them in the federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and will reimburse the airport for most of the work (75%, according to airport officials), Snyder said. But he conceded that the airport so far has laid out all the money.
Regardless of who owns the documents, the FAA policy does not apply to studies used for state documents such as the airport’s required Environmental Impact Report (EIR), said Terry Francke,  legal counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition. “It’s not enough to say ‘this is a federal document, so it’s up to the [federal government],’” said Francke. “If it’s in the possession of the [state or city agency] it’s under the California Public Records Act,” which permits release of drafts. And if documents involve a city project, the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance also explicitly prohibits the withholding of a“preliminary draft or department memorandum,” the ordinance states.
“It appears, and perceptions count, that San Francisco entered an agreement with the FAA just to exclude the public,” said Zimmerman of the Sierra Club.
“That is completely false,” airport spokesperson Bender told Terrain. “If people have a problem with this, they need to talk to the federal government.”
Alan Ramo, who filed the complaint with the Sunshine Task Force, said the airport’s refusal of the Task Force order has been forwarded to the San Francisco District Attorney (DA)’s office. Asked if the office is investigating the issue, DA spokesperson Reg Smith refused to comment.

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