The company that manages the city's wetlands project near Bush Field is the same company directing two studies that will help determine if birds present a potential hazard to the airport.
EcoSystems Institute Inc. is heading up both a $50,000 ecological study jointly commissioned by the Bush Field Airport Authority and the Augusta Waste Water Treatment Plant as well as a $30,000 bird survey authorized by Augusta commissioners in December.
The bird study will determine the abundance and distribution of birds on land on and near Bush Field.
The ecological study, following Federal Aviation Administration regulations, includes a historical analysis of bird strikes and identification of the species, numbers, locations and local movements of those birds within five miles of the airport approach.
EcoSystems manages the education- and research-oriented nature park and acts as consultant to the city's $10.5 million wetlands project.
City officials and Gene Eidson, president of EcoSystems, said there is no conflict of interest. Federal Aviation Administration officials refused to say whether they considered the company's roles a conflict of interest, saying they have their own ways of monitoring the situation.
"It's not an issue for us to say. As long as the studies are performed by qualified people and they want to present their findings to us, we'll certainly take the information under consideration," said Roger Hall, airport program manager with the FAA's office.
EcoSystems' president, Dr. Eidson, said no conflict of interest exists because he is contracting with two bird scientists who work for major research universities.
"I can't imagine how it's a conflict of interest. We're using two prestigious ornithologists who are highly respected in their fields from a regional standpoint. We're turning to the experts to do the study," Dr. Eidson said.
Dr. Sidney Gauthreaux, an ornithologist at Clemson University and Dr. Lehr Brisbin, Jr., a ornithologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab of the University of Georgia, will conduct ground census and aerial flight studies in the vicinity of Bush Field and the wetlands, Dr. Eidson said.
Augusta is under federal court order to finish cleaning up pollution in the Savannah River from the wastewater treatment plant, which is why the city is constructing the wetlands project.
The series of man-made wetland ponds near Augusta's wastewater treatment plant naturally cleanse and filter water from the plant before it flows back into Butler Creek.
Dr. Eidson said the eco-park is saving Augusta millions a year while creating a treatment system and nature area that are a model for Georgia and the nation.
Last May, FAA officials advised Augusta officials not to construct new wastewater treatment facilities, settling ponds or marshes that might attract flocking birds or waterfowl. The wetlands are about a mile from Bush Field.
Jets sometimes suck birds into their engines, which has resulted in fatal crashes in other parts of the country. Birds also fly into the windshields of airplanes, which can also pose problems, said Kathleen Bergen, a spokeswoman for the FAA.
Augusta officials want to head off the potential problem by using sirens to scare birds away or getting employees to shoot them.
The FAA wants to help Augusta officials find a way to treat its wastewater problem without attracting more wildlife to the area, Mr. Hall said.
City officials insist that the wetlands project and the airport must coexist. They have advised the FAA that the wetlands project is continuing and that changing or modifying it is unlikely.
The FAA reprimanded the city in a letter dated Dec. 18 for speeding up construction of the wetlands project and threatened to stop planes from flying into Bush Field if birds are found to be present a hazard to the airport.
As of Thursday, FAA officials said they still had not received a response to the letter from city officials.
By authorizing the studies, Mayor Larry Sconyers said he thought the city was in compliance with the FAA. FAA officials said that's not so.
"The activity of conducting a study does not put them in compliance," Mr. Hall said. "As long as they conduct a safe operation they are in compliance. The airport is operating safely now and is in compliance now. We are, however, concerned about the future of this facility."
While the wetlands project is a "wonderful opportunity to develop into a park and trails that people can enjoy," Mr. Hall and other FAA officials say wildlife activity and birds strikes have increased since construction began on the wetlands project last fall.
Reports show one bird strike at Bush Field in 1996 and nine in 1997, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen.
City Attorney Jim Wall said the FAA's own data does not support its contention that there has been an increase in wildlife activity at the wetlands or Bush Field.
"The Department of Agriculture said there was a bird problem 16 years prior to wetlands construction. To say that the constructed wetlands is the cause of a bird problem is not factually supported," Mr. Wall said. "It's speculation. There's 6,000 acres of swamp area out there. If there's a problem, it's not anything connected with the wetlands."
Finding out how many birds exist at and near Bush Field is the primary reason for the studies, Dr. Eidson said.
"That's the whole purpose of the study. We need to see what the science is and evaluate it that way," he said. "The studies won't determine whether the birds are a potential hazard or not, they will determine the type and abundance of birds."
Applying data garnered in one study to another will also allow scientists to identify and locate features within a five-mile approach of Bush Field that attracts wildlife and will provide a description of wildlife hazards of air carrier operations, Dr. Eidson said.
Both studies are necessary to show the species and movement of birds in the five mile airport approach and to view birds in a more regional fashion, Dr. Eidson said. And the $80,000 price tag barely covers the costs of doing the studies, he added.
"The studies are expensive because the number of hours of field work and the level of expertise the studies require," Dr. Eidson said. "My concern is that there are a number of things people would like to see happen here. People need to look at the area as one whole and realize that anything they do in one part of the project will effect another area of the project."
"If you displace birds from one area, they will go somewhere else. That's why its important to look at birds from a regional standpoint and not just one specific area," he said.
The $10.5 million, mostly federal grant money, only pays for the constructed wetlands while the nature park is to rely on donations and membership fees.
Asked whether he thought the park is dead in the water due to pressure from the FAA, Dr. Eidson said no.
"It's a beautiful site and should be open to the public as a nature site. I think the city supports the idea and I don't think they'll make any changes to the plan," Dr. Eidson said. "My concern is there is a number of things people want to see happen here. It's important to leave the swamp as much intact as possible and to be careful about future development in that area."