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Activists remain wary of new jet fuel storage facility plans

Monday, March 21, 2022 by Willow Higgins

Activists and homeowners are protesting the proposed location for a new jet-fuel storage facility at the airport on the northbound side of U.S. Highway 183. Construction is scheduled to begin this spring for the project, which will include two storage tanks, each with the capacity to store 1.5 million gallons of jet fuel just 488 feet away from the homes of some Southeast Austin residents.

District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who represents the area including the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, is taking the lead on the issue, proposing a resolution to relocate the facility and have an environmental justice analysis conducted alongside “robust community engagement.” City Council will hear the resolution at its upcoming meeting on April 7.

“Although the selection of the site underwent the required permitting through federal, state and local processes, I have serious concerns about how they took place,” Fuentes wrote on the City Council Message Board. “Specifically, the initial environmental assessment for the proposed site was selected without public input. The draft was not available to the public before finalizing and publishing and the assessment failed to conduct a substantive environmental justice analysis that took into account the surrounding residents. … There needs to be corrective action and new expectations for the public engagement process. We are at a pivotal point.”

Plans to expand the airport are unavoidable; AUS is anticipated to host over 17 million travelers this year, part of an upwardly climbing trend of visitors traveling to, from and through Austin. The existing facility can store two to three days’ worth of jet fuel, but not enough to keep up with demand, creating the immediate need for increased storage capacity.

The plans for the new facility come after years of environmental injustice and racism in the area, making residents and activists wary of the upcoming expansion. A historic petroleum tank farm on Springdale Road and Airport Boulevard, which was run by six major oil companies, stored more than 10 million gallons of toxic fuel in close proximity to homes and within a mile of seven schools, according to a documentation of the history from the Watershed Protection Department.

“For decades, residents who lived near the tank farms experienced acute and chronic health issues including headaches, nosebleeds, rashes, stomach illnesses, asthma, skin lesions, lung disease, cancer, and other ailments that were thought to be linked to air, water and soil contamination originating from the tank farm,” the report reads.

The tank farm wasn’t fully cleaned up until 2008, 60 years after its construction. The city’s 1928 Master Plan, which pushed communities of color east, allowed harmful industrial facilities to exist alongside residential areas. Now Austin residents who live near the airport are fearful history could repeat itself.

But the leadership of the aviation department is confident that this situation will be different and the new facility will be safe. The proposed location for the storage tanks was carefully curated and is the only site that meets all necessary criteria, according to a recent memo briefing City Council on the matter.

“The Department of Aviation is committed to working with the community to resolve concerns regarding the selected site since it is the only site that meets the screening criteria,” the memo reads, adding that the department “recognizes the historic injustice endured by East Austinites who lived near the East Austin petroleum storage tanks and is committed to working with community members, the facility owners and operators, regulatory agencies and experts to ensure the Jet-A Fuel Storage Facility is a safe operation.”

According to the Department of Aviation, the historic fuel farm was lacking adequate safety features. The new jet fuel storage facility is modern and highly regulated for safety: Emission levels are low, and environmental controls include features like leak protection and spill response.

City Council members will be further briefed on the topic before they see the resolution at their April meeting.

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