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Spokane Tribe’s casino study rejects Fairchild conflict

A private study commissioned by the Spokane Tribe concludes that a proposed casino and resort in Airway Heights creates no disruptions or threats to training flights at nearby Fairchild Air Force Base.

In addition, the study by Washington, D.C.-based Madison Government Affairs challenges the often-used aerial photo of Air Force flight patterns that suggests the proposed casino is directly under the bulk of training flights.

The study suggests critics have used that “spaghetti-pattern photo” to suggest there are far more training flights over the casino site than is the case.

Spokane Tribal Council Chairman Rudy Peone said the Madison study seconds the conclusions of the earlier environmental impact statement on the proposed casino, which the tribe hopes to build on 45 acres in Airway Heights.

That impact statement, prepared by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, found no significant issues that pose a threat to the base. The tribe has agreed to mitigate possible problems of jet noise and glare.

Irv Zakheim, the CEO of Zak Designs Inc. and head of an anti-casino coalition, said he could not comment without first reading the study. He added by email, however, that opponents of the casino are not exaggerating safety concerns.

“We know that local base officials have directly expressed concerns about the threat this project poses to Fairchild, as evident in the op-eds written by the former base commander (Col. Paul) Guemmer” and a presentation put together by a base committee that highlights potential problems, Zakheim said.

Critics have said they fear development near Fairchild could be seen as encroachment in any future base-closure decisions, jeopardizing the region’s largest employer.

Also opposing the Spokanes’ casino is the Kalispel Tribe, which operates Northern Quest Resort and Casino in Airway Heights.

The Spokane Tribe asserts the project will stimulate the economy and create several thousand jobs, including many for its own members, who now face 50 percent unemployment.

The release of the Madison report came one day after the final chance to submit written comments to the Bureau of Indian Affairs about the proposal. The Department of the Interior now must approve or reject the proposed casino. Peone said the Madison report was submitted to the BIA before the May 1 deadline.

If approved by the department, the last hurdle is getting approval from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

Peone said the tribe intended to release the Madison study by February, before the environmental impact statement was released.

But the tribe received a visit from the Fairchild Encroachment Management Team, a committee examining base encroachment. That meeting raised more flight-path safety concerns, Peone said.

The tribe asked Madison Government Affairs to answer those additional concerns.

The decision to delay and add to the study made sense, Peone said. “We felt it would give us peace of mind and heart to answer those questions. We don’t want any encroachment issues,” he added.

Peone said the study challenges the assertion made by those using the yellow-spaghetti lines slide that hundreds of flights go over the proposed site.

Study author Paul Hirsch – who was director of review and analysis for the 1991-93 Base Closure and Realignment Commission – said he and associates learned the “spaghetti” photo used seven days of flights from 2010 and that no effort was made to distinguish Air Force flights from all others at the time.

“That slide really doesn’t show which of those lines show actual Air Force training flights and which aren’t,” Hirsch said Thursday from his office. The number of flights, broken down, average about 1.4 per hour over the usual 16-hour daily training schedule, not nearly the heavy traffic critics have claimed.

He visited the base last fall and saw few actual tanker flights over Airway Heights, Hirsch said.

Peone said he didn’t know how much the tribe paid for the study.

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