Not Cleared for Takeoff

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.

Biscayne National Park Superintendent Richard Frost has gone a step further. At a public meeting in November, he declared his qualified support for a supplemental EIS. "What I said was the shortcomings of the [original EIS] needed to be examined carefully and that a [supplemental EIS] is one of the ways that can be done effectively."

State environmental regulators also have their own worries about the planned development of the air base. They are primarily concerned that sufficient safeguards be built into the plan to protect Biscayne Bay against polluted runoff. This past week representatives from the South Florida Water Management District and Dade County began meeting to resolve the state's concerns.

Another series of meetings related to South Dade is also underway. State, county, and local officials, as well as community, agricultural, and business representatives, are trying to plan and control future development in South Dade, both related and unrelated to the air base. Several participants believe that this planning process will address many of the litigation-minded environmentalists' concerns about industrial and residential buildout around the base.

But many members of the environmental coalition pressuring the White House don't trust those negotiations to avert environmental doom. After all, they point out, the discussions aren't expected to produce a long-range development plan until the year 2000, by which time development on and around the base may be well under way.

Alan Farago, a member of the Sierra Club Miami Group, argues that South Florida is witnessing a debilitating "devolution of authority" from the federal government to state and local government. The state, he contends, is hampered by flimsy environmental laws. And Farago accuses Dade governmental leaders of being weak-willed; he specifically faults the county commission for approving a fast-track process for the base instead of a more deliberate, conventional route.

"The further you go from the federal government to the local level, the greater the chances that the public interest will be compromised," he argues. "It's amounting to one huge ripoff that is going to destroy a national park. The federal government is going to say that we shouldn't worry too much because the state process is going to take care of everything. But the state law [that governs the base transfer] is so general that it will not protect the environmental interests, and the Dade County Commission has turned a blind eye to its responsibility for regional and environmental issues. I think that there's no reason, based on past performance, to believe that anything will happen except that the public interest gets screwed."

Not far from the minds of many involved in the current struggle is a similar fight three decades ago. In 1970 a civic uprising killed an international jetport under construction in what is today Big Cypress National Preserve, just off the Tamiami Trail. Joe Browder, now an environmental consultant in Washington, D.C., spearheaded the opposition as the region's representative for the National Audubon Society. He sees a perturbing irony in the current situation: The jetport fight, he says, was largely responsible for the enactment of the federal legislation that requires a thorough EIS.

"Congressional leaders were so concerned that on the one hand the Department of the Interior had invested a lot of federal dollars to establish a national park and maintain it, and on the other hand the Department of Transportation was handing federal money to Dade County to build a new airport to damage the national park, that they decided there was a need for a law that would force federal agencies to look at the environmental consequences of their actions," he recalls. "There's no way to pretend that a major commercial airport at the old Homestead Air Force Base is consistent with the standards to protect Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park.

"It's like some institutions never learn.


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