Santa Monica Airport: Going environmental

When it comes to the Santa Monica Airport (SMO), what a difference a few years, a lot of community action, and a decisive election have made. Four years ago, in the aftermath of losing its battle with the FAA over large jets, the City of Santa Monica was gun shy about the airport. It initiated a “Visioning Process” for the airport that ended up envisioning nearly everything that might happen at SMO except the vision that most residents concerned about the airport wanted: shutting it down.

Fast forward. Two months ago the City Council listed closing SMO as one of the three major priorities for the City. Last week the City took out full-page advertisements and created a website designed to mobilize community action against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the purpose of doing that. Tomorrow night, the council will act on recommendations from staff to start a process to curtail environmental impacts of airport operations until it can be closed.

All of this is in the context of continuing litigation to establish or confirm the City’s right to close all or part of the airport. There are two cases. The City initiated one against the FAA in 2013 to have the courts declare that the City now has the right to close the whole airport. (That litigation is tied up in a procedural appeal in the Ninth Circuit.) Airport interests brought the other case—it’s a FAA administrative proceeding seeking to extend the City’s obligation to operate the airport under a contract with the FAA from 2014 to 2023. (In that case, the FAA was supposed to give its decision months ago, but has for the third time delayed the decision.)

A city government that was not long ago trying to rationalize every problem SMO creates is now throwing every argument and strategy it can at the FAA to close the airport. It’s particularly notable that the City is working in concert with the two U.S. representatives, Ted Lieu and Karen Bass, whose constituents are affected most by the airport; this represents a big change from a few years ago when it was hard to get the local congressional delegation interested.

It is also notable that the City is making environmental arguments against the airport that it had not made before. These arguments, which have been championed for years by Los Angeles resident Martin Rubin and his organization, Concerned Residents against Airport Pollution (C.R.A.A.P.), potentially will allow the City to make an end run around at least the strictest aspects of FAA control.

This environmental argument is mostly what tomorrow night’s hearing is about. Staff is proposing various measures, including moving to require that all fuels sold at the airport be low lead or unleaded for prop planes, or biofuels for jets; requiring that current airport lessees begin mitigation of contamination of premises they have occupied; and moving to have the City take over fuel sales. Finally, staff wants authority to begin developing plans for a cap on total emissions generated by the Airport, something that could ultimately provide overall limits on airport operations.

Of course, the goal is not to operate a cleaner airport, but to close it and build a park. But making the airport operate more cleanly not only has intrinsic benefits, for so long as the airport is operating, but also increases pressure on the aviation businesses there.

All of this is radical change from where the City was not long ago. The sea change began after the 2012 election where nearly all the candidates supported closing the airport, and obviously picked up with the 2014 election when Measure LC won handily, defeating the aviation industry’s Measure D 60% to 40%. Also, one has to credit the hiring of new City Manager Rick Cole, who is taking a much more dynamic approach to the airport and its future than did his predecessor, Rod Gould.

Tomorrow night City Council should adopt all of the staff recommendations, but it should try to go even farther. For one thing, it should have staff report back on the possibility of ending all fuel sales at the airport and what this would mean, both legally and practically. Another thing the Council should do—at least I don’t see why the City can’t do it—is to terminate all leases with flight schools. The numerous flight schools at SMO are responsible for a large proportion of takeoffs and landings, and given the residential areas around the airport, it’s a dangerous place to learn to fly. I haven’t heard of any FAA regulations that require airports to have flight schools.

Without going too deep into the controversy, there is a group of anti-airport activists who believe the City can go much further than what staff proposes—and close the airport now. It’s impossible to imagine how this could be done given that the City is engaged in ongoing litigation over what its rights are, especially given that other parties brought one of the cases against the City. Although in my opinion these activists are correct about what the City has the right to do, when they ask the question, “why are the jets still flying,” it’s as if they never heard the words “contempt of court.” Judges don’t like it when litigants go outside the process.

In law school they teach that there is no right without a remedy. With respect to SMO, the City of Santa Monica is working on establishing and creating its remedies, both in the courts and on the ground.

Thanks for reading.

6 thoughts on “Santa Monica Airport: Going environmental

  1. Hi Frank,
    Considering the ongoing litigation with the FAA how can the city enforce stricter environmental restrictions at SMO when current aviation activities already operate within FAA guidelines?

  2. Pingback: Santa Monica Airport: Going Environmental | Santa Monica Next

  3. There is not one activist advocating immediate closure. Martin Rubin is not happy with the staff suggestions. Please check your facts.
    There are many activists and neighbors who believe we can and must do more to protect the health and safety of of thousands impacted daily. A slow and measured conservative draw out for years approach is not acceptable. Lives are at stake. Kick out the aviation tenants and shorten the runway!
    If Mayor Daley could bulldoz his airport and get away with it, then we can do more.

  4. There is not one anti airport activist who understands the situation that advocates immediate closure of the airport. Eliminating the sale of leaded fuel is a small step in the right direction. There is no evidence that biofuels are safer than jet fuel, although it sounds better. Better yet kick out the FBOs and the flight schools and sell no fuel. Keep the runway open and safe. The impacted neighbors around SMO want to see reduced flights. People’s health and safety are impacted daily, 365 days a year, 7am to 11pm Mon to Fri and 8 to 11 Sat and Sun. The airport contributes to cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and the threat of another crash every day. This is a real threat to real people. The leases are up. The 1984 agreement is over. Stop waiting for the FAA to say OK. Let’s get serious now.

  5. SANTA MONICA CITY COUNCIL STAFF REPORT REGARDING SMO-EMISSIONS INEFFECTIVE

    CRAAP DIRECTOR DISAPPOINTED WITH SANTA MONICA NOT EFFECTIVELY ADDRESSING PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS

    Santa Monica, CA – Since the late 1990s, Martin Rubin, Director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, has been trying to draw attention to, and help correct, the extreme air pollution impacts emanating from Santa Monica Airport (SMO) that impacts residential communities bordering the airport. At the same time, according to Rubin, the City of Santa Monica (the City) has done relatively little, proactively, to address these critical community public health concerns, and the City has worked harder to keep the spotlight away from the City than it has to correct the toxic emissions that affect mostly Los Angeles residents.

    This Santa Monica City Council October, 27 2015 agenda item 8-D is the first agenda item on any Council agenda to focus solely on the issue of SMO emissions. Unfortunately, the item comes up very late on the agenda making attending the meeting very difficult for those wishing to speak and to be heard publically. “If you want to understand the depth of the impacts, you must listen to those who are impacted”, Rubin says.
    Rubin goes on to say that continuing to allow the kind of operations at SMO that affect the health of mostly Los Angeles residents is unacceptable. The City, owner and operator of SMO, has failed to even attempt to argue this issue with the FAA outside or inside of court. How many deaths have resulted from these toxic emissions? Has the City thought to investigate? The City thoroughly investigated the economic aspects regarding SMO; why not the negative health aspects?
    The City has made it crystal clear to me that it is far more concerned about the liabilities that could arise from this issue than it is about protecting the multitudes, whose public health continues to be compromised.
    It would not be difficult for the City of Santa Monica decision-makers to get a clear understanding as to the extent of the air pollution impacts from SMO. One need only spend a few hours on any Sunday afternoon having a cup of tea at a home just a few hundred feet downwind from jet blast. If one is unwilling to be subjected to the poisoned air, reread a few of the numerous studies that have been made available over the past 15 years.
    Rubin believes that the City has the opportunity and the responsibility to make changes that will result in correcting this critical issue now and not in the year 2023. Time is of the essence!

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