Thursday’s community forum addressing the environmental impact of a proposed massive hangar project at Hanscom Field near Hartwell Road illustrated contrasting responses – at least by degree.
Plans for almost 500,000 square feet of hangar space, including more than 400,000 square feet in 27 new buildings, will return to the front page later this fall upon completion of a draft environmental impact report by the developers.
Meanwhile, a coalition of more than 40 environmental and social justice organizations in the region and beyond, called Stop Private Jet Expansion at Hanscom and Everywhere, has mobilized a petition drive and other activism focusing on the likely increase in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from increased jet storage capacity.
Neil Rasmussen of Concord, president of the advocacy group Save Our Heritage and driver of the new coalition, was one of two featured live speakers at Thursday’s event in Town Hall. The other was Select Board member Emily Mitchell, the town’s representative on the Hanscom Field Advisory Commission for four years.
Contrasting with the push to halt the project, Mitchell explained her approach as an acknowledgment that there will be some kind of development of the so-called North Airfield site, and the town needs to emphasize all of its environmental concerns, not just those affecting the climate.
The forum, attended by about 60 people in person and almost 80 on Zoom, was sponsored by three Bedford organizations that are part of Stop Private Jets: The League of Women Voters, Mothers Out Front, and Third Act. The co-sponsor, the town Energy and Sustainability Committee, is not part of the coalition.
Mitchell pointed out that the Massachusetts Port Authority “is required to generate revenue” to be self-sustaining, and under federal law, Hanscom can’t discriminate against types of aviation use.
So, town government has to anticipate that the North Airfield area will be developed, and some alternatives to the current plan could present a worse environmental impact on Bedford than private jets, such as something that generates truck traffic, she said.
Personally, Mitchell noted, she is also alarmed about the emissions resulting from increased jet traffic.
Mitchell revisited the impact areas of local concern that she enumerated as part of the environmental notification process in February. They were local roads; water, sewer, and electricity capacity; stormwater management, water table, wetlands, and aquifer protection; air quality, exhaust, and dust; fuel storage; wildlife protection; impervious surface; and lingering contamination.
“We, like everybody, are waiting for responses from the developer,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also pointed out that the availability of corporate jet travel can be an incentive for new commercial development “that can have a positive impact on the residential tax base. Is that my favorite argument? No, but that’s an argument that people will make.”
Rasmussen replied, “It is a luxury perk for executives, plain and simple.”
“This is about a homelessness problem,” began Rasmussen, who spoke first at the forum. “A number of people have private jets that they can’t find homes for. The community through its agency, Massport, is going to try to help them solve this problem.”
Rasmussen summarized his group’s objections: “luxury jet travel emits obscene amounts of greenhouse gases;” they do not generate economic benefit to the region; and taxpayers are subsidizing a service for a small number of wealthy users.
“The governor is the only option to stop this,” Rasmussen said, because she appoints the head of the Massport Board and, through the board, the executive director. He acknowledged that the governor doesn’t have veto power over the project, but “she does have the authority to remove some of these people if they don’t do what she wants.”
He urged the audience to “encourage your legislators to get active and become aware. Together we all need to approach the governor.”
The speaker said the proposal is Hanscom’s largest construction project ever, and it may be “the largest such project in America today.” The package includes renovation of the existing Navy Hangar, creating an additional 87,000 square feet of hangar space.
Rasmussen cited state law targeting 2050 for achieving net zero emissions “in every single category. Our towns have started establishing plans and have proposed declining emissions to meet this requirement.”
“While we’re going down, this airport is going up, and it’s much bigger than any of us,” he continued.
Rasmussen presented a calculation of current jet emissions at the local airfield: the number of annual jet operations and flight times, multiplied by the average fuel used per hour, is a greenhouse gas emission of 610,000 tons carbon dioxide equivalency.
Although Massachusetts is a national leader in installing solar equipment to offset greenhouse gases, “half of the amount that we have offset is canceled by jets at Hanscom Field. This is an incredible statistic.”
The emissions of one round-trip to Asia, he continued, are equivalent to that emitted by a rural family in India over their entire lifetime, he continued. “How are we going to explain to the rest of the world that they need to be cutting? It’s crazy.
“The most evil form is short-hop jet travel because so much of the emissions occur during takeoff,” Rasmussen said. He added, “You can charter a private luxury jet for your dog. How can we explain this to the rest of the world?”
He referenced financial incentives that encourage purchase of private jets, ultimately covered by passenger surcharges on commercial flights. And he pooh-poohed the prospects of aircraft running on electricity or sustainable fuels.
“This project shouldn’t be built,” he declared, citing the reduction in new coal plants as a precedent. “These infrastructures take on a life of their own for 50 years.” He contended, “If we can constrain it here it will start putting a squeeze on the whole system.”
Bedford resident Terry Gleason pushed back on the severity of the problem. He noted, and Rasmussen acknowledged, that aviation accounts for 4 percent of greenhouse gases, and private jets are a fraction of that. Rather than focus on the one issue, he said, “this should be a rally point for us to do all the things we need to do.”
Rasmussen cited symbolic value: “When people do all these things and then they find out their hard work was negated, they are going to give up.”
The program also featured a virtual appearance by the environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben, a Lexington native. McKibben, citing recent extreme climate events, said they “provide the real context for what we are talking about.”
“The top 1 percent are responsible for an enormous percentage of the climate damage. At the very top of that pyramid are the people who own private jets,” he said. Opposing the Hanscom hangar expansion “should be the easiest thing – a no-brainer.”
He encouraged opponents of the hangars to “keep doing this over and over again. Being obnoxious is useful. Don’t be afraid to be a pest.”