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Mather Airport

    On January 21, 1999, the 1998-1999 Sacramento County Grand Jury toured the Mather Airport (the Airport) facilities. The Airport is located on 2,800 acres in the eastern part of Sacramento County on the site of the former Mather Air Force Base. The Grand Jury was briefed on Airport history and current operations by Airport staff, which numbered only three people. The Grand Jury was impressed with this small staff in relation to the magnitude of its responsibilities.


    The Grand Jury was informed that the federal Department of Defense (DOD) operated Mather Air Force base, under the direction of the Air Force Training Command, to train navigators for various DOD fighters and bombers. The Strategic Air Command operated the 852nd Bomb Wing at Mather during the height of the Cold War.

    In 1988 the Department of the Air Force announced the closure of Mather Air Force Base. Sacramento County researched and analyzed the various aspects of taking over the base and, after lengthy negotiations, decided upon a 55-year lease. Subsequently, Mather Airport opened in 1995 and is being operated as an airport cargo facility by the County of Sacramento.

    The Sacramento County Department of Airports (SCDOA) has made much progress in restoring and reintroducing flight operations at Mather. At the time of the Grand Jury's visit, Mather Airport was a hub for Burlington Air Express (BAX) Global, Emery Worldwide, Airborne, and United Parcel Service. Airport management hopes to attract others. According to SCDOA documents, these cargo carriers shipped a record 121 million pounds of freight through Mather in 1998, approximately 54 percent more than in 1997. The California Department of Forestry (CDF) has signed a five-year lease to locate its firefighting aircraft operations and maintenance at Mather. The new airfield terminal building, opened in 1998, is an attractive introduction to the Airport's facilities.

    At the time of its tour, the Grand Jury saw the Emery Worldwide sorting facility under construction and was told that this project is ahead of the original schedule. According to a Department of Airports publication, Emery shipped more than 26 million pounds of freight through the airport in 1998.

    The Grand Jury learned that when the Air Force relinquished the base, there was a substantial environmental toxic cleanup effort required. The Air Force, together with Sacramento County, did extensive site evaluations for environment/toxic cleanup and identified the sites that require remediation. The Air Force has assumed all responsibility for the cleanup. The County has a hands-off policy until the Air Force cleans up every identified site. When toxic sites are found, these oversights are brought to the Air Force's attention. There is no letter of agreement for the payback from the Air Force on toxic cleanup done by the County. If the cleanup is considered a priority by the County, it conducts a cleanup effort and subsequently submits a claim to the Air Force for reimbursement.

    Cargo sorting facilities are currently planned to be constructed at Mather. But because the remaining air cargo development area is still under Air Force environmental remediation responsibility, construction cannot be initiated until the cleanup is completed, which may delay the project for two to three years.

    The Grand Jury was told that the planned demolition of many of the aged and unusable facilities will allow extensive opportunities for the further industrial commercialization of the Airport, enhance operations, and provide needed space to accommodate additional air freight, aircraft repair, and maintenance facilities.

    In addition to the environmental toxic cleanup, construction development is restricted by the increasing importance of maintaining vernal pools and wetlands at the Mather site. Airport staff stated that the South County Habitat Conservation Plan needs to be amended in order to allow development of the Airport's southern end and enhance their marketing efforts.

    The Grand Jury was told that during the Air Force's tenure, the military provided tight security. With the breakup of the base into industrial parks, recreational parks, and the cargo airport, fencing was needed to secure the airfield against vandalism. The SCDOA has installed a six-foot chain link fence around the perimeter of the airfield portion of the complex.

    Another hindrance to restoring and upgrading the buildings left by the Air Force is the lack of "as built" drawings and equipment, technical service manuals and data necessary to identify specifications of original electrical, sewer, and utility systems during remodeling, upgrading or repairing of Airport facilities. These documents were apparently destroyed without consulting the County. Lack of these data means the County will have to pay engineers to reconstruct these documents if any future renovations are planned.

    The Grand Jury was informed that the Airport's foremost operational issue is the lack of permanent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) participation in the operation and maintenance of its navigational aids and weather reporting facilities. During DOD's tenure, the tower and navigational aid systems were operated and maintained by military personnel. The SCDOA has assumed the responsibility for these systems at a substantial cost to Sacramento County taxpayers.

    Getting a permanent FAA-supported system would greatly enhance Mather Airport's marketability to other cargo carriers. The SCDOA staff is actively enlisting the help of congressional representatives but, to date, efforts have not been particularly successful. The Mather staff emphasized the need for a Category III instrument approach radar system to accommodate takeoffs and landings during Sacramento's foggy season. Although airfield operations -- and Mather's ability to attract businesses -- would benefit greatly by staffing the control tower, the FAA requires a minimum number of flights to justify doing so. Airport management seems to be caught in a frustrating situation; it is unable to generate sufficient flights to warrant an FAA-operated control tower, but potential occupants want one before they will locate on the Airport. The SCDOA is trying to use a variety of inducements to attract operators and generate the requisite traffic.

    At the time of its visit, the Grand Jury was told the planned construction of new residential housing, so close to the airfield, is problematic with respect to future noise complaints. Although the Grand Jury was assured that the deed and sales documents warn prospective buyers of the potential noise impact, future residents can be expected to lodge more and more noise nuisance complaints and lawsuits. These complaints and lawsuits may have severe future impact on the Airport's ability to operate, and would negate any financial benefit realized by the County from the sale of land for housing developments. The current noise restriction zones jointly established by the Air Force and the County took a long time to formulate and enact.

    Findings and Recommendations

    Finding #1: The Grand Jury was told that there are no fire response services for aircraft and structural emergencies at Mather Airport. Currently there are no federal or state requirements for an on-airport emergency/fire response facility at a cargo carrier entity such as Mather. And, the Sacramento County Fire Protection District is not in a position to staff and equip the Mather firehouse at this time.

    Recommendation #1: The SCDOA and the Sacramento County Fire Protection District need to resolve the problem of not having on-site emergency response equipment for aircraft and structural fires at Mather Airport.

    Finding #2: The Grand Jury noted that Mather Airport has a rail spur currently not in use. This spur could provide an alternative means to connect the cargo industry to the airfield. Using this spur for rail deliveries would enhance Mather Airport's ability to become a central departure point for cargo destined for European and Pacific Rim countries. The spur provides a unique opportunity for the Airport to be able to reconvey and off-load very large volumes and weights of cargo.

    Recommendation #2: The SCDOA should make efforts to retain, maintain and use the rail spur at Mather Airport for future cargo transportation demands.

    No Response is Required.

1998/99 Sacramento County Grand Jury - Final Report (Internet Version) June 30, 1999

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