Feasibility Study of New Colville Airport Causes Concerns for Aquifer and Pollution.

The Colville City Council recently voted unanimously to go forward with a feasibility study for a new airport that would be constructed in the area of Aladdin Road in Colville. Many members of the public in Stevens County are up in arms over this due to environmental concerns. Judging by the letters to the editor and discussions with a few of the locals, the city may have a fight on their hands.

The Statesmen-Examiner reported that people living near the planned airport expressed concerns at the public meeting about the noise of a new airport. In addition the public expressed concerns about air pollution and the threat to the city aquifer. Although I have dealt with issues of ground water contamination before, I have never dealt with the subject of contamination from an airport. A lot of the letters to the editor in the Statesmen-Examiner raised some pretty serious environmental fears. One letter wrote:

The airport would be built directly over the Colville aquifer, the source of Colville’s water. Concerns were expressed that the building on this land will compromise the integrity of the aquifer. Former pilots gave personal accounts of fuel leakage and ground contamination at other airports, stating, “over time, jet fuels will even seep through concrete.”

This seemed a little far fetched to me. It seemed to me that the leakage of jet fuels would be pretty minimal, and it seemed that such fuel would be quite light, and would not permeate concrete. So I called an independent source that I know on the East Coast who works as an expert witness on the subject of ground water contamination. He is pretty sensible in his assessments of environmental threats. He told me that airports are in fact significant sources of groundwater contamination from jet fuels and solvents, and that all airports have some level of contamination associated with them. He explained that contamination comes from broken fuel lines, fueling accidents, painting stations, repair shops etc. He explained that concrete is in fact permeable. He said that the permeability of concrete is low, but even if just a small bit of contaminant permeates into the water it will violate standards.

I learned not to take drinking water for granted earlier this year. In my town, residents were forced to boil our water for three weeks when it was determined that E. coli had been found in the water. This was a little bit of an eye opener for me. But boiling water contaminated with fuels or solvents won’t help. When our water was contaminated, I wondered what small cities can do to fix the problem when they are financially unable solve the problem.

So, as to the proposed new airport in Colville, when is the proper time to consider the impact on the aquifer? Right now the city is just doing a feasibility study. Yet Stevens County residents complained about the cost of that study. Should a threshold determination be made to determine whether the airport location would be even environmentally possible? Or would the subject wait years later until an environmental impact statement is done? One question that I have is whether or not the area is an aquifer recharge area. If so, it is customary for a lot of airport functions and activities to be banned out right.

The other subject that came up in the letters to the editor was the subject of air pollution. It would be interesting to hear what an expert would say about this. Some comments by members of the public were about the severe winds in the area of the airport. Other members of the public mentioned that the area was prone to stagnant air that would allow air pollution to accumulate. Maybe the weather varies.

In the last two weeks, all the letters to the editor in the Statesman Examiner have been opposed to the new airport and the feasibility study. The Statesman Examiner typically has a policy of limiting letters to the editor to 300 words, but allowed one letter that was close to 2000 words and took about nearly ½ a page. It will be interesting to see if supporters of the airport or of the feasibility study will submit any letters to the editor this week.

Aside from any environmental concerns, some members of the public did not want the airport because it would involve the condemning of private lands. Although people tend to forget this sometimes, cities have similar powers to condemn private land for a public purpose and pay the land owner just compensation, just the state and federal governments can do. It is one thing when you are a farmer and you lose part of your land because of Interstate 90. It is another thing when your land is taken by a local city council on a project that you and the community do not think is worthwhile in the first place. In the past, city governments could vote to authorize land to be taken without any special notice to the landowner in advance. But under a new law enacted in 2007 (RCW 8.25.290) a city must send a certified letter to each landowner who might face the condemnation of his land. The notice must contain a description of the property to be taken, and must notify the land owner of the date and time of the public hearing at which time the condemner (the city) will decide whether or not to authorize the condemnation of the private land. In cases that I have defended in the past, it seems as if sometimes governments go out of their way to find an appraiser that is particularly conservative. As an attorney, I have found that hard feelings are common in these small-town condemnations because oftentimes the city council members are the friends and neighbors of the landowners. If a condemnation is fought in court, a judge decides whether the condemnation is for a public purpose, and a jury decides the amount the landowner should receive.  The lawyer for the landowner commonly seeks his or her own expert to testify as to the value.

It will be interesting to see what the feasibility study comes up with. If the study encourages the City of Colville to go forward with the airport as planned, it will more be interesting to see what comes of this issue.

2 Responses to “Feasibility Study of New Colville Airport Causes Concerns for Aquifer and Pollution.”

  • Felice:

    This issue just kind of fell of the face of the earth. There were no follow up letters from either side in the Stateman-Examiner this week!

  • Linda Simpson:

    This issue is still alive. More letters appearing in Statesman-Examiner. Petitions against the project are all over town. Meeting being held with state representatives and county commisioners. It seems the opposition was unexpected.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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