Council Considers Fuentes’ Call to Slow Down AUS Fuel Project

New tanks to be located directly opposite Southeast neighborhood

City Council is set to vote today, April 7, on a resolution from Council Member Vanessa Fuentes intended to slow the construction of four 1.5 million-gallon jet fuel tanks along the U.S. 183 frontage of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, directly opposite residences between McCall Lane and Metropolis Drive. But airport officials warn that unless the city moves forward with the new fuel depot now, it could face years of delay and lose billions in revenue. *

Fuentes' resolution would put the project, which would both move and expand AUS' current fuel storage facility, on hold until Council gives the go-ahead. In the interim, staff would be required to identify at least three alternative sites for Phase 2 of the project (which would place tanks within 500 feet of a residence) and conduct a local environmental assessment that would go deeper than the federally required review that passed muster with the Federal Aviation Administration in 2020. The new assessment would include input from the city's Equity Office and "local environmental justice experts," which Fuentes, whose District 2 includes AUS and the surrounding area, said would help correct the city's history of environmental racism.

Photo by John Anderson

The first two tanks proposed (Phase 1 of the project) are sited within 2,000 feet of 21 residences in total, the closest being 700 feet from the tanks. An outside consultant considered 12 sites proposed by community members before settling on the recommended location, which it considered the only viable option based on current land-use constraints and AUS's expansion plans.

“I know that what we heard today was a pretty outstanding economic impact ... to our airport expansion and operations, but equally as important is the human impact.” – CM Vanessa Fuentes

If that site selection is delayed, airport Executive Director Jacqueline Yaft told Council at an April 5 work session, construction of the new fuel depot could be delayed by 2½ years and result in a combined $11.4 billion in lost output and revenue through 2026 as AUS – which has already run out of jet fuel at least once this year – struggles to meet travel demand that's increasing rapidly as the industry rebounds from COVID. However, said Fuentes, "I know that what we heard today was a pretty outstanding economic impact ... to our airport expansion and operations, but equally as important is the human impact."

Yaft told Council that AUS traffic growth, which was estimated at 4% annually when Council adopted the 2018 master plan that includes the fuel depot project, has been closer to 8%. Headlines about endless lines at AUS security in the past week illustrate the real-world impacts of not being able to meet travel demand, although other observers suggest that the recent AUS chaos is due to Transportation Security Admin­istration staffing rather than the facility's capacity.

At Council's work session, Mayor Steve Adler (who attended the meeting virtually as he waits out a positive COVID-19 diagnosis) aimed to distinguish the real risks posed to neighbors by the fuel tanks from their perceived fears, while acknowledging that both are important. For many in East Austin, those perceptions are informed by the struggle in the 1980s to shutter the gasoline tank farm located at Springdale Road and Airport Boulevard, which created numerous health issues for those living nearby until it was finally closed in 1992. "If it's unsafe, we need to move the location or buy out people who would be in an unsafe place," Adler said. "I'm not sure I've heard a compelling case at this point that the fuel system proposed is unsafe." (The FAA has no regulations requiring buffers between jet fuel tanks and off-airport uses.)

Editor's Note (April 7 2:30pm): This story has been updated since publication to more accurately describe the number and size of the fuel tanks at issue.

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