The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Wednesday, 09 August 2023 00:00

Proposed Oak Ridge airport still doesn’t fly for many

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Rober Kennedy of Tennessee Valley Stellar CorporationRobert Kennedy shows a prototype drone under development by the nonprofit Tennessee Valley Stellar Corporation. He had removed the propellers and battery to make it easier to bring it inside and to avoid security and safety concerns about his intentions. He wanted to use it for show and tell, but was denied the opportunity to speak. Attendees were offered to dictate comments to a court recorder. Few were willing to stand in line and do so. Written comments may be sent until Aug. 18, 2023.  Wolf Naegeli/Hellbender Press

Public hearing on proposed Oak Ridge airport suggests there is no easy glide path for project

OAK RIDGE — Citizens of Oak Ridge and surrounding communities continue to debate the pros and cons of a new airport in the area. A public forum on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, brought together those for and against the proposed airport to study documents and discuss the project.

While there was an opportunity to give verbal comments to a court reporter, many decided to put comments in writing. Additional comments can be submitted by Friday, Aug. 18 via mail to FAA Memphis District Office, 2600 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Suite 2250, Memphis or by email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The city plans to construct a 5,000-foot runway, partial parallel taxiway, and associated facilities at a location north of U.S. 58 between Perimeter and Blair roads. It’s in the Heritage Center around the former K-25 site from the Manhattan Project era

The city of Oak Ridge government commissioned GMC to write an Environmental Assessment and the Federal Aviation Administration will review it, along with public comments to make decisions about moving forward with the airport construction. In a press release the city of Oak Ridge stated it organized the hearing to follow federal laws and policies. Other reasons for the meeting included issues such as “area wetland, streams, and ponds; archaeological and historical sites; biological issues; airport noise and social effects such as road closures and realignments; view shed and lighting impacts.”

Mark Paslick, a transportation manager for GMC, the company which put together the EA, said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will look at all public comments and he commented, “You don’t know how long the process after this will take.” 

Council members, pilots and more talk

Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch and several members of Oak Ridge City Council attended the open house. City Councilman Charlie Hensley, himself a pilot, said the possible airport was a “great opportunity” for the city.

“We’re putting it on a brownfield that DOE was willing to part with,” he said. “It’s a match made in heaven for Oak Ridge.”

The possible expense for the city to run the airport, which is as yet unknown, has been a source of criticism.

“That may be a big hole for the city to have to cover,” Willem Blokland, an Oak Ridge resident, said at the meeting. His wife, Suzanne Blokland, criticized the airport taking money away from schools or infrastructure.

“If the airport is not self-supporting, it still generates business,” Hensley said. He and fellow pilot, Jerry Depew, said the airport would be valuable for cargo related to businesses that have expressed interest in the area, like nuclear fuel company TRISO-X and medical isotope company Coquí Radiopharmaceuticals. Depew said the latter company could benefit from transporting medical isotopes quickly.

“They have small, valuable cargo,” Hensley said.

Hensley’s fellow city council member, Ellen Smith, said she still has questions. “I have been trying to avoid having a strong position on the airport. I’ve had skepticism about it over the years, but I’ve also gotten some information that it potentially has a lot of merit for the city,” she said. “I’m not a big booster of the airport but I’m not against it either.” 

“Generically, general aviation airports are good for communities. That’s a fact that comes from places far away,” she said.

She said FAA’s noise analysis was based on average noise levels leading to further questions presented at the open house and the EA, showed they are in the average 50 decibel range if the airport moves forward. More information at the open house described it as a quiet urban area or a dishwasher in the next room. Paslick described it as “significantly outside” the level of noise concerning the FAA.

“People don’t experience noise on average. They experience noise when it’s really loud or when it’s quiet, but it’s on an intermittent basis. A loud noise would bother you even if it’s not going on all day,” Smith said. “A real quantitative answer,” regarding the volume of a plane flying over The Preserve, might sound like a busy highway.

“We have a lot to learn,” she said. “All council has done is support continuing the process for building the airport.”

“We have supported the process, but we have not voted to say ‘Yes we’re building an airport.” But the FAA has to decide whether to fund the project.

Save the Bats

Oak Ridge residents Sharon Crane and James Lewis came to speak for bats that might be affected by the proposed Oak Ridge airport.  Ben Pounds/Hellbender Press

Two Oak Ridge residents, Sharon Crane and James Lewis came to the public hearing with a sign: “Save the Bats,” referring to the Indiana bat and northern long-eared bat.

Work on the airport might clear trees that bats might use as summer habitat. Liz Porter with GMC said bats can have maternity colonies when they’re roosting in those kinds of trees. 

“You want to make sure that you’re not cutting them down when that’s ongoing,” she said.

Porter said GMC will need to work with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “to do whatever assessments they want and come up with the mitigation plan that’s satisfactory to them.” They might approve cutting down trees in winter when bats aren’t there, offsetting the impact by paying into a conservation fund or doing acoustic surveys to see if bats are actually there

Airport versus land

“The value of this airport to the economy of Oak Ridge is far less than the cost of acquiring land, moving tons of earth to make it suitable for an airport, and then keeping it up,” said Sandra Goss, outgoing director of Oak Ridge-based Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning. “It’s not a cost-effective proposal.

“Pellissippi Parkway was built, and interfered with a lot of family farmland from here to Maryville, to speed people to the airport we have. Use that,” she said in reference to Knoxville’s McGhee-Tyson Airport in Alcoa about 30 minutes from Oak Ridge. It’s a busy regional airport with multiple direct connections to major cities and plans to expand operations and gates in coming years.

She also rues the proposed airport will fill a previously polluted pond eventually cleaned up to the glee of multiple birdwatchers and casual hikers.

“That thing has been remediated and dealt with by some of the smartest science minds available at the time. It’s a disservice to those people to shut down that pond when it’s working well.

“It seems like a less than wise investment of resources.” 

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Last modified on Monday, 20 May 2024 18:55