Originally created 01/09/98

FAA issues wetlands warning



The Federal Aviation Administration has given Augusta officials yet another strong warning about building a wetlands project near Bush Field airport.

This time FAA officials wrote a letter to Mayor Larry Sconyers detailing actions the agency could take against Bush Field and the city if birds attracted to the wetlands become a hazard to the airport.

Dell T. Jernigan, manager at the FAA's Atlanta office, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the agency has put a task force in place to monitor wildlife activity around Bush Field.

Mr. Jernigan said if the task force finds birds are a safety hazard, the FAA could impose the ultimate sanction -- forbidding aircraft from flying into Bush Field.

While the airport is safe for air-carrier operations now, FAA safety inspectors classified the airport as a "potential hazard," says the letter, dated Dec. 18. Jets sometimes suck birds into their engines, which has resulted in fatal crashes elsewhere.

The city is under a federal court order to stop polluting the Savannah River from its wastewater treatment plant, and the $10 million wetland project is designed to do that. But it also attracts birds.

Against the advice of the FAA, Augusta officials accelerated construction of the wetlands in September. The project is behind the wastewater treatment plant on land adjacent to the airport. It includes an area where the airport wants to build a new runway.

The FAA's latest letter reprimands city officials for accelerating the wetlands project and states the agency will take whatever measures necessary to monitor wildlife activity and ensure the safety of passengers flying in and out of Bush Field.

"We cannot legally force the city to suspend or terminate development of the EcoPark (wetlands project). Since you have chosen to accelerate construction of the EcoPark contrary to our advice, we feel obligated to explain our agency's position from all interests should wildlife activity on or in the vicinity of the airport become hazardous," the letter says.

The letter says FAA officials could:

Terminate all commercial air carrier operations until conditions are safe.

Notify general aviation users that wildlife activity on and in the vicinity of the airport is a hazard.

File a complaint against the city that could cause the airport to lose more than $1 million worth of federal money.

The FAA's task force found that the bird population has increased during the infant stages of the wetlands project, Mr. Jernigan said.

"If we're seeing an increase now, you can just imagine how it will be as the project matures and once the project is completed," he said.

"We realize this is a tough position for the city because they've committed a large sum of money for this water treatment plant," Mr. Jernigan said. "We just want to determine whether there is a way to treat the water without creating a habitat for birds which may become a hazard for aircraft."

City officials haven't responded to the FAA's letter, Mr. Jernigan said. Augusta Administrator Randy Oliver said that's the job of Bush Field Manager Al McDill.

Mr. McDill didn't answer his phone Thursday night but told airport board members earlier that day a previous letter from FAA officials had "gotten the attention of those downtown."

Mr. McDill said the city's commitment to conduct a bird study as well as a deal between Bush Field and the Augusta Wastewater Treatment Plant to undertake an ecological study are steps forward in monitoring and controlling the problem.

Mr. Sconyers said the city administrator or lawyer were supposed to respond, and he thought the studies put the city in compliance with the FAA.

Bush Field Airport Board Chairman Ed Skinner said the wetlands and wildlife problem is an old issue and that he doesn't understand why the FAA is bringing it up again.

The city didn't properly notify the FAA about the wetlands project in its beginning stages, but "now the FAA is being properly notified of what's going on out there," Mr. Skinner said. "The city administrator, the city attorney, the airport manager are all working together to solve whatever problem is going on out there."

In December, city and airport officials agreed to begin scaring birds away from Bush Field with firecrackers, sirens and shotguns.

Mr. Skinner said FAA officials are wrong when they say the bird population has increased since construction began four months ago.

Federal officials warned the city as early as the 1980s that birds could pose a problem to the airport. The federal Interior Department sent a letter to city officials stating that the area around Bush Field was conducive to potential wildlife problems and that potential bird-aircraft conflicts should be considered in all phases of airport operations and planning.

In May, FAA officials recommended against constructing new wastewater treatment facilities or settling ponds or marshes because they might attract flocking birds or waterfowl.