Agency Must Redo Analysis to Meet Federal Requirements

TALLAHASSEE (July 18, 2006) -- The Federal Aviation Administration earned a grade of "incomplete" from more than a dozen local and national conservation organizations for failing to fully evaluate the environmental threats posed by building a new airport in Bay County and redeveloping the site of the Panama City Airport.

A new West Bay airport would spur development in the surrounding area -- which is about 50 percent wetlands -- threatening water quality and wildlife, the organizations said. Likewise, building a marina and commercial and residential buildings on the site of the current airport would compromise important wildlife habitat. (For a copy of a letter the organizations sent to the FAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, go to www.nrdc.org/media/docs/060718.pdf.) The FAA did not adequately address either of those issues.

"The FAA is going to have to go back to the drawing board," said Melanie Shepherdson, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "It can't look at the proposed new airport in isolation. Developers are pushing for the new airport precisely because it would kick off a major development boom around the facility."

(For NRDC's formal comments on the FAA's environmental impact statement, go to www.nrdc.org/media/docs/060718a.pdf.)

Two federal agencies have stated that the FAA must consider potential development around the proposed airport and redeveloping the Panama City Airport site in its evaluation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated in its comments on the FAA's draft evaluation that a "complete watershed build-out analysis should be conducted for the West Bay alternatives." Meanwhile, in its comments on FAA's draft, the Environmental Protection Agency stated that "[t]he fate of the existing [Panama City Airport] site is a connected action that is important to the overall project."

Indeed, the FAA ignored a set of redevelopment scenarios for the current airport site that were prepared last fall by the Panama City-Bay County Airport and Industrial District. Plans include a 250-boat marina, hotel, golf course, condominiums and retail stores. Dredging for the marina alone would destroy seagrass beds that provide important habitat for threatened and endangered sea turtles, as well as harm oyster beds.

"The local airport authority rejected plans to expand the current airport back in 1998 because it would have harmed Goose Bayou, but its new proposal to redevelop the airport site would do just that," said Diane Brown of Citizens for the Bay. "The FAA has to take a closer look."

Besides NRDC and Citizens for the Bay, the organizations include the Clean Water Network of Florida, Emerald Coastkeeper, Florida PIRG, Friends of Lake Jackson, Friends of Perdido Bay, Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, Lake Jackson Protection Alliance, Panhandle Citizens Coalition, Santa Rosa Sound Coalition, Sierra Club and South Walton Turtle Watch Group.

In March, NRDC designated the panhandle, Florida's "Emerald Coast," a BioGem -- one of the most threatened natural areas in the Americas. (For more information, see www.nrdc.org/media/pressreleases/060302a.asp.)

No Demand for a New Airport

NRDC and Friends of PFN (Panama City Airport), a local pilots group, maintain that given that the Panama City Airport is underutilized, there is no need to expand it or build a new one, which would cost more than $300 million. Air traffic at the Panama City Airport has decreased over the last four years, they point out. Since the fall of 2001, the number of daily flights in and out of the airport has dropped in half, from 25 departures and 25 arrivals to approximately 12 departures and 12 arrivals, according to the airport's monthly flight activity reports. Any reasonably foreseeable growth in demand could be met by expanding the current airport, the organizations said.

Relocating the Panama City Airport to an undeveloped 4,000 acre site, which the St. Joe Company has offered to donate, would necessitate filling in nearly 2,000 acres of wetlands. An estimated 7,000 additional acres of wetlands would be lost to associated developments. These wetlands are vital for filtering contaminants, cycling nutrients, providing habitat, and controlling flooding.

"The proposed airport site is one of the most environmentally sensitive in the region because it is close to the headwaters of Crooked Creek and Burnt Mill Creek, both which feed into West Bay," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida. "Building the airport would disrupt the natural flow of water into West Bay and bury entire segments of streambeds under runways."

Crooked Creek and Burnt Mill Creek provide about 60 percent of the annual freshwater inflow to West Bay and are essential to maintaining the bay's water quality and species diversity. The airport would dramatically increase impervious areas -- natural areas paved over by roads and buildings that can no longer soak up rain -- and ultimately bury more than 4 miles of waterways, sending polluted stormwater runoff into both of the creeks, and in turn, West Bay.

St. Joe, the largest private landowner in the state, expects the new airport to trigger development in the region, increasing the value of its landholdings. Building the airport would pave the way for industrial facilities, office parks, resort hotels, strip malls and condominiums. Ultimately, the health of the West Bay and the St. Andrew Bay estuary would substantially deteriorate, and its valuable habitat, which provides a home for dolphins, sea turtles, Florida black bears, gopher tortoises, and a variety of other wildlife, would be destroyed.