Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Aviation watchdogs clash with Port of Portland, Federal Aviation Administration in U.S. Circuit Court

A local nonprofit aviation watchdog group has finally had its day in court.

How it will turn out, however, remains to be seen. 

On Wednesday, Oct. 5, representatives from Banks-based Oregon Aviation Watch pleaded their case in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, challenging the Port of Portland and the Federal Aviation Administration over a third runway built at the Hillsboro Airport in 2015. 

The critics argue that the runway brought harmful environmental and public health impacts due to increased exposure to leaded aviation fuel.

Oregon Aviation Watch, a nonprofit organization focused on eliminating adverse impacts from aviation activity, fought for years to keep the Port from constructing a third runway at the Hillsboro Airport.

Speaking on behalf of Aviation Watch, attorney Sean Malone made it clear that leaded aviation gasoline, also known as avgas, is at the heart of this case — which began in 2014 when, according to the Watch, the Port moved forward with its plan to build the third runway without studying the environmental impacts.

"The issue here is 200 pounds of lead per year on top of an existing 1,600 pounds per year from aircraft operations at the Hillsboro Airport," Malone said. "The agencies have incredulously assumed that pollution resulting from the increase in operations would stop at the airport's boundaries."

Aviation Watch urged the court to require the Port to perform an environmental impact study on the airport, something the group says has never been done.

Malone argued before Chief Judge Sidney Thomas and Circuit Judges Richard Clifford and Jacqueline Nguyen that because lead is toxic to everyone — especially children — increased scrutiny is necessary when an agency moves forward with a project that could ultimately affect thousands of residents who live in residential neighborhoods surrounding the airport.

But Jason Morgan, attorney for the Port, argued that the FAA, after its own study, concluded that despite concerns for added emissions due to increased traffic, the third runway didn't bring in new business.

Instead, Morgan said, airport usage decreased by 16 percent after its construction. 

"Demand is driven by market forces, not by available pavement," he said. "The Port built the runway, and (more planes) didn't come. In fact, they left." 

The new runway "simply did not induce the kind of growth that (Aviation Watch President Miki Barnes) feared," Morgan added. 

Bringing the argument back to lead, Morgan clarified that the FAA is currently in the process of phasing out avgas, with unleaded fuel types expected to be readily available by 2018. 

"Lead's going to be gone," he said. "I have a hard time seeing what there is worth fighting about still with this case." 

"They've been at this (leaded gas phase out) for quite a while," Malone responded. "So I don't think I'm going to be holding my breath to see if it happens in 2018 that the whole thing is going to be phased out."

No timeline has been set for when the Circuit Court will make a ruling in the case, but officials close to the case say it will likely take several months.


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