Airports and Their Effects on the Environment

Airports and Their Effects on the Environment

Airports are a necessary part of today’s fast-paced global environment. It goes without saying that our world would certainly be a different place without them. Millions depend on them every day to get them to their destinations. However, airports have many negative effects as well, especially to the local environment. Airports are a source of smog, contaminate waterways, contribute to global warming through the emission of greenhouse gases, and generate significant amounts of noise pollution (NADC, 1996).

According to the National Airport Defense Council, many airports rank among the top 10 pollution sources in the city where they are located. Although, airport pollution only contributes about 1% of total smog-forming gases in the United States, these numbers will continue to grow as the need for travel increases (NADC, 1996). This is the issue the Federal Aviation Administration and other government agencies must work together to try to solve. To this date, several guidelines and procedures have been developed to tackle this issue. This report will examine the current guidelines and issues facing airports and the relation to their local environments.

Conducting an Environmental Impact Study

Chapter 8 of FAA Publication APP-600 recommends a standard format, which should be used for all Airports Program environmental impact statements. Aside from setting down a standard form for these reports, this publication also sets down specific guidelines, which should be followed. The environmental impact statement must include any findings, mitigation plans, or monitoring which shall be done. In addition it will identify environmentally friendly alternatives to those being proposed. It must include the FAA’s preferred alternative as well as the reasons for this choice. The reason for this ruling is in order to keep the reports and meetings focused and to assure that all issues are addressed in a proper manner. Factors, which are to be considered when deciding on an action, include looking at issues of safety, policy, environmental, social, or economic consequences. Under the Airport Improvement Program, the FAA shall take no actions, which have an adverse effect (FAA, APP-600).

In cases where a wetland is involved, there must be no practical alternative for a construction activity to proceed. All alternatives are to be compared for both the long and short-term effects of the proposed action. Any special consultation as in the Endangered Species Act Amendments, National Historic Preservation Act, or the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act will be considered. Several elements must be examined prior to construction approval. Noise must be analyzed for “Time above threshold.” The proposed action must not have an adverse effect on hearing, communication, or sleep. It must be evaluated for both indoors and outdoors effects. Mitigation techniques for sensitive areas include noise abatement procedures and land acquisition (FAA, APP-600).

Paragraph 47, subpart e, paragraph 5 sets the standards for assessing the effects of the proposed construction on air quality. If the proposed construction will cause carbon monoxide levels in excess of current standards, studies must be conducted to determine emission concentrations in various areas.

The effects on water quality must be explored, according to Paragraph 47, subpart f, paragraph 1. When threshold limits are exceeded, the affected agencies will be consulted to determine mitigation and analysis procedures. The analysis required will be determined by the agency affected in each case.

The proposed construction project must not conflict with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as it is currently amended. Both the consulting firm and the FAA must agree that there is no significant impact on the community. The same applies to the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974. The FAA must notify the National Park Service so that proper measures can be taken to ensure proper collection and preservation of resources (FAA, APP-600).

Adverse effects on the biotic communities will be assessed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, state or local wildlife agencies. The study of the effects on wildlife would identify the significance of the removal of various habitats. It would include a summary of the importance of flora and fauna inhabiting the area, the range of species present and the location of nesting and breeding areas. Noise, air quality, and water studies may have an impact on the local wildlife and these impacts must be considered as well and the direct effect of the removal of habitat (FAA, APP-600).

The impacts on endangered and threatened species must be determined. The proposed construction must then comply with applicable sections of the Endangered Species Act. If it is determined that the action will have a significant impact on threatened or endangered species, the National Wildlife Service will recommend another alternative. If another alternative cannot be reached, the FAA will examine any previously unconsidered mitigation measures or project modifications which would lessen the impacts so as not to jeopardize species or destroy or modify critical habitat (FAA, APP-600).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Corps. Of Engineers, and the EPA will be consulted when a project is found to have a significant impact on a wetland area. If the area involved in construction involves a wetland area, the following effect will be considered:

public health, safety, and welfare including water supply, quality, recharge and discharge; pollution; flood and storm hazards; and sediment and erosion; maintenance of natural systems, including conservation and long-term productivity of existing flora and fauna, species and habitat diversity and stability, hydrologic utility, fish, wildlife, timber, and food and fiber resources; other uses of wetlands in the public interest, including recreational, scientific, and cultural uses” (FAA, APP-600, Paragraph 47, subpart e, paragraph 11).

The impact on floodplains, coastal zone management program, and coastal barriers, wild and scenic rivers, farmland, energy supply and natural resources, light emissions (annoyance of airport lighting), solid waste impacts, and the general effects of construction are also treated in a similar manner (FAA, APP-600, Paragraph 47, subparts f-s). The environmental impact statement will also take into consideration design and architectural also are considered with in the scope of the environmental impact statement (FAA, APP-600).

Under the guidelines set forth by the FAA concerning construction sometimes produce short-term effects which cannot be avoided. These short-term effects will be weighed against long-term losses or gains. FAA Publication APP-600 is the main document concerning the environmental impact of airports on a location. It attempts to address all areas as far as an airport is concerned. The specific details of each section are much more detailed than presented in this paper. The entire publication contains over 100 pages. It also addresses procedures such as the requirement to inform the public and hold a public meeting on the issue, appeals procedures and assessment issues. There are many other acts and provisions, which must be adhered to, in this process, only the major ones have been presented in this paper.

Water Quality

The United Stated Environmental Protection Agency is the primary government entity responsible for ensuring a safe water supply, both for humans and wildlife. Many airport activities can have an adverse effect on the safety of the water supply of a local area. The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water set standards with which all airports must comply in all activities. The Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water is divided into three divisions, Priority Rulemaking, Regulatory Infrastructure, and Information. The Rulemaking division has several areas of concern in assessing water condition. They consider levels of arsenic, lead, copper, microbial and disaffection by-products, radionuclides, radon, and has unregulated water contaminants. The other two divisions are primarily responsible for analytical methods, enforcement and information dissemination (USEPA, (

Drinking water contaminants are divided into the following categories: microorganisms, disinfectants and disinfection by-products, inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals and radionuclides. The EPA has established safe levels for these contaminants based on concentration and length of exposure time. Contaminants are measured in micrograms of contaminant per liter of water (mg/L). Several contaminants are not allowed to be present in drinking water in any amount. These include cryptosporidium, Giardia lamblia, Coliforms, and Legionella (Legionarie’s disease). Disinfectant products and by-products include bromates, chlorine, haloacetic acid and trihalomethanes. Inorganic contaminants include heavy metals, minerals such as flourite, nitrates, nitrites, asbestos, free cyanide, and mercury. The only inorganic contaminants, which should never be present in drinking water at any level, are lead and arsenic. Organic compounds include benzene compounds, dichloroethane, xylene, styrene, and toluene, to name a few. There are many organic compounds, which are never allowed in drinking water at any level. Many organic compounds are harmful at extremely low levels. Radionucleides such as Alpha particles, Beta Particles, Radium 226 or 228, and Uranium are never allowed in drinking water in any amount. The primary regulated compounds, which are of greatest concern to airports, are the disinfectant category, and organic compounds such as are used in de-icers, and fluids used in airplane maintenance. Remediation methods for these substances are primarily limited to safe usage and disposal methods. (USEPA, (w

Air Quality

Title II, Part B of the 1990 Clean Air Act sets standards for aircraft emissions. The primary concern is for sulphur dioxide emissions and particulate matter. Sulphur dioxide is a key factor in the production on of acid rain, a key environmental concern. The EPA determined that sulphur dioxide emissions near an airport cannot rise above a certain percentage over an established baseline for the area. The concentration is measured over a twenty-four hour period. Carbon dioxide levels have a similar standard of measure. The Clean Air Act regulates other materials, however, these are the ones of primary concern to airports (USEPA, Clean Air Act, Title II, Part B).

Wildlife Issues

Wildlife is always a concern for airports, both as an environmental issue and a safety issue. This is an area of great discussion and debate between two opposing sides. Environmentalists claim that airports and airport construction projects must have as little impact on wildlife habitat as possible. However, wildlife and airports do not mix. Birds on the runway get caught in the engines of airplanes and cause severe safety issues. An increase in environmental protection ultimately leads to an increase in local wildlife, this in turn increases the rate of wildlife accidents involving aircraft (Robert, p.14).

The Air Line Pilot Association compares this to the situation 20 years ago with icicles. They believe that nothing will be done until a major crash occurs (Robert, p.14). Measures to solve this problem have so far gotten mixed reviews. One of these measures involves using border collies to keep airport runways free of birds. Birds cost approximately $380 million dollars a year in the United States due to downtime and repair of aircraft. In addition, birds caused 40% of foreign object stalls in 1999 (Robert, p.14). The two sides of this issue have equally compelling arguments and at this time there is no clear answer which would be satisfactory. This issue will continue to be a growing area of concern for years to come.

Noise Pollution

In FAA publication AEE-100 noise is defined as unwanted or bothersome sound. The measurement of sound is recorded in A- weighted decibels (dB or dBa). A decibel is a logarithmic measure of the magnitude of sound compared to the sounds that the average human being can hear. Humans do not hear extremely high frequencies or extremely low frequencies. We hear middle frequencies. “A-weighted” means that it only measures sounds that an average human being could hear. Most of the time, background noise levels are at 50 dB or less. Most aircraft generate a noise level of about 68 dB, while local noises can be much higher, such as a passing motorcycle. It would seem by this measure that the aircraft would be less bothersome than the motorcycle (73 dB). However, the aircraft noise lasts longer. The noise is measured both in loudness and duration (FAA, AEE-100).

Another way of expressing sound is to compress all of the energy of a sound as if it all occurred within a one-second time period. This is called the sound exposure level (SEL). When this is done the motorcycle is now at 77dB and the aircraft is now at 81dB (FAA, AEE-100).

Another factor in sound measurement is the equivalent sound level. This is a time-weighted average of all of the sound levels in a given time period. This is called the equivalent sound level. The day/night sound average takes into account that sounds that occur at night are more disturbing than sounds that occur during the day. In this measurement, a 10 dB penalty is added to sounds that occur between 10:00 PM and 7:00 AM. When averaging the noise level over a 24-hour period, the 10 dB penalty is added to all nighttime sounds. This means that one sound occurring at night would be equivalent to 10-1 dB daytime sounds. Noise experts use these to aid them in assessing the impact that an airport has on a community. They also conduct community annoyance surveys to determine how many people are annoyed by a sound (FAA, AEE-100).

As a part of their guidelines concerning land use, the FAA has initiated its Airport Noise Compatibility Program. In general, most land uses are acceptable if the noise levels do not exceed 68 dB. However, the FAA has declared that “acceptable sound levels should be subject to local conditions and community decisions. “Although people near the small airport experience only 50 aircraft operations in a day, the average SEL of each of these is about 97 dB. On the other hand, the community near the large airport is impacted by 500 daily operations, but each of these has an average SEL of about 87 dB.” (FAA, AEE-100)

Storm Runoff

De-icing agents sprayed on airplanes are necessary for the safety of passengers and pilots, however the ingredients contained in these products are highly toxic. When sprayed on the airplanes, it makes its way into the local watershed by way of runoff from melting snows and storms. Glycol, a highly regulated substance, is a major component of de-icers. This is in addition to a very long list of other heavily regulated chemicals. Toxic levels of chemicals found in de-icers have been found in waters surrounding airports. To consider not de-icing planes is not an acceptable alternative. However, perhaps more studies need to be conducted to determine how much is necessary to effectively de-ice an airplane, without creating excessive run-off (NRDC, 1996).

In determining the impact that an environmental issue has on a community, in general government agencies consider several things. First, they consider the severity of the issue. For example, does the issue cause skin irritation, or immediate death upon exposure. Second, they consider how many people are affected by the exposure. Does the effect occur in every person who comes in contact with the substance, or does it affect one in one million who are exposed. Third, what is the likelihood that a person will be exposed? Is the hazard located in the main airport terminal, or a remote portion of the runway? In this cause, not only those affected by direct exposure must be considered, but those exposed by indirect exposure, such as seeping into the local water table. They must also consider the length of the exposure over a period of time in relation to its toxicity. All of these things are considered when deciding what measures to take in reducing environmental hazards at airports, or any public place (ATSDR, 2001).


Prevention measures for environmental hazards are often costly.

However, the long-term-effects on the environment, health and safety can often be more costly when all of additional costs, which may be incurred, are added. For example, one remediation technique to reduce the possibility of storm runoff entering the water supply, is to install an artificial wetland to process the chemicals in the storm water. This would initially have a high cost, however, the cost could not effectively be measured if the toxic chemicals entered the water supply and health problems occurred. The medical costs, lost wages and effects on people’s lives would be staggering, not to mention the lawsuits and legal costs when the source of the contamination was discovered.

This is the logic behind the entire Environmental Impact Study. It goes with the old cliche about an ounce of prevention being better than a pound of cure. If we can have the foresight to predict where the problems will be likely to occur, then we can prevent them from happening in the first place. Some environmental solutions may be simple and inexpensive, or may actually be an overall cost-effective strategy such as finding out how much de-icer is actually needed to effectively de-ice an airplane. This not only reduces pollutants to soils and water around the runway, but also saves money in reducing waste. Many solutions could be devised in this manner, which would be beneficial to both environmentalists and accountants alike. This is the goal of the many government agencies that are constantly working to improve environmental issues at airports.

Works Cited

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2001 CERCLA Priority List of Hazardous Substances. Division of Toxicology. Atlanta, GA. Updated on January 25, 2002. Accessed February, 2002.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (2000). Airports, AIRCRAFT NOISE: How We Measure It and Assess its Impact Community and Environmental Needs Division, Office of Environment and Energy. Publication AEE-100. 2000.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) (1985). Airport Environmental Handbook. Chapter 8. Environmental Impact Statement Contents. Order 5050.4A October 8, 1985 Initiated by: APP-600

Natural Resources Defense Council (NADC) (1996). Flying Off Course: Environmental Impacts of America’s Airports, October 1996 report. last revised 10.17.96 Accessed February 2002.

United States Environment Protection Agency (2002). Clean Air Act, 1990 version. Title II, Part B. Aircraft Emission standards.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) (2001). Drinking Water Standards Program. Agency Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.. Accessed February 22, 2002. Accessed February, 2002.

Van, Capt. Robert (2001). Wildlife Hazard Policy. VNV — “Dutch Airline Pilots Association. Air Line Pilot, April 2001, p.14. Accessed February 2002.

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