Proposed changes to state environmental rules could make it easier for Raleigh-Durham International Airport to begin building a new main runway.
House Bill 600, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2023, includes provisions that would allow RDU to move more quickly with its plans to build the new runway parallel to the existing one.
The bill would exempt RDU from having to get a special permit under the state’s Neuse River riparian buffer rules program. The rules are designed to preserve water quality by protecting vegetated areas along streams, lakes and reservoirs in the Neuse River basin, which includes RDU.
The bill would still require the airport to abide by the Neuse River rules and to mitigate or make up for any damage it does to riparian buffers. But by skipping the permit process, the airport can move more quickly to begin construction, which it hopes to do later this year pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
RDU’s current main runway, just west of Terminal 2, was completed in 1986 and is nearing the end of its useful life. Over the past several years, the airport has replaced hundreds of slabs of deteriorating concrete to keep the runway open, and airport officials fear the time needed to obtain the Neuse River buffer rules permit will delay construction of its replacement.
“The additional cost and time associated with unnecessary delays could create such significant impacts that RDU could be forced to close its primary runway, eliminating west coast and international service,” the airport said in a written statement. “Our multi-year effort to patch and preserve the runway is not a long-term solution, and there is a real sense of urgency to begin the replacement project.”
The legislation doesn’t mention RDU by name. Instead, it refers to airports located in the Neuse River Basin that serve more than 10 million passengers annually, of which there is only one.
The changes are being written into law to help RDU, Sen. Norm Sanderson, a Pamlico County Republican, told members of the Senate’s Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources committee on Wednesday.
The committee did not vote on the legislation but is scheduled to do so on Tuesday.
The bill applies to one aspect of the runway construction: the movement of dirt and rock from one part of airport property to another. To create a long, flat area level with the existing runway, RDU proposes moving fill from wooded land it owns on both sides of Pleasant Grove Church Road, on the airport’s west side near Brier Creek Reservoir.
Specifically, the bill would exempt the “borrow pit areas” from needing an authorization certificate under the state’s Neuse River Basin riparian buffer rules, though it would still require mitigation.
The exemption concerns Jean Spooner, who heads The Umstead Coalition, an advocacy group for the airport’s largest neighbor, William B. Umstead State Park. Spooner notes that the environmental assessment report for the runway project concluded that the borrow pit operation would impact nearly 9,000 feet of streams, 22.6 acres of stream buffers and 2.5 acres of wetlands.
“I do not think any public agency should have exemptions for following environmental laws,” she wrote in an email. “This is particularly concerning because all the drainage from the RDU airport ends up in Crabtree Creek and William B. Umstead State Park.”
In a statement, the airport said that it will “fulfill all federal and state mitigation requirements” and that all of the construction-related environmental impacts “have been fully evaluated and documented” during the FAA’s review of the project.
Bill would also address floodplain development permit
Another change being considered by lawmakers would allow the state Department of Public Safety to grant a floodplain development permit to airports not located within a municipality if the airport has obtained certification showing that the project won’t make flood waters higher downstream. The bill’s language defines an “airport project” broadly, including any place used in the construction or repair of an airport facility.
That provision was created for RDU as well, Sanderson said, because there’s no local government that could issue a permit to allow work in a floodplain hazard area.
“Raleigh-Durham International Airport is not in the county jurisdiction or a municipality jurisdiction,” Sanderson said. “It’s in its own jurisdiction. They can’t come to the city and ask for this.”
RDU officials say the airport has never applied for or been granted a floodplain development permit before, and only recently learned that under current law no local or state agency is authorized to grant it one.
“This gap in jurisdiction means that RDU needs a permit, yet there is no entity with the ability to issue one,” airport officials wrote in an email. “That is why H.B. 600 grants the N.C. Department of Public Safety that authority.”
This story was produced in part with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.
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