Monday, October 29, 2012

Making a difference

The lack of transparency and disregard for public input regarding the County’s decision to give its blessing to the proposed Central Texas Airport has proven to be a colossal miscalculation. Citizens were rightfully outraged that they had been given no voice in a project that could so negatively impact personal lives, public safety and environmental quality. Would the public ever have a say?

The first significant opportunity came when the USACE posted a Public Notice on March 25, 2011 which requested public comments regarding the Permit Application for the CTA. The initial comment period was for 30 days and then extended until May 9. This section of the Public Notice provided some encouragement to those who were overlooked in the County’s decision-making process:

PUBLIC INTEREST REVIEW FACTORS: This application will be reviewed in accordance with 33 CFR 320-331, the Regulatory Program of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and other pertinent laws, regulations, and executive orders. Our evaluation will also follow the guidelines published by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency pursuant to Section 404 (b)(1) of the CWA. The decision whether to issue a permit will be based on an evaluation of the probable impact, including cumulative impact, of the proposed activity on the public interest. That decision will reflect the national concerns for both protection and utilization of important resources. The benefits which reasonably may be expected to accrue from the proposal must be balanced against its reasonably foreseeable detriments. All factors which may be relevant to the proposal will be considered, including its cumulative effects. Among the factors addressed are conservation, economics, aesthetics, general environmental concerns, wetlands, historic properties, fish and wildlife values, flood hazards, floodplain values, land use, navigation, shore erosion and accretion, recreation, water supply and conservation, water quality, energy needs, safety, food and fiber production, mineral needs, considerations of property ownership, and, in general, the needs and welfare of the people.

The USACE is soliciting comments from the public; federal, state, and local agencies and officials; Indian Tribes; and other interested parties in order to consider and evaluate the impacts of this proposed activity. Any comments received will be considered by the USACE in determining whether to issue, issue with modifications, or conditions, or deny a permit for this proposal. To make this decision, comments are used to assess impacts on endangered species, historic properties, water quality, general environmental effects, and the other public interest factors listed above. Comments are used in the preparation of an Environmental Assessment and/or an Environmental Impact Statement pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act. Comments are also used to determine the need for a public hearing and to determine the overall public interest of the proposed activity.

The most recently obtained document summarizing the October 25 meeting between the developers of the CTA, their consultants and the Corps confirms that the above paragraphs were not just empty window-dressing.

. . . an airport project is very different from a housing development and the public interest review is also different; that this project had more public interest than any project in recent district history with 60 comments and 50 plus requests for a public hearing; and that the EID/EA would need to [be] commensurate with the public interest review.

Preparing comments is not an easy task; one for which not many have the time or inclination. But the citizens of Bastrop County took the opportunity and it paid off.

Let this be a lesson that citizens CAN make a difference. Let the lesson for the County be that transparency and due diligence should be the highest priority in evaluating any future projects of this magnitude. Government should work for and consider its citizens first and not give priority to developers’ pipe-dreams.

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