Aviation and the Environment:

Airport Operations and Future Growth Present Environmental Challenges

RCED-00-153: Published: Aug 30, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 11, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the: (1) key concerns and challenges associated with airports' current operations and future growth--particularly concerns about aircraft noise, water quality, and air pollutant emissions--and the actions being taken by the nation's busiest airports to balance environmental concerns with such operations and growth; and (2) actions taken by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other federal agencies to address environmental concerns associated with airports' current operations and future growth.

GAO noted that: (1) the primary environmental concern and challenge facing airports now and for the foreseeable future is noise generated by aircraft operations; (2) airport officials' next greatest concern and challenge is water quality--primarily the potential harmful effects of deicing and anti-icing operations; (3) air quality is the third greatest concern and challenge reported by airport officials, particularly managing the effects on air quality of the increases in emissions due to airport growth; (4) other issues of concern cited by some airport officials were wetlands, endangered species, environmental justice, and historical preservation; (5) airport officials have undertaken a range of activities--either independently or in cooperation with government and industry partners--to more effectively balance airports' current operations and future growth with the environmental impact of these activities; (6) for example, they have established airport/community groups to address environmental issues; (7) coordination has occurred across the federal government to assist airport officials in balancing airport operations and growth with the impact on the environment; (8) for example, FAA has developed and continues to refine models to assess the impact on noise and air quality of proposed airport development projects and has assisted state and local governments and planning agencies with establishing land uses around airports that are compatible with airport operations; (9) furthermore, many airport officials reported that FAA is effective at providing assistance, including answering their questions and addressing their concerns about environmental issues and coordinating activities across the agency; (10) other federal agencies also assist airports with their environmental responsibilities; and (11) for example, the Environmental Protection Agency helps airports address water and air quality issues through regulatory, voluntary, and research efforts, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration assists them primarily through its research and related technology development to reduce aircraft noise and the emission of air pollutants.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On December 12, 2003, the President signed into law the Vision 100-Century of Flight Authorization Act of 2003, Public Law 108-176. In Section 305 of the Act, Congress amended Section 47106(c)(1)(B)of Title 49, United States Code, to eliminate the requirement for the chief executive of the State in which the project will be located to certify in writing that the project will be located, designed, constructed, and operated in compliance with applicable air and water quality standards. This is commonly referred to as the "Governor's Certificate". This requirement was deemed to be somewhat duplicative of requirements in the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. FAA subsequently issued a program guidance letter to this effect. Congress has not taken action on the noise-related portion of GAO's Matter and GAO is closing the recommendation.

    Matter: Since 14 of the 50 busiest commercial service airports do not participate in FAA's Part 150 noise compatibility program and, thus, the people who live in communities surrounding these airports that are affected by aircraft noise are not eligible to receive funds from this program, Congress may wish to consider the impact this restriction imposes on the affected communities. In addition, because the state air quality certification requirement is somewhat duplicative and may impede some airports as they attempt to grow and implement their environmental responsibilities, Congress may wish to consider eliminating this requirement.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and airport officials, has taken action to clarify guidance for airports on their responsibilities under the Clean Air Act, including meeting general conformity requirements and developing guidelines for providing airports with credits for voluntary emission reduction efforts. EPA requested and received a list of questions from airport officials regarding their Clean Air Act responsibilities, worked with FAA to prepare answers to many of them, and posted this information to both agencies' Websites. EPA is currently rewriting the general conformity regulations, and plans to address airport officials' remaining questions as a part of this effort. EPA has also provided outreach to airport officials at numerous conferences on how general conformity regulations apply to airport projects. Furthermore, in 2003, the Administration's proposal for reauthorizing FAA programs included a provision that the Secretary of Transportation and the Administrator of EPA jointly agree on how to assure that airport sponsors receive appropriate emission credits for qualifying airport projects, which could be used to offset emissions from future airport expansion. This provision was included in Vision 100-Century of Flight Authorization Act of 2003, Public Law 108-176.

    Recommendation: To help airports meet their responsibilities under the Clean Air Act, the Administrator, EPA, in coordination with FAA and airport officials, should: (1) clarify guidance in areas such as general conformity determinations and guidelines for states to provide airports with credits for voluntary emission reduction efforts; and (2) provide more effective technical support for regional and airport officials to meet air quality requirements.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials have drafted a letter that will be sent to the agency's regional offices regarding a new FAA requirement that all environmental review decisions, including categorical exclusion decisions, be communicated to airport officials. Recent contacts with the agency suggest that no further action will be taken.

    Recommendation: To provide assurance that environmental reviews for all airport development projects are broadly understood and systematically documented and that airport officials are aware of such reviews, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to inform airport officials of the results of all environmental reviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials have drafted a letter that will be sent to the agency's regional offices regarding a new FAA requirement that all environmental review decisions, including categorical exclusion decisions, be communicated to airport officials. Recent contacts with the agency suggest that no further action will be taken.

    Recommendation: To provide assurance that environmental reviews for all airport development projects are broadly understood and systematically documented and that airport officials are aware of such reviews, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to document the results of all categorical exclusions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FAA concurred with this recommendation. On November 30, 2000, FAA sent a letter to the nation's top 100 airports (including those GAO identified as the 50 busiest) clarifying that the agency "environmentally reviews all proposed airport development projects submitted for airport layout plan approval and for funding, including those that are categorically excluded from more detailed environmental reviews." The letter also indicated that FAA intends to more systematically document and inform airport officials of the agency's categorical exclusion determinations, in addition to the more detailed environmental reviews (e.g., Environmental Impact Statements and Findings of No Significant Impact).

    Recommendation: To provide assurance that environmental reviews for all airport development projects are broadly understood and systematically documented and that airport officials are aware of such reviews, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to communicate to airport officials the requirement that all airport expansion projects are subject to environmental reviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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