After protracted litigation challenging plans to build 130 wind turbines, each 440 feet tall, in a 25 square mile area of Nantucket Sound, the D.C. Circuit last month denied petitions for review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) determination that the turbines would pose no hazard to air navigation.
The petitioners, the Town of Barnstable, Massachusetts and a non-profit group of pilots and others, challenged the no hazard determinations based on the FAA’s failure to analyze the safety risks posed by the project and to perform an environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), 42 U.S.C. § 4332. The D.C. Circuit had previously vacated a 2010 no hazard determination based on the FAA’s failure to consider potential adverse effects of the turbines on pilots operating under visual flight rules (“VFR”) and the potential that electromagnetic radiation from the turbines would interfere with radar systems in nearby air navigation facilities.
Noting the circumstances had changed after the FAA upgraded the radar and beacon at Otis Airfield, the circuit court’s January 22, 2014 opinion upheld the FAA’s 2012 no hazard determinations. The court concluded that the FAA properly based its determinations on aeronautical studies conducted according to the FAA Handbook, Procedures for Handling Airspace Matters, FAA Order JO 7400.2J (February 9, 2012), of which Section 3 on identifying and evaluating aeronautical effect was applicable. According to the court, the FAA could reasonably view its Handbook procedures implementing the Secretary of Transportation’s regulations as requiring a threshold finding before triggering the need for a more advanced “adverse effects” analysis under Handbook Section 6–3–3 which states that “[a] structure is considered to have an adverse effect if it first … is found to have physical or electromagnetic radiation effect on the operation of air navigation facilities.”
Additionally, the FAA was not required to prepare an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) because the U.S. Department of the Interior had already prepared one for the project and “[n]o hazard determinations generally do not require preparation of an environmental impact statement because they are not legally binding.”
The FAA’s no hazard determination was a precondition to the Department of the Interior’s approval of the lease needed to begin construction of the offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound.