Agency Ignored Alternatives that Would Better Protect Environment, Groups Charge

WASHINGTON (November 14, 2006) -- The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) recent approval of a new Florida Panhandle airport violated federal law, according to a suit filed today by two conservation organizations and a Panama City, Florida, pilots group.

The law states that the agency cannot approve an airport proposal that would cause "significant" environmental damage unless there are no "possible and prudent alternatives." The groups maintain that there is a better alternative -- the current airport in Panama City.

In mid-September, the FAA authorized the construction of a new, $331-million airport in a remote area approximately 30 miles from Panama City. The facility itself would destroy nearly 2,000 acres of wetlands and trigger development on thousands of surrounding acres of wetlands that provide important habitat for threatened and endangered species -- potentially including the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird previously thought to be extinct. The wetlands also are vital for filtering contaminants, cycling nutrients, buffering storms and controlling flooding.

"The FAA's decision to build this 'airport to nowhere' is illegal," said Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), one of the conservation organizations filing the suit. "The law is clear: The agency has to pick the alternative that is least damaging to the environment. And it failed to do that."

NRDC and the other petitioners -- Defenders of Wildlife and Friends of PFN (Panama City Airport) -- charge that the agency's decision violated the Airport and Airways Improvement Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act. They filed the case in the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York City.

The organizations fear the proposed airport would spur new planned communities, industrial parks, resort hotels, shopping malls and condominiums. Ultimately, the health of the West Bay and the St. Andrew Bay could deteriorate substantially, they say, and its valuable habitat, which provides a home for dolphins, sea turtles, Florida black bears, gopher tortoises, and a variety of other wildlife, could be ruined.

Defenders of Wildlife is especially concerned about the impact a new airport would have on what might turn out to be home to the ivory-billed woodpecker.

"The fact that scientists have seen the ivory-billed woodpecker along the Choctawhatchee River is cause for celebration," said Jason Rylander, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. "It's also cause for caution. Any proposal for major development in the area must consider the risk it would pose to the future of this bird -- as well as the other endangered and threatened wildlife that live there."

Fred Werner, a local pilot, and his fellow Friends of PFN members stress that there is no need for a new airport. "Commercial airline traffic at Panama City Airport has fallen off dramatically over the last five years," he said, "and any reasonable growth in demand could be met by expanding the current airport." Since the fall of 2001, the number of daily airline flights in and out of the airport has dropped in half, from 50 to approximately 24 arrivals and departures, according to the airport's monthly flight activity reports.

Even with FAA's approval, the project faces more hurdles besides the suit filed today before it becomes a reality. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers still has to issue a Clean Water Act permit allowing developers to destroy wetlands and bury streams to build the new airport.