Opponents of the East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station (MTS) planned by the city are joining forces with a seemingly unlikely ally, the Friends of LaGuardia Airport. What residents against a trash facility in their neighborhood have in common with a group that advocates for safe conditions at an airport in Queens is that both groups want to halt the transfer station in its tracks.
Air safety experts have begun to speak against the Upper East Side transfer station, as well as another planned for College Point in Queens, pointing to both planned facilities as wildlife attractants that will increase the number of dangerous collisions between flocks of large migratory birds and airplanes taking off from and landing at LaGuardia Airport. Last week, a Delta flight leaving JFK made an emergency landing shortly after takeoff when it struck a flock of birds and one of its engines was damaged, an incident that has reignited attention to this particular avian problem.
“This is a known risk, one that the aviation community has been dealing with for decades,” said James Hall, a transportation safety consultant and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “The New York airports sit in the middle of an area that is surrounded by water. They are already an area that provides wildlife attractants and challenges in order to provide for safe flight.”
Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the now-famous pilot who safely landed his plane on the Hudson River after a bird strike crippled its engines in 2009, has spoken against both transfer stations. He told CBS This Morning last week, “It’s a bad idea to build near an airport anything that’s likely to attract birds, including trash facilities,” mentioning the East 91st Street and College Point stations by name.
While locals and politicians in Yorkville have been fighting the transfer station for a myriad of reasons, it seems like their best hope for actually stopping it lies with the lawsuits that the Friends of LaGuardia airport have filed against the FAA.
“Most people don’t associate our community in Yorkville with LaGuardia Airport in Queens,” said David Mack, one of the founders of the group Residents for Sane Trash Solutions, formed to oppose the Upper East Side MTS. “But as the crow flies, literally, the FAA has a mandated perimeter where they don’t want any wildlife attractants, and we are within that distance.”
Ken Paskar, president of Friends of LaGuardia Airport and a former lead representative for the FAA safety team, said his group is only asking the FAA to do what their own regulations require them to enforce.
“The FAA is very specific about what it means to be a fully enclosed transfer station, and the transfer station at East 91st Street does not meet that criteria,” Paskar said. The FAA recommends that any potential wildlife attractant be located at least five miles from any airports to protect their approach, departure and circling airspace, and has strict requirements that those located within that radius must meet that essentially prohibit any trash or odor escaping the enclosed station.
City officials have said that the transfer station will be built to ensure minimal exposure of the trash to the outdoors, and that its operations will be conducted under the covered facility. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which has issued permits for the facility, did not respond to request for comment on this story.
Opponents contest that there is no way the city can guarantee that the transfer station will operate without attracting additional birds.
“This is not rocket science here, this is something that everyone understands—birds and airplanes don’t mix,” Paskar said. “When you build something on the water with a new food source, which is garbage and waste, for birds, you’re going to have a hazardous situation.”
State Sen. Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Micah Kellner, who have both been vocal opponents of the transfer station along with other East Side elected officials, released a joint statement pointing to the recent bird strike as another reason to halt the East 91st Street facility.
“While this bird strike occurred on a flight path out of JFK, it’s a reminder that we need to work on mitigating the risks for all our airports,” read the statement in part. “We agree with the Friends of LaGuardia Airport, former FAA officials who think that putting bird-attracting sanitation facilities in major flight paths is a bad idea.”
Bird strikes have been increasing over the past several decades, a phenomenon that experts attribute to changes in migratory patterns due to climate change. According to the FAA’s database, there have been 960 wildlife strikes near LaGuardia Airport in the past 10 years, 10 of which resulted in substantial damage and one—Sullenberger’s “Miracle on the Hudson”—that resulted in a destroyed aircraft. While it’s common for birds to collide with planes in the air, large fowl like Canadian geese can cause enough damage to ground a flight.
“To me, it’s just a horrible precedent to be set nationally,” said Hall. “For the city of New York, the Port Authority and the FAA to take an action like this, to add to an area that is already an attractant, to add to that with these waste disposal units is just irresponsible.”