AUGUSTA – Governor John Baldacci is requesting a more in-depth look at the impact of a proposed alteration to the military training airspace over western Maine, which would lower the minimum allowable altitude to as low as 500 feet in some places.
In a letter addressed to Military Liaison Officer Allen Lucas, who is with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Eastern Service Area, Baldacci notes that his administration still has “serious concerns” about the plan.
“As Governor of the State affected by this proposal, I request that an Environmental Impact Statement be developed,” he wrote. “I base my conclusion on the lack of adequate review of the alternatives and the significant public controversy that exists in Maine.”
Currently, training operations in the Condor 1 and Condor 2 military operations areas, which cover most of Franklin County, are limited to a minimum altitude of 7,000 feet. The proposed changes would allow aircraft, including F-15 and F-16 jets, to fly as low as 500 feet in altitude. The changes would also remove the “corridor restrictions,” which require that aircraft train in 10-mile-wide, one-way corridors. The change is designed to let pilots get “low altitude intercept training,” according to Massachusetts Air National Guard representatives, who say that pilots cannot engage in most combat maneuvers against one another with the restrictions. In addition, they say, the hills and mountains in the county allow trainees to get experience in a rising and falling terrain environment.
However, there has been controversy about the plan. Some residents of Franklin County have said that low-flying military aircraft will adversely affect the peace and quiet of areas like Rangeley and Carrabassett Valley. At a meeting organized by the Air National Guard to discuss the issue, held on July 11, 2007, in Farmington, 150 residents were in attendance. No one spoke in favor of the plan.
The Maine Department of Transportation’s concerns over a draft environmental assessment issued in March 2007 resulted in them making a request for a supplement to those findings. The Maine Congressional Delegation sent a letter to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, requesting that the assessment be elevated to a more thorough Environmental Impact Statement. Instead, a less-inclusive supplement was issued in April 2008.
Now, Gov. Baldacci is requesting that the FAA take another look at the project. If the agency agrees, and orders a Environmental Impact Statement conducted, it could delay the entire proposal by a year or more.
“Basically an Environmental Assessment Supplement requires a lesser evaluation before making a determination of no significant impact,” MDOT Director Ron Roy said. “The impact statements are typically ordered if there is some controversy or questions left over from the supplement.”
The governor and MDOT’s biggest concern is that other alternatives to Condor 1 and 2 were not given a balanced review before being declared inferior. These include the Yankee Military Operation Area, which encompasses part of New Hampshire and a smaller slice of western Maine, and the MOA around Fort Drum, in upstate New York.
Roy said that the Fort Drum area, which is already used for military training flights and includes a bombing range, deserves particular attention if an Environmental Impact Statement is conducted. Originally, that airspace was dismissed because it was not within 200 miles of the Otis Air National Guard station in Falmouth, but Roy says that the Fort Drum training area is in range.
“Why can’t that also be used for low altitude flying when they’re not bombing?” he asked.
The governor’s letter also asks for more thorough answers to some of the questions raised throughout the 266 public comments submitted in the process. These include the economic impact of the flights on a tourism-driven economy, the “inadequacy of the noise hotline” and the potential for mid-air collisions between military planes and small recreational craft.
Roy stressed that the administration was not taking an approach that the plan was either good or bad, but that it required more analysis before an educated decision could be reached. The FAA has complete control over the country’s airspace, and the final decision about whether or not the governor’s request will be granted lies with them.