More than 17 million passengers flew through Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) in 2019. Slated to receive billions in investments in the coming decades, ABIA is one of the City of Austin’s most valuable assets.
However, a problem landfill located just 3,200 feet from the end of ABIA’s main runway —and directly below the flight path—constitutes a potential threat to public safety. Extensive video evidence shows this dump, known as the Travis County Landfill (TCL), is operating in a manner that attracts birds, a major hazard to air traffic. (Remember Sully Sullenberger and the “Miracle on the Hudson?” Bird strikes were the cause of the engine failure that led to his harrowing emergency landing.)
The company that runs the landfill says it does not accept any waste that rots, aka “putrescibles,” which is prohibited by FAA regulations for trash facilities near airports. However, it’s clear that birds frequent the site—including large birds such as buzzards and hawks, which pose a particularly dangerous hazard for planes due to their large size and weight.
Now, the landfill company has applied for an expansion that will extend its life by approximately 13 years, add 36 acres to its footprint and extend its height by 29 feet, within 13 feet of the flight path.
There are already more bird strikes at ABIA than airports with hundreds of thousands more flights per year, so expanding this facility would likely only serve to exacerbate the existing problems. In February, USA Today documented the dangers of bird strikes nationwide. Private jets and commercial flights have already experienced bird strikes that forced them to return immediately to ABIA. If a catastrophic accident occurs at ABIA, the City of Austin and its taxpayers could be liable. Additionally, as a “public use airport,” ABIA receives federal funding, which could be jeopardized if FAA determines that it fails to adequately control wildlife hazards, as required by federal regulations (Title 14 CFR Part 139.337).
Really, Austin doesn’t need this expansion anyway. As a Type IV landfill, the TCL “may only accept brush, construction and demolition debris, and rubbish [but] may not accept putrescible wastes, conditionally exempt small quantity generator waste, or household wastes,” according to TCEQ rules. Austin City Council passed the Construction and Demolition Recycling Ordinance in November 2015, with the very intention of diverting substantial quantities of Type IV waste from the dump. Besides, if for some reason we fail to meet our recycling and diversion goals in the future, any Type I landfill can accept Type IV wastes.
Despite the fact that pilots have already expressed concerns about operations at the TCL, specifically the issues surrounding the potential for bird strikes, the City of Austin Aviation Department issued a “statement of no objection” to this expansion last year. However, the Mayor and Council were not informed about this and the extensive video evidence was not yet available. We need to make sure the Council directs the Aviation Department to reconsider its position and stand as a City in opposition to this expansion proposal, or at very least requires much stricter operations to address the bird issue.
There will be an initial hearing on June 22nd at 10:00 a.m. via Zoom to determine who is eligible to contest this permit. If you are interested in participating or live nearby, please contact Jeffrey Jacoby via email: jeffrey[at]texasenvironment.org.
If you share our concerns about this landfill and its expansion, please email the Austin City Council today!