Attorney General sues FAA, SB International Airport Authority, Hillwood for moving forward with airport expansion project

Photo  San Bernardino Airport Communities: Attorney General Xavier Becerra held a press conference in front of Indian Springs High School Friday, Feb. 21 to announce the lawsuit his office filed against the FAA, SBIAA and Hillwood Enterprises. He is joined by San Bernardino City Unified School District Boardmember Abigail Medina, CCAEJ policy analyst Andrea Vidaurre, and Sierra Club organizer Yassi Kavezade.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that he has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the San Bernardino International Airport Authority, and Hillwood Enterprises, L.P. (Hillwood) for their efforts to greenlight a large airport expansion project with significant environmental impacts on local communities. The project involves the construction of a 658,500 square-foot air cargo warehouse and would generate at least an additional 500 truck trips and 26 flights daily at the airport, operating seven days a week. The airport is located near the San Bernardino-Muscoy community in San Bernardino County, a community identified by the California Air Resources Board as disproportionately burdened by pollution.  

“In California we can’t have ‘business as usual’ hurt distressed communities; it is our responsibility to provide justice, including environmental justice,” Attorney General Becerra declared during a press conference outside Indian Springs High School last Friday, Feb. 21. “No one has the right to turn their backs on the families in this area, nor can we turn our backs on the law.”

In November 2019, Attorney General Becerra filed comments urging the FAA and the airport authority to perform a complete environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by preparing an Environmental Impact Statement. The comments further urged the agencies to correct their flawed air emissions modeling analysis, reconcile the project impacts with state and local requirements to control air pollution, and examine the expansion’s impacts on the nearby community. However, the agencies declined to complete the environmental analysis or make any of the corrections outlined in Attorney General Becerra’s comments. On December 23, 2019, the FAA approved the project. Within a week, the developer Hillwood, began construction.

“We have been reaching out to the FAA and the San Bernardino Airport Authority to make it clear that, not just us who are here today, but many people have lodged concerns with this project… they have declined to take up the concerns we have raised,” Attorney General Becerra noted. “The actions of these agencies not only deprive California of our right to an adequate review process under NEPA, but it also put the state’s air quality and the health of our communities, especially here in the surrounding areas, at risk.” 

The project is within a mile of several schools, and just over a mile east of the San Bernardino-Muscoy community, a disadvantaged community already burdened by multiple sources of pollution and high asthma rates that caught the attention of the California Air Resource Board which selected it for an air emissions reduction program.

Attorney General Becerra underlined the fact that the intention has never been to stop the project, but to ensure the project takes the community’s well-being into account.

“No parent would want to send their child to school knowing the air they’re breathing at that school will be polluted,” Attorney General Becerra said. “Parents in San Bernardino shouldn’t be forced to make that choice because the FAA chose not to play by the rules.”

Randy Korgan, Secretary Treasurer at Teamsters Local 1932, recalled San Bernardino in 1977 when it was an All-American City, one that was thriving, growing and economically robust at the expense of air quality.

“What that trade off taught us over these last few decades is that technology and science have taught us how to pay attention to toxins in the air, and how to build responsibly,” Korgan said. “We’re not in complete opposition to this project, we would like to see development, but we’d like to see it done responsibly with the right partnerships. 

Korgan indicated they are asking for a Community Benefits Agreement that doesn’t prevent the project but involves a partnership between the affected community, labor and environmental interests, and local officials who are able to engage in effective discussions regarding the lasting impacts of the project as well as “good jobs, good environment, good communities and a good future.”

This is the second lawsuit challenging the project. On January 29, 2020, the Center for Community Action & Environmental Justice, Sierra Club, Teamsters Local 1932, and two local residents jointly filed a petition for review in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the FAA’s approval as a violation of NEPA.

“The pattern of agencies ignoring and marginalizing our communities and dismissing the concerns of residents needs to come to an end,” said Andrea Vidaurre, Policy Analyst at Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. “By failing to uphold the National Environmental Policy Act, the FAA sided with industry. Attorney General Xavier Beccera weighing in sends a strong signal that this old pattern of sidelining our health and well-being in the Inland Empire in the name of e-commerce development will be reined in. Families in San Bernardino have suffered enough under the haze of some of the worst air quality in the nation.”

“San Bernardino residents deserve to have a strong environmental analysis done for a project that can endanger their health for years to come if left unchecked,” said Yassi Kavezade, Sierra Club Organizing Representative. “Families in San Bernardino are already breathing some of the most polluted air in the nation. The only way to ensure that we receive robust mitigation and solutions for our air pollution woes is through a legally binding Community Benefits Agreement.” 

This lawsuit was filed by the Bureau of Environmental Justice, which was established by Attorney General Becerra on February 22, 2018. The Bureau’s mission is to protect people and communities that endure a disproportionate share of environmental pollution and public health hazards.

A copy of the lawsuit can be found here.