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Council facing challenge in solving jet fuel storage

Wednesday, April 6, 2022 by Jo Clifton

While the number of passengers traveling through most of the nation’s airports is growing at roughly 4 percent a year, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport traffic is growing at 8 percent a year, AUS Director Jacqueline Yaft told City Council at Tuesday’s work session. Yaft urged Council to move ahead with the planned airport expansion, including the addition of jet fuel tanks.

A resolution by Council Member Vanessa Fuentes on this week’s agenda would force the city to do an environmental assessment in addition to the one already done by federal regulators. Yaft told Council that adding another assessment would add at least 30 months to the fuel tank project, with the result that the airport would not be able to add any flights after 2023. The result of that delay would be $4.7 billion in lost payroll and $6.7 billion in lost output.

Austin is expecting 30 million passengers a year by 2040, or perhaps sooner, and even now the airport does not always have enough jet fuel to meet demand. While the industry average is to have five to seven days’ worth of fuel on-site, AUS has only two to three days’ worth of fuel. Expanding the current fuel site as suggested by some neighbors will not meet the airport’s demand, Yaft explained.

Fuentes, whose district includes neighborhoods close to the airport, told colleagues that her constituents are concerned about the addition of new fuel tanks. She complained that there was insufficient notice given to the community in 2018 when Council approved the plan for airport expansion, including the new jet fuel storage facilities. She explained that the narrative she has heard is that “my community had hardly any say in this.”

In response to those concerns, Fuentes’ resolution calls for another environmental assessment – including feedback from local environmental justice experts – and for rescinding Council’s previous authorization to expand the jet fuel storage facility on the west side of the airport.

Fuentes was responding, at least in part, to sentiments expressed in a petition sponsored by PODER, which was the primary organization working to get fuel tank farms removed from East Austin in the 1990s. The new petition demands that the city move any planned new tanks further away from neighborhoods.

Yaft and Kane Carpenter, manager of environmental affairs for the airport, explained what had been done to design the new facility, which is part of the massive airport expansion and development program that includes 61 other projects.

Carpenter worked with federal regulators under national environmental assessment regulations that included looking at air quality, biological resources, noise, floodplains and any wetlands, as well as cultural resources that might be impacted. He said federal regulators ruled that there would be no impact.

Currently, the city-owned airport has two bulk storage tanks that sit just 300 feet from airport buildings and about 1,500 feet from the terminal. Flights are expected to double in the next 10 years, increasing the need for additional fuel.

Yaft showed Council differences between the East Austin tank farms and the Austin jet fuel storage area, beginning with size. The East Austin tanks were on 52 acres and emitted gasoline fumes. They were poorly managed and lacked adequate safety designs and specifications and were sometimes as close as four to five feet from homes. The Austin jet fuel storage area, which is on 10.5 acres and is operated by jet fuel experts, was designed to prevent pollution and is inspected regularly by the airport’s fire department crew as well as third-party firms, she said.

Mayor Steve Adler, who attended the meeting via videoconferencing, thanked Fuentes for bringing up the issue. “These kinds of questions present tough issues,” he said. While Adler said he recognized the legitimate fears of people living close to the airport who remember the environmental and health damage caused by the East Austin tank farms, he had not heard any evidence that the current plan created a safety or health risk. However, he said the city may have to consider voluntary buyouts for people living close to the airport at some point in the future.

Photo by Joe Mabel, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia CommonsThis story has been changed since publication to correct Yaft’s job title.

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