Not Cleared for Takeoff

If a national coalition of environmental groups has its way, Homestead Air Force Base won't be handed over to private developers just yet

A coalition of national and state environmental organizations is demanding that the federal government more thoroughly study the potential environmental impacts of development at Homestead Air Force Base and is threatening to file suit if the request isn't satisfied. The challenge by the fifteen-group coalition poses a serious obstacle to the transfer of the base to Dade County, which plans to lease the facility to a private development group.

"We said it in a meeting with [federal officials]: If they didn't do what we requested, we would have to evaluate the possibility of bringing a lawsuit," says Sarah Chasis, senior staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental-policy organization in New York. "The goal of the lawsuit would be to prevent the transfer until there had been the necessary environmental review."

Dade officials refuse to speculate on the possible effects a lawsuit could have on the base transfer. According to Hernando Vergara, a spokesman for the Metro-Dade Aviation Department, the county was expecting to finalize a long-term lease with the federal government by the end of the year. That time line is now in doubt, he says.

Several years ago the federal government, as required by law, began an analysis of the environmental impacts of development at the base. The two-inch-thick document, called an environmental impact statement (EIS), was completed in early 1994. But the environmental groups say the study is woefully flawed and doesn't guarantee the protection of the two national parks near the base, Everglades to the west and Biscayne to the east. The environmentalists have asked federal officials to complete a supplemental EIS before transferring the facility to Dade County.

For one thing, the environmentalists say the study was premature as it was completed eight months before a development proposal was submitted by Homestead Air Base Developers Inc. (HABDI), whose principals were awarded a controversial no-bid lease by the Dade County Commission to operate the airport and surrounding property. The environmentalists assert that the scale of the proposed project -- which includes passenger, cargo, maintenance, and military airport facilities, as well as office buildings and a park -- is far larger than the type of development considered in the EIS. The coalition also contends that

*The EIS inadequately analyzed the impact of airplane overflight noise on wildlife in the nearby national parks

*The EIS inadequately addressed the continued drainage of polluted storm water from the base into Biscayne Bay through a connecting canal

*The EIS inadequately dealt with the ecological impact of an anticipated $12 billion in regional economic activity resulting from the base, including the construction of housing, offices, malls, and transportation systems

*The development of an airport in South Dade is in conflict with the federal government's ambitious Everglades restoration plans

The fifteen environmental groups -- including the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Wildlife Fund, and Friends of the Everglades -- have sent several letters to federal officials, including one to President Clinton, describing their concerns. None was as strongly worded or as detailed as a 23-page missive the coalition addressed to U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry in late October. The letter, which cited case law in support of the request for a supplemental EIS, prompted an October 31 meeting between the activists and environmental advisers to President Clinton.

"We're still waiting to hear what the federal government's going to do about our request," says Sarah Chasis, adding that this past week a Clinton adviser finally requested a follow-up meeting with the environmentalists. Says the attorney: "We still don't have a clear idea of where they're headed. We keep hearing that they're trying to balance their commitment to support economic development in South Dade with their desire to protect the environment."

A spokesman for Clinton's environmental advisory committee, the Council on Environmental Quality, declined to discuss how the federal government might respond to the coalition's demands. "People in our office and several federal agencies, and a couple of other people in the White House, are paying a great deal of attention to this," says spokesman Brian Johnson. "But I don't think there will be a decision before the holidays."

More than year-end holidays are delaying a response. There appears to be significant disagreement among federal agencies about how to respond. Officials from the air force have been publicly defiant, contending that they have satisfactorily complied with federal laws throughout the base-transfer process. (The air force produced the original, purportedly flawed EIS.) But other agencies have been less strident. George T. Frampton, Jr., assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the U.S. Department of the Interior, has asked that a state/federal Everglades restoration task force recommend a list of specific conditions that should be attached to the conveyance of the base. "While the Department of the Interior has been supportive of redevelopment at Homestead Air Force Base, we have also been concerned for some time about the possible repercussions of development that might run counter to the substantial federal, state, and local investment in restoration of the South Florida ecosystem," the assistant secretary wrote this past July to the head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

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