A draft copy of “Order 1050.1F – Environmental Impact: Policies and Procedures” was released to the public for comment in mid-August. It amends the current document on policies and procedures, Order 1050.1E, which guides how the FAA complies with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
A significant proposed change includes the new guideline that the FAA use what is known as a categorical exclusion to implement NextGen and satellite-based flight procedures – similar to the controversial new takeoff procedure at LaGuardia Airport - across the country.
Current policy calls for changes to new and existing flight patterns that occur under 3,000 feet be subject to an environmental assessment, which would examine the potential impacts on noise and pollution and discuss possible ways to mitigate those factors.
On the other hand, a categorical exclusion, places the determination on whether a proposed change has an environmental impact up to the FAA administrator with no public input or review.
“The FAA is basically given a pass from doing an environmental review,” said Barbara Lichman, a California-based attorney specializing in aviation and airport issues. “Basically, every change in a flight path is going to go without an environmental review.”
Lichman said any changes to a flight pattern are bound to have some sort of environmental impact.
“You are changing where the noise goes and to some extent where the air pollution falls,” she said, calling the proposed changes “the anti-thesis of NEPA.”
“NEPA was meant to be a vehicle for the disclosure of environmental impacts and their significance, but this exempts changes that would have been subject to environmental review,” she said. “It completely removes the public review and analysis of these impacts.”
The public has until September 30 to comment on the proposed changes, at which point the FAA will decide whether to adopt them as official policy.
This use of a categorical exclusion was actually mandated by Congress when it passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 to expedite the implementation of NextGen and satellite-based procedures without having them held up in lengthy environmental reviews.
“This isn't streamlining, this is steamrolling,” said Robert Whitehair, co-founder of Queens Quiet Skies and a former airport director. “The FAA can now basically do whatever they want.”
Included in satellite-base procedures is the new “TNNIS” route for takeoffs out of LaGuardia Airport, which has been the source of noise issues in neighborhoods across northeast Queens for the last year and a half.
Residents have been calling on the FAA to undertake an environmental review of the new procedure, but the agency has refused.
"Enabled by Congress, the FAA is giving itself a free pass to make sweeping changes in flight procedures under the NextGen program without the burdens of environmental review that benefits the public,” said Janet McEneaney, president of Queens Quiet Skies. “Communities under the new flight paths will be subjected to more noise and more pollution without recourse to the environmental reviews we used to be guaranteed under federal law.”
Lichman said the FAA could call for an environmental review instead of issuing a categorical exclusion, but said it's unlikely.
“When Congress gives you a green light to issue a CatEx, you are going to use it,” she said.