Did county’s Palomar landfills violate FAA grant requirements?
By Raymond Bender
For nearly two years, we have been waiting for the FAA to explain:
- Trash Dumping. Did the FAA consent in writing to the County of San Diego dumping about 800,000 cubic yards of trash in 30 acres of McClellan-Palomar Airport canyons over a 14-year period?
- Trash Dumping Interim Safety Risks. If so, on what basis since dumping trash both (i) endangered Palomar Airport runway operations by attracting birds to the trash heaps just 1,000 feet away from aircraft using the airport and (ii) violated the FAA Grant conditions that preclude use of airports for non-airport purposes without written Secretary of Transportation permission.
- Trash Dumping Extraordinary Costs and Permanent Safety Risks. Why would the County of San Diego be eligible for future FAA grants to extend its 4,900-foot runway up to 800 feet over the now closed landfill when by dumping trash, county has (i) increased the cost of extending the runway by more than 1,000 percent, (ii) created a safety hazard by exposing increasingly larger aircraft to the landfill methane gas collection system that lies 4 to 7 feet below the Palmar runway east end, and (iii) violated the FAA grant conditions?
- IPERA. How is the FAA complying with the federal Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act when the County of San Diego applies for future FAA grants to extend and/or relocate the Palomar runway?
The FAA Delay in Responding to Our FOIA Request
In July 2017, Graham Thorley and I sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the FAA. We asked for all the FAA records explaining whether the County of San Diego had asked for federal Department of Secretary permission to dump trash in Palomar canyons over a 14-year period. We asked for FOIA fee waivers based on our ability to distribute information of significant public interest to the public.
Graham is a Carlsbad resident who for two years has maintained the website www.savecarlsbad.com. The website provides a wealth of information related to county’s plan to expand Palomar, FAA oversight, and the environmental impacts of the planned expansion.
Within a week of our request for a fee waiver, the FAA denied it. After our appeal to Washington D.C. – and after waiting about 14 months to respond to our appeal despite the FOIA requirement that a reply be made within 20 business days – the FAA finally granted our fee waiver request. The FAA has now begun to send us the requested records.
FAA records produced will also be noted on the Citizens for a Friendly Airport (c4fa.org) website. Citizens for a Friendly Airport last month filed a lawsuit to challenge the county’s 2018 PMP and PMP EIR.
The Initial FAA Substantive FOIA Request
Earlier this week, we received the initial FAA FOIA response. The FAA has promised more responses over the next few months. So far we have learned:
- The Bad News. The records provided thus far have nothing to do with the Palomar landfills. Presumably, if any such FAA records exist, the FAA is still lookng for them. So as of today, we still don’t know if the county notified the FAA of its trash dumping or requested permission for such dumping.
- The Good News. In the 1990s and 2000s, the FAA did express some concerns to the county – related to certain easements the county granted to Carlsbad and others for improvements to El Camino Real Road and Palomar Airport Road. The FAA letters suggest the county was undertaking certain actions without prior FAA approval and without a showing of benefit to Palomar Airport.
- The Good News: Federal Fumbles: 100 Ways the Government Dropped the Ball and The Pig Book: How Government Wastes Your Money. Included in the FAA FOIA production were excerpts from the two books just noted. For instance, the Introduction to the Federal Fumbles book notes in part:
In this book you will see many examples of wasteful, duplicative, and inefficient use of your tax dollars. The book highlights irresponsible grants … and money spent inefficiently. For many of the entries, you will find legislative solutions to eliminate wasteful spending and force agencies to make more responsible decisions.…”
By including the references to the above-noted books, it appears that the FAA is beginning to recognize that Congress and the public are increasingly scrutinizing federal grants generally and FAA airport improvement grants in particular.
The Future FAA Response: Reading the Tea Leaves
Two FAA actions in 2019 will tell the public whether it takes the federal Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act (IPERA) act seriously. The first action will be whether the FAA produces any records showing that it consented in writing to the county’s use of Palomar property for a non-airport purpose: dumping trash, which endangered aircraft in the past and continues to endanger aircraft today.
Congress in 2010, 2012, and later adopted IPERA to cut government waste. In part, IPERA says that government agencies making federal grants must fully justify in writing why grants given are appropriate.
The public 2018 comments on the county Palomar Master Plan (PMP) explain in detail why county requests asking the FAA to pay for Palomar runway extensions do not qualify under the FAA Airport Improvement Program Handbook or under the FAA Benefit Cost Criteria analysis. Accordingly, the second action the FAA could take in 2019 to affirm its commitment to comply with IPERA is to inform the county that the county will not qualify for any federal funding to extend the Palomar runway.
In a nutshell, by filling airport canyons with contaminated trash rather than with stable earth, the county has created unstable land. To extend the runway over such unstable land, county must place hundreds of very deep piles. Had county made the canyons available to contractors throughout the county wishing to rid themselves of excess soil, county would be able to extend the runway over stable soil without pilings. County’s own PMP construction estimates show that its failure to comply with prior FAA grant conditions results in driving up runway extension construction costs more than 10-fold.
Moreover, county itself concedes that in the next 20 years it expects to handle about 30 percent fewer aircraft than it handled 20 years ago.
In short, county has no demonstrated need for a runway extension, certainly not an extension at an extraordinary cost brought about by its own noncompliance with FAA grant conditions.
We await the FAA’s further production of Palomar-landfill-related records and its explanation of how a runway extension grant would comply with IPERA.