Case Law Updates on the Environment (CLUE)
Case Law Update Details
Informing Citizens Against Runway Airport Expansion v. FAA
U.S. Court of Appeals - 9th Circuit
Ravalli County Airport
The FAA approved a project to construct a 5,200-foot runway at Ravalli County Airport in Montana. The FAA issued a Draft EA in 2014, followed by a Final EA and FONSI in 2017. The EA only evaluated alternatives for a 5,200-foot runway (in addition to the no-action alternative). The purpose and need for the project was based in part on the FAA’s determination that takeoffs and landings by B-II aircraft at the airport exceeded, or came close to, 500 operations per year, which was the FAA’s threshold for requiring a 5,200-foot runway.
The plaintiff challenged several aspects of the EA, including the FAA’s methodology for estimating air traffic, the purpose and need statement, the range of alternatives, the analysis of impacts on property values, and the extent of public participation. The court rejected all these arguments and ruled in favor of the FAA.
Air Traffic Forecast Methods
To determine the historical number of takeoffs and landings at the airport, the FAA relied on data from FlightAware (a national database of flight operations) combined with the airport’s handwritten records of fuel sales. The FAA made the fuel sale log data available with the Draft EA. The court ruled that the FAA acted in accordance with NEPA’s requirement to disclose the data supporting an agency’s expert opinions. The court also upheld the FAA’s methodology for estimating historical operations at the airport:
“Especially in the realm of aviation forecasting, the FAA has substantial discretion to choose among available forecasting methods, as long as it explains its choice. Here, the FAA explained that FlightAware cannot capture every operation at the airport, so the FAA relied on records of the airport’s fuel sales to get a more complete picture of annual operations. The FAA also explained that the records contained identifying numbers linked to specific aircraft, enabling the agency to determine which planes bought fuel and eliminate duplicates that showed up in FlightAware’s data. In sum, the FAA gave the necessary explanation here, so we defer to its chosen methodology for aviation forecasting.”
Purpose and Need and Range of Alternatives
The court ruled that the project’s purpose and need statement was not unreasonably narrow, and that the FAA considered a reasonable range of alternatives. The court explained that substantial evidence supported the FAA’s conclusion that B-II operations were close to or exceeded the threshold for a 5,200-foot runway. In addition, the court noted, building a 5,200-foot runway would benefit larger planes that use the airport, would allow planes (including firefighting planes) to carry more weight, and would be more financially responsible than initially building a shorter runway and later extending it to accommodate larger planes. The court also held that although Ravalli County proposed the project, “the FAA did not simply adopt the County’s goal of having a 5,200-foot runway as its own.” Rather, the FAA could consider the County’s interests in developing the purpose and need statement along with the FAA’s statutory mandate to promote safe airport operations and efficient air transportation. Finally, the court explained that because a shorter runway would not meet the purpose and need, the FAA was not required to evaluate alternatives with a shorter runway.
Impacts on Property Values
The plaintiff claimed that the EA did not adequately analyze the project’s impacts on nearby property values. In particular, the plaintiff argued that the FAA did not consider the studies that it had submitted on this topic. The court held that the FAA was not required to respond to every single comment and study that it received. The court concluded that the EA sufficiently evaluated potential impacts on nearby property values based on other studies and the noise modeling for the project.
The court ruled that the FAA provided a meaningful opportunity for public comment. The court noted that circulation of a draft EA is not always required, but in this case, FAA had circulated a draft EA with a 73-day period for public comments. The court held that this satisfied NEPA’s requirements for public participation. The court also rejected the plaintiff’s argument that additional public comment was required given the changes between the draft EA and final EA. “Petitioner’s argument is untenable as a practical matter because it would create an endless loop in the administrative process; an agency could never proceed with an action as long as the public continued to comment on new information that the agency released.”