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Air Force's upcoming Eielson environmental statement raises concern with Murkowski, Hopkins

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Posted: Saturday, November 10, 2012 12:01 am | Updated: 11:54 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — The Air Force will produce a full environmental impact statement on its proposed transfer of Eielson Air Force Base’s F-16 squadron to Anchorage, raising concern with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Fairbanks borough Mayor Luke Hopkins that the Defense Department is trying to move ahead with the controversial plan.

Murkowski said military leaders appear to be pressing on with the move over Congress’ stated objections and an earlier commitment from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norman Schwartz to not take any action for one year to further the proposed transfer to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

“In my view it means that they are disregarding the direction from the Congress, most certainly from four committees that had moved some form of language that essentially put any Eielson activities or force structure changes on pause,” Murkowski said in an interview Friday. “When the Congress basically says you shouldn’t be doing anything until such time and says it clearly and in four different ways and yet the Air Force appears intent to go forward with the EIS, that is somewhat troubling.”

Hopkins, who earlier in the day was meeting with other local officials about Eielson, said Friday he agrees with Murkowski’s assessment.

“This is like the next step. This is a hard boot on the ground moving forward,” he said.

Hopkins said he wonders why the Air Force isn’t waiting until the expiration of the agreed-upon freeze on the proposed Eielson move before embarking on the expanded environmental analysis, which will include hearings in Fairbanks and Anchorage and a 45-day public comment period.

“There was a commitment that there won’t be any action at all,” Hopkins said. “But it is an action.”

The Air Force earlier this year proposed transferring Eielson’s F-16s in a cost-cutting measure. An Air Force report made public in May estimated that transferring the squadron would save at least $200 million during the first five years.

Alaska’s congressional delegation then pressured the Air Force, especially in public hearings, about the accuracy of the projected savings. In June, Schwartz sent a letter to Alaska Sen. Mark Begich committing to conduct housing and environmental studies before proceeding with the transfer, thereby postponing the aircraft transfer until the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2013.

The Air Force in June awarded a contract for an environmental assessment of the proposed F-16 transfer. An environmental assessment is a lower level of analysis and allows much less public involvement than a full environmental impact statement. The contractor who conducted the assessment reported that the fuller environmental impact statement would be needed for the Eielson move to occur, according to Murkowski’s office.

Murkowski believes language she secured in August in a defense bill when it was in the Senate Appropriations Committee doesn’t allow the environmental impact statement to be conducted unless approved by a special Air Force committee, which hasn’t been created yet, according to an aide. The language would prohibit the Air Force from spending money on the move.

The language applies to 33 states that would see some restructuring of Air Force facilities under Defense Department plans announced in February.

Hopkins and Murkowski both noted the EIS process has an upside, however, in that it does allow for greater public involvement.

“Is the community afforded more of an input than it had before, absolutely,” Hopkins said. “It’s going to be more involved for everybody, but that’s better than limited involvement.”

Contact managing editor Rod Boyce at 459-7585.

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