The Airport that won’t Fly

The project to build the new international airport for the Valleyof Mexico in what was the basin of Lake Texcoco continues but does not take off. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a distinguished organization devoted to the protection of animals and their habitat, has requested NAFTA’S Comission for Environmental Protection (CCA) to prepare a report on the serious environmental consequences that may come to pass if this project goes forward.

The HSUS, which is concerned for the area around Lake Texcoco, has complained to the CCA, because it considers the area around the lake to be of global importance for bird conservation, and for the future of 177 species of these birds – (117 of which are migratory, and fly from Canada and the US) – which have their habitat in the wetlands and lakes of Texcoco, and also because there exists the possibility of ruining 30 years of ecological water restoration in Texcoco, which has been responsible for an increase – up to 350,000 in a single year in the number of, both migratory and domestic. Under Article 13 of regulations agreed to by Canada, Mexico and the US, the CCA has jurisdiction to make such a report. Included in the fundamental objectives of the CCA is the conservation of biodiversity. Any action taken in any one of the three countries is considered to have potential consequences for the whole region.

In applying to the CCA , the HSUS points out, on October 22, 2001 “the Federal Government arbritarily and unilaterally put an end to the controversy concerning the most suitable site for construction” of the airport, choosing as “best option” Lake Texcoco, which is indispensable for hydraulic management of the watershed for the Valley of Mexico.

The HSUS expresses its dismay at the lack of transparency of the evaluation process entrusted to the University Environmental Program of UNAM (Autonomous University of Mexico) by the Federal Government, since, in the contract for the study, there is a clause the investigators are obliged to sign, whereby they are forbidden to express an opinion about the project for five years. It is known that some of them do not agree with the report’s conclusions, but the official censorship is depriving the public of necessary information to evaluate the consequences of building the airport in Texcoco. Because of this lack of transparency, the HSUS is drawing attention to the need for a new evaluation, but this time to be carried out by “an independent and impartial organization such as the CCA”. Such a report would assess possible damage and environmental consequences of the airport in Texcoco, especially for the bird populations. The HSUS requests an explanation of the reasons by which the Texcoco site was judged to be the “best possible” for the new airport, and of the detailed measures that will be taken to repair damage caused by such a huge project. Because Lake Texcoco, by virtue of its very nature, is renowned for flooding, the government is talking about an enormous program to move the water from the lakes to another part of the former Texcoco basin, and building a plant that would drain the wetlands constantly, preventing the formation of bodies of water that attract the birds. The Federal Aviation Commission (FAA) points out that all bodies of water within 3.2 km of the airport and 8 km of the landing and take-off paths need to be drained. This means draining Lake Nabor Carillo, and losing 30 years of the environmental rescue which has permitted recovery of some of the splendor of the natural environment around Tenochtitlan. A crucial part of this evaluation would be a listing by the federal government of the costs of restoration, a schedule for construction, and a legal agreement with the institutions and companies who will bear the costs. Until now, all this information – if it exists – has not been made available to the public. Furthermore the HSUS requests of the CCA that it be vigilant to ensure that the project violates no Mexican environmental laws, nor the international treaties for protection of migratory birds that have been signed by the three countries of NAFTA.

Another anomaly in the decision making process is the role that the promoters of the Texcoco airport have wanted to attribute to the United States. A promotional video distributed by the State of Mexico begins with the categorical affirmation that one of the benefits of Texcoco is that it enjoys the support of the United States, evidence for which is in a study carried out by two representatives of the FAA and the Department of Agriculture. This assertion has been repeated time and again by Mexican authorities in articles and interviews in the media. The study, carried out by the two scientists at the request of the Mexican government, focused on possible measures to eliminate the risks (such as collisions of birds with planes) associated with the presence of a considerable number of birds in the Texcoco area. When interviewed by representatives of non-government organizations in the the United States, Those responsible for the study said that they had no intention of endorsing the project inTexcoco, and not only were they unaware of the cost of implementing their recommendations, they had not the slightest idea as to whether it might be possible to carry them out. Even more convincing is the letter from the head of the FAA, making clear that “the role of the FAA in this matter has been and will continue to be merely advisory…the FAA does not support now, nor ever has, one site over another.

Since September 11, all over the world security measures in aviation and airports have increased. Reason dictates that new criteria have to be incorporated in the design of airports to be built. An airport embedded in a densely populated area, whose infrastructure at the same time is critical for a country, offers an ideal target for a terrorist attack. When added to considerations like proximity to volcanoes, risks associated with wildlife, frequency of earthquakes and typical climate, the human element is a factor that now cannot be ignored. The Texcoco project envisions the possibility of three planes landing simultaneously on three parallel runways. The flight path, by necessity in a curve, would be over the dead center of the city. The degree of dexterity required of the pilots to perform this feat daily is enormous, and before going ahead a feasability study must be done for the triple landings. If 100% success, day and night for the thirty years of useful life for the airport promised by the promoters, cannot be guaranteed, then what is the justification for the building of the new airport in Texcoco?

Months after the government of Vicente Fox made the Texcoco decision, one sees clearly that the airport has not yet taken off, due to the environmental and social protests that it has generated and continues to do so.