On August 19, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) published a proposed rule regarding “Implementation of Legislative Categorical Exclusion for Environmental Review of Performance Based Navigation Procedures,” 79 Fed.Reg. 49141 (“CATEX Rule”) to implement the Congressional mandate contained in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Pub.L. 112-95 (“FRMA”), § 213, directing FAA “to issue and file a categorical exclusion for any navigation performance or other performance based navigation (PBN) procedure that would result in measureable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and noise on a per flight basis as compared to aircraft operations that follow existing instrument flight rule procedures in the same airspace.” 79 Fed.Reg. 41941.
Inspired by Congressional intervention, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) has begun the process of revising and reorganizing FAA Order 1050.1E, “Environmental Impact: Policies and Procedures” in a new Order, 1050.1F (by the same name). 78 Fed.Reg. 49596-49600 (August 14, 2013). That in itself would not be particularly notable, except for the importance of the changes that are being made, and their significance for both airport operators and the communities around airports that are the direct recipients of both the disbenefit of the environmental impacts of airport projects, and the potential benefit of the adequate environmental review of those impacts.
The most important of the potential revisions to Order 1050.1E involves FAA’s relief from the burdens of environmental review granted by Congress in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, H.R. 658 (112th) (“FMRA”). Specifically, two legislatively created categorical exclusions are added in 1050.1F, paragraphs 5-6.5q and 5-6.5r, Exemption from NEPA Review which basically give a free pass to changes to air traffic procedures throughout the country.
Challengers to the determinations of Federal agencies do not go to court on a level playing field with their governmental adversaries. Federal courts have long taken the position that deference is properly accorded to an agency making decisions within its area of technical expertise. That position may now be changing, at least with respect to two specific sets of legal circumstances.
On Tuesday, March 6, 2012, Tinicum Township, Pennsylvania and its partners County of Delaware, Pennsylvania; Thomas J. Giancristoforo; and David McCann (“Petitioners”) took their grievances with the ongoing expansion project at Philadelphia International Airport (“PHL”) to the 3rd Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Petitioners, made up of communities and residents surrounding the airport, expressed their concern with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (“FAA”) often-ignored failure to adequately disclose and analyze the project’s air quality and land use impacts.
Relying most heavily on consistent objections to the project by the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) the Federal agency delegated by Congress with the power to promulgate and enforce regulations governing Clean Air Act compliance, Petitioners asserted that their claims are based on: (1) FAA’s failure to comply with the disclosure and analysis requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq., (“NEPA”); (2) the EPA’s right to receive deference from the Court to its negative views of the project because, in the 3rd Circuit, “deference follows delegation,” see, e.g., Chao v. Community Trust Company, 474 F.3d 75, 85 (3rd Cir. 2007); and (3) FAA’s violation of the Airport Airway Improvement Act, 49 U.S.C. § 47101, et seq., (“AAIA”) requirement that airport projects be reasonably consistent with the existing plans of jurisdictions authorized by the State in which the airport is located to plan for the development of the area surrounding the airport. 49 U.S.C. § 47106(a)(1). FAA disagreed with Petitioners’ assertions of deference and claimed that they had complied with the AAIA by relying on the plans of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. (See Philadelphia Inquirer, March 6, 2012 and Delaware County Daily Times, March 7, 2012 for catalog of FAA arguments.)
The three judge panel expressed satisfaction with the scope of the oral argument, but is not subject to any specific time period within which to render its decision.
As we reported yesterday in our blog titled “FAA Reauthorization Act Exempts Next Generation Airspace Redesign Projects from Environmental Review,” Congress is set to act on the conference version of H.R. 658 (“Act”), a Bill the nominal purpose of which is to fund the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) for 2011-2014, a task Congress has been unable or unwilling to accomplish for the last two years.
The legislation goes far beyond funding, however. Toward another stated purpose – to “streamline programs” – the Act sets out the parameters for establishment and operation of FAA’s Next Generation Transportation System (“NextGen”). Not stopping there, it also “creates efficiencies” by exempting the NextGen program from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), Act, § 213. Thus, whole communities around at least 30 “core” airports might be newly impacted by aircraft overflights seemingly without the opportunity for public review and comment before the NextGen project is implemented, and without an avenue of leverage in the courts afterwards. All is not yet lost, however.
In a monument to political deal making, the United States Congress is today considering, in the House and Senate Aviation Committees, the "FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012," H.R. 658 ("Act") to, among other things, "authorize appropriations to the Federal Aviation Administration for fiscal years 2011-2014 . . ." It is, however, the other provisions of the legislation which most profoundly affect the public.
Purportedly to "streamline programs, create efficiencies, reduce waste and improve safety and capacity," the most recent version of the Act to emerge from the House-Senate Conference Committee exempts all new area navigation ("RNAV") and required navigation performance ("RNP") procedures, which collectively comprise the "Next Generation Air Transportation System" ("NextGen"), Act § 201, Definitions, from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. ("NEPA").
The Act, generally, mandates that all "navigation performance and area navigation procedures developed, certified, published or implemented under this section [Section 213] shall be presumed to be covered by a categorical exclusion (as defined in § 1508.4 of Title 40, C.F.R.) under Chapter 3 of FAA Order 1050.1E, unless the Administrator determines that extraordinary circumstances exist with respect to the procedure." Act, § 213(c)(1).
The Act expands on this mandate in § (c)(2). "NEXTGEN PROCEDURES – Any navigation performance or other performance based navigation procedure developed, certified, published or implemented that, in the determination of the Administrator, would result in measurable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and noise, on a per flight basis, as compared to aircraft operations that follow existing instrument flight rule procedures in the same airspace, shall be presumed to have no significant effect on the quality of the human environment and the Administrator shall issue and file a categorical exclusion for the new procedure."
Recent appellate cases have once again brought to the fore the critical importance of the “exhaustion of administrative remedies” for any potential challenger to an agency action based on noncompliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (“CEQA”), the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) and other laws meant to protect the environment and public.
In California, as example, public projects such as road construction, airport development, and power facilities, as well as private projects such as shopping centers are challenged on the basis of the failure to exhaust administrative remedies, or to present the alleged grounds of noncompliance “to the public agency orally or in writing . . . during the public comment period provided by this division or prior to the close of the public hearing . . .” Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21177.
All too often, individuals, environmental organizations and public agencies wait to make their decisions to challenge the analysis of a project’s environmental impacts until their frustration peaks, and the time for filing a legal challenge arrives. [The usual time for filing a CEQA challenge is very short – 30 days from the filing by the agency of its Notice of Determination (“NOD”) which marks the final agency action in the CEQA process. NEPA is normally 60 days from the signing of the Record of Decision (“ROD”).] By that time, however, it is too late, because “exhaustion of administrative remedies is a jurisdictional prerequisite to maintenance of a CEQA action.” Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield, 124 Cal.App.4th 1184, 1199 (2004).
In a recent report entitled Civil Aviation Growth in the 21st Century, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) develop strategies to integrate National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review into the FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) implementation planning process in a way that would make NextGen environmental reviews less costly and time-consuming.
In the report, the AIA acknowledges that: (1) redesign of terminal airspace by the FAA requires compliance with NEPA; (2) airspace redesign typically has potentially negative environmental impacts and does not qualify as a “categorical exclusion”; and (3) most often, airspace redesigns require an Environmental Assessment (EA). Every EA must result in either a ‘finding of no significant impact” (FONSI) or a more detailed “environmental impact statement” (EIS). Citing the historical duration and cost of FAA actions involving EAs and EISs, the AIA reports that industry stakeholders in NextGen are frustrated with the time-consuming and costly nature of the NEPA review process, consider it a major impediment to the timely rollout of the system, and would like to see additional efforts to expedite the NEPA process. Although the report does not expressly state that all NextGen EAs should result in a FONSI, it could reasonably be read to suggest that approach in order to save costs and fast-track the NEPA review process.
While it is true that NEPA review is costly and time-consuming, there should be no different, attenuated NEPA review process for NextGen than for any other Federally sponsored or funded project. To subject some arbitrarily chosen Federal projects to less stringent review than NEPA prescribes would require an amendment of NEPA (a highly unlikely eventuality). NextGen is no different than any other Federal effort, and the Congress has clearly spoken about the precise protocols that must be followed. Any initiative to the contrary, without a NEPA amendment, would be contrary to law.