Some Activists, Officials Call for Banning Fossil Fuels in New Hangars

February 22, 2023
“Proposed Conditions Site Plan” from the Environmental Notification Form for L.G. Hanscom Field North Airfield Development, created by engineering firm VHB. 

An array of almost three dozen area climate activists, academics, and current and former elected officials are imploring that the new hangar complex planned for the Bedford perimeter of Hanscom Field exclude aircraft that use fossil fuels.

However, the chair of Bedford’s Select Board is not joining them, explaining that her town has more urgent concerns engendered by the project.

“We ask EEA (the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs) and Massport to exercise all their legal authority and all their considerable influence over lessees and business partners to ensure that the project is a national model of fossil fuel-free aviation,” according to a letter dated Feb. 20. “The only way this can happen is with a mandate that any and all hangars in the development house only fossil fuel-free aircraft.”

The letter was sent to Rebecca Tepper, EEA secretary, and Lisa Wieland, Massachusetts Port Authority CEO. The signers requested a meeting “to discuss this further.” 

The protest focuses on the 27 new hangars proposed for the so-called North Airfield. The hangars, totaling some 400,000 square feet, are for private jets, which the signers said are “by far the most polluting form of travel.”

EEA, through its Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) office, is preparing an environmental impact scope. Massport will, at some point, execute a leasing agreement with the hangar developer. The letter points out that these are still ongoing, and thus there is time to change the project paradigm.  

The lead signature on the letter is that of State Sen. Mike Barrett of Lexington, whose district includes Bedford. Also signing were two other legislators, three members of the Hanscom Field Advisory Commission (HFAC), Select Board members from Lexington and Lincoln, and area climate and community activists from the four towns contiguous to the airport plus Carlisle and Acton.

When the letter came up at Tuesday’s monthly HFAC meeting on Zoom, Mitchell said, “The goal of moving toward fossil fuel-free aviation is a laudable one. But in the context of this project, it shifts to a single concern,” and that could be detrimental to Bedford, she said.

Even if the effort to eliminate the use of aviation gas was successful, she pointed out, the town still must grapple with the impact on things such as infrastructure and utilities, “critical concerns for my constituents.”

Barrett said he didn’t expect Bedford officials to join the signatories; “I knew Bedford has narrower concerns,” he said at the commission meeting. “Of course the focus is on immediate impacts; that is absolutely the appropriate role of the Town of Bedford. The folks signing this letter play other roles. The idea here is to advance a policy alternative and a vision for Massport.”  

“We appreciate the importance of incrementalism,” he continued. “We wanted to add a different perspective, the province of groups in the four towns who happen to focus on climate. This isn’t a competition; this is a complimentary action.”

Bedford resident Tom Hirsch questioned the pragmatic value of the letter’s proposal. “Stuff just doesn’t get adopted that quickly. The infrastructure to support it doesn’t get in place that quickly,” he said, “I prefer to see an emphasis on the more immediate impact, the ones where you could actually take action and do something in the short term.”

But Barrett pushed back that the technology is much closer; he pointed out that Cape Air is purchasing 75 jets that can fly up to 250 miles on a single electric charger. 

“It’s not futuristic and impossible to fathom,” he said. “We’re asking that this facility pioneer and go all electric. Someone has to take a national leadership role to match that of the private sector.” \

He added that he has received a response from Massport and the agency is “taking this seriously.”

Amber Goodspeed, Hanscom’s manager of airport administration, told the meeting that the MEPA scope will require research that will take the developer at least six months. That will be followed by the required environmental impact report, which is a public process.

Applauding the port authority’s commitment to climate-friendly policies, the letter charges that accommodating private jets is “an act of environmental defilement no longer compatible with the stated climate priorities of the commonwealth in general and Massport in particular.”

“If the North Airfield project goes forward as the developers envision, we fear Massport’s sustainability efforts elsewhere will net out to very little in the way of reduced emissions, and possibly to nothing at all,” the letter writers contend. “Pollution attributable to traffic at the new Hanscom hangars threatens to cancel out all the gains.”

“We want to see state government employ its power over the North Airfield to seize first-mover advantage for Massachusetts in a transformation that’s coming for everyone,” the writers declared. “There is time to situate this project at the forefront of fossil-free aviation.”

The signers acknowledge that Hanscom is Massport’s destination for private jets. But they urge the post authority to “make travel by private jets innovative. Make it climate compatible. Make it fossil fuel-free.”

A few of the nearly 100 people at the commission’s virtual meeting on Thursday criticized Barrett’s effort because it acknowledges Hanscom’s role in accommodating private jets. One speaker criticized a “path to compromise.” Former Lincoln Selectman Sarah Mattes contended that the letter “basically gave Massport a pat on the back for expansion. There are so many aspects of this plan where we should just be saying no.”

But Barrett said a “visceral” response will fail. “The suburbs can’t just send the planes back to Logan,” he said. “Plan B is to ask how can we mitigate,” and the inversion to fossil-free fuels would in effect mean “a moratorium over the project which we can’t otherwise secure.”

“We have got to acknowledge the importance of burden sharing,” he stated, adding, “That’s not easy.” 

Anna Winter of the Concord-based Save Our Heritage advocacy organization, cited examples of successful collaboration between Hanscom towns and residents affected by Logan Airport.

Tom Flannery, speaking for the homeowners of the closest residential area to the site, Hartwell Farms, said they are worried about “the direct impacts” such as noise, pollution, and the loss of trees. “I want people to recognize this will have a direct negative impact on lives because of the noise and traffic

Also signing the letter were Concord resident Gilbert Metcalf, former deputy assistant secretary for energy and the environment, U.S. Department of the Treasury; and Prof. James Stock, vice provost for climate and sustainability at Harvard University, a Lincoln resident.

Bedford residents among the 34 names are Corinne Doud of the First Parish Environmental Justice Committee and Carol Kelly of the group Mothers Out Front.

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Joseph R Piantedosi
February 23, 2023 9:20 am

I am surprised that our town leaders fail to mention that the new wellfield that was built on Hartwell Road in the 1980’s to serve our town water shortages had to shut down 11 months after it opened due to underground contamination from the airfield and two other sources on Hartwell Road.

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