A law passed by Congress last month and hailed by sponsors as a dramatic step toward reducing noise around the nation's airports is being decried by citizen's groups around the country who are gearing up for a fight.
The Maryland congressional delegation, along with officials representing Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the Airport Coordinating Team, a BWI watchdog group, actively opposed the bill.
Critics charge the law, which for the first time puts the Federal Aviation Administration in charge of regulating noise, undermines local control over airports and takes away influence previously enjoyed by citizen's groups like ACT.
A lawyer in Chicago representing community groups around O'Hare International Airport says the law may be unconstitutional because it takes control away from the Maryland Legislature.
"To say this is a pro-aviation bill is putting it mildly," said Joe Karaganis, a Chicago attorney. "It was written by the aviation industry. A number of airline lobbyists should get free Guccis for Christmas for this one."
The law requires airlines to reduce to 15 percent the number of older, noisier Stage 2 aircraft in their fleets by July 1, 1999. Airlines could then have until 2003 to eliminate all Stage 2 aircraft.
The bill authorizes the FAA to set up a federal noise policy to accomplish this by next year.
Community groups have wanted a federal noise policy -- and a specific date for phasing out Stage 2 airplanes -- for years, but say this law is not the solution.
The most controversial part of the law mandates that any airport restrictions on Stage 3 aircraft -- newer and generally quieter planes -- must either be approved by Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner or must have unanimous consent of the airlines.
Stage 2 restrictions imposed by airports must go through a public review process, but do not need approval by the FAA.
It is these provisions critics say erode local control. For example, the Maryland Aviation Administration, which owns and operates BWI, is under a 1993 deadline from the state to reduce the size of its noise zone -- the 12,100 acres around the airport the state deems to noisy for homes -- by encouraging airlines to phase out Stage 2 aircraft.
BWI officials argue that the new law could undermine those efforts. "We would have to go through a very onerous process," MAA Administrator Ted Mathison said in an interview earlier this month.
Karaganis was harsher in his criticism, saying the law may violate the constitution because it would invalidate any controls the Maryland Legislature enacts.
"It takes away the constitutional authority of the state government and puts it in the hands of a bureaucrat in Washington," he said.
Assistant State's Attorney Charles M. Bell, who represents the MAA, refused comment on the law. "It would be premature to comment at this time," he said through a BWI spokeswoman.
Mathison has publicly opposed the law as being too restrictive for noise mitigation efforts.
Karaganis also said the law does not allow state or local authorities to have any regulatory control over environmental standards. The government regulates such standards, but allows local jurisdictions to impose stricter regulations if it wishes.
"The bill gives the airline industry a federal license to pollute, a federal environmental immunity no other industry enjoys," said U.S. Rep.
Henry Hyde, R-Illinois.
Karaganis also said that since the federal government is taking over noise regulation, it will leave in limbo those people who want to sue over noise problems. "The airports and airlines will say, 'It isn't us anymore.' The federal government will say, 'It isn't us.' It is a substantial federal bailout of the airline industry."
Dennis Stevens, president of ACT, is working with Karaganis to figure out a way to change the legislation. He said the bill assumes that once airlines completely convert to Stage 3, noise problems will be over.
He also said the lack of money in the bill will mean many airlines won't be able to afford to convert their entire fleet, which could lead to court battles.
Not everyone, however, is opposed to the law. Tom Dixon, president of the BWI Neighbors Committee, says he has no problem with it and denies the MAA will have any problem reducing the size of its noise zone by 1993.
"They may have to extend it to 1995, but that's a small possibility," he said, adding that the law may encourage more citizen's activists groups to start.
Dixon said he couldn't be specific on how the law won't restrict the MAA, but said he has "a big surprise" for the next BWI Neighbors Committee meeting, which probably will take place sometime in December.