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Pilots, activists urge Austin council to reject landfill expansion near airport

February 20, 2020

Austin American-Statesman
By Heather Osbourne

Amber England, an activist with Texas Campaign for the Environment, holds up a photo of turkey vultures eating at a landfill near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Nick Wagner, Austin American-Statesman

Pilots and environmental advocates on Thursday urged Austin city leaders to reject the expansion of a landfill near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, fearing an increased danger of jets colliding with vultures and other birds drawn to the site.

Jeffrey Jacoby, deputy director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, was one of a handful who appeared before the Austin City Council, saying the proposed expansion would “put in danger the flying public for the next 13 years.”

Jacoby was referring to estimates that the expansion of the landfill, which is less than a mile south of the airport’s west runway, would increase its lifespan by about 13 years. An official hearing regarding the expansion will be held at City Hall on March 26.

While the dump only accepts unwanted construction materials, Jacoby and other environmental advocates believe operators allow decaying organic waste to slip through its gates.

“It’s highly doubtful you would have turkey vultures frequenting the dump if there was not rotting waste,” Jacoby said.

Jacoby presented photos taken at the landfill over the past few weeks, which show several turkey vultures perched on top of the trash. Other photos show large birds flying near passenger planes.

Several council members on Thursday requested the issues raised by the pilots and activists be placed on the agenda for the Airport Advisory Commission’s next meeting.

Austin-Bergstrom is no stranger to bird strikes, but officials say no data directly links them to the nearby landfill. In December, the airport reported a total of 175 bird strikes had occurred within a 5-mile radius of the airport in 2019, about the same number as the year before.

The airport has its own wildlife management team, which documents bird sightings and strikes near the runways. The team also works to remove carcasses from nearby roads and at the landfill to reduce food available for those larger birds.

Mandy McClendon, communications manager for the airport, said airport officials already told the council that they have no objection to the expansion of the landfill and do not believe it would increase the risk of strikes.

However, some pilots who use the airport daily disagree. Jose Corona, owner of Austin Helicopter Tours and one of two pilots to speak against the landfill Thursday, told the council that bird sightings at Austin-Bergstrom are the worst he has seen at any airport in the past 20 years.

“My concern is that eventually they will take down an aircraft,” Corona said. “I’m hoping the city reconsiders that expansion.”

Members representing Texas Campaign for the Environment stand in support of a speaker Thursday at an Austin City Council meeting, where pilots and environmental activists raised their concerns about a pending expansion of a landfill just 3,250 feet from runways at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Nick Wagner, Austin American-Statesman

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