Originally created 09/30/97

Sides beat grant deadline



Augusta and Bush Field officials reached agreement on a $1.1 million federal grant in time to meet today's deadline for submitting signed grant documents to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Augusta commissioners and Mayor Larry Sconyers signed off on the grant after the Augusta Aviation Commission agreed to sign an agreement to repay the grant if the FAA ever wants the money back.

The grant money will pay for widening the entrance road to Bush Field, the first step in a proposed $22 million airport renovation.

City officials feared accepting the grant could shut down a $10 million constructed wetlands project the city is under federal court order to complete to decrease pollution in the Savannah River from the wastewater treatment plant.

The city also will advise the FAA in a cover letter the wetlands project is ongoing and that changing or modifying it "will be unlikely," said Augusta Administrator Randy Oliver.

The FAA issued an advisory in May recommending against constructing new wastewater treatment facilities, settling ponds or marshes that might attract flocking birds or waterfowl.

Airport Director Al McDill said birds near airports are "definitely a concern to the aviation community," but that would be addressed "as it comes up."

The number of incidents of birds being sucked into jet engines at Bush Field has increased in the past two months, Mr. McDill said.

"I've been advised there is an increase in bird strikes," Mr. McDill said. "I've had an expression from the tower chief to that effect, so it is a concern. We're on record as having expressed that concern."

The first phase of the constructed wetlands project was completed in August.

Meanwhile, the city's Engineering Services Committee voted Monday to put the second phase of the wetlands project on the fast track, moving it forward two years.

The city is accruing liability for not meeting new wastewater permit limits under the federal Clean Water Act and facing possible fines of $500,000 if the treatment plant does not achieve six consecutive months of complete permit compliance by July 1, 2001.

Early construction will give the city more time to do that, according to Tom Wiedmeier, assistant utilities director.

Before voting to speed up the project, Commissioner Moses Todd said he wanted to clarify that no city official had ever told him the wetlands project posed a threat to the airport.

"To my recollection, this committee or the public services committee hasn't heard any complaints about the wetlands from any officials from the airport authority or the present or past director," he said.

"Do you know of anything?" he asked Mr. Wiedmeier.

Mr. Wiedmeier said the only concern that has been expressed came from former airport director Steve Atha early last year.

"Mr. Atha wrote a letter to Charles Dillard who was then administrator, suggesting that we may want to look at some bird mitigation measures if the wetlands prove to be a birds attractant, which we're certainly willing to do," Mr. Wiedmeier said.

City officials contend the entire area near the airport is already a bird sanctuary.

"It was a wildlife attractant before we ever got in there to do anything," Mr. Wiedmeier said.

"If we increase the bird population significantly, we will have to undertake mitigation to discourage the birds from coming into the wetlands. It's built for wastewater treatment, not for birds."

The Phinizy Swamp EcoPark involves construction of 12 shallow-water ponds where plants such as cattails, reeds and rushes will grow and provide surface area to which microscopic organisms attach and biodegrade pollutants by eating them.

The overall project involves constructing more than 300 acres of wetlands on 1,040 acres between the treatment plant and the Savannah River.

It will be among the largest constructed wetlands of its kind in the country, according to EcoSystems Institute Inc., which is conducting the pilot study.

The airport's long-range plan calls for a new runway that would jut well into the constructed wetlands area.