FAA agrees to require a more detailed study of lower jet training flights over western Maine

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AUGUSTA – The Governor’s Office has confirmed that the Federal Aviation Administration agreed today to require a more detailed study on the impact of lowering the military’s jet flight training floor from 7,000 feet above mean sea level to 500 feet above the ground over much of western Maine.

Gov. John Baldacci received word that the FAA will require the Massachusetts Air National Guard to submit the more detailed Environmental Impact Study, instead of its original plan to submit the less inclusive environmental assessment, before it will consider reviewing the plan. The requirement will also trigger a formalized set of public hearings that will be added to the record included in the impact study.

“They (Air National Guard) asked us to reconsider our position, but we still felt we needed a higher level of public scrutiny than the less demanding environmental assessment,” said David Farmer, an aide to Gov. Baldacci, today.

Studies on what the impact of lowering the flight floor to 500 feet over western Maine will mean to the health of people, animals, businesses; the potential for mid-air crashes and other factors will need to be considered.

Last week, Capt. Matthew Mutti, an executive staff officer with the 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield, Mass., said the less detailed environmental assessment developed over the past few years to support the lower altitude training missions for its F-15 and F-16 jets in the Condor 1 and Condor 2 military operations areas would be expected in five months. Condor 1 and 2 encompass western Maine’s Franklin, Oxford and Somerset counties and a portion of southern New Hampshire.

“We’re still working on finalizing the EA,” Mutti said last week, adding at the time they were still in negotiations with Gov. Baldacci and the FAA to complete the assessment, “but the governor wants an environmental impact study to be completed,” he said at the time.

The FAA has the ultimate authority over U.S. airspace, and can determine that an impact study should be conducted.

“We argue that we don’t need it (an impact study) because the Condor airspace has been operating there for so long,” Mutti had said. “It was established 30 years ago – a long time ago – for both high and low altitude training. The (environmental) impact won’t change.”

Gov. Baldacci, along with Maine’s Congressional Delegation and local legislators, disagreed and have insisted since last summer that the full impact study be conducted before any decisions by the FAA are made. Five public information hearings have been held by the Air National Guard since May 2008, with the majority of the public present at those meetings speaking out against the plan.

“We want to make sure all the appropriate steps have been exhausted and thorough as to what low level jet flight training means to the overall environment,” Farmer said. “It’s better for them to go through a more thorough process that will be less prone to future challenges.”

Just what completing an environmental impact study means to the plan’s overall timeline, no one is certain yet, according to Col. Donald McCormack of the Maine Air National Guard.

“They (Air National Guard) will be meeting to hash out the specifics to set up a new timeline of when it should go to the FAA,” McCormick said today.

For more details about the Air National Guard’s proposal, click here.

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