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Bird Strike Threat – TCE, Pilots, and Landowners Challenge Garbage Expansion by Austin Airport

June 23, 2020

(Austin) — Today, Texas Campaign for the Environment’s lawyer and several TCE members successfully gained standing to contest a permit to expand a problem landfill located just 3,200 feet from the end of Austin Bergstrom International Airport’s (ABIA’s) main runway — and directly below the flight path. On the basis that expanding the dump could lead to negative impacts on nearby residents and air traffic, two administrative law judges at the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) granted TCE and its members party status in an administrative law process known as a “contested case hearing.” The decision today allows TCE as well as other individuals and groups with standing to challenge TCEQ’s initial approval of the expansion. These contested cases can lead to substantive changes or, albeit rare in Texas, an outright rejection of a pollution permit. 

Jeffrey Jacoby, Deputy Director for Texas Campaign for the Environment applauded the decision, “We are proud of our members and several other individuals and organizations who stood up to fight this ill-conceived landfill expansion plan today. Even though it’s against the rules, the evidence is clear this dump is accepting waste that rots, which of course attracts birds. And birds and planes are a dangerous combination.” 

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. 

The company that runs the landfill says it does not accept any waste that rots, aka “putrescibles,” which is prohibited by Federal Aviation Administration (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. ABIA is required to track bird strikes and has reported over 2,000 bird strikes to the FAA. 

Austin-based pilot and TCE member Adham El-Effendi testified at today’s SOAH hearing:  “Expansion of the landfill would only worsen this problem.  I’m here to testify that birds present one of the most concerning outside risks to pilots and passengers. I’ve had near misses with birds on multiple occasions, the most recent being in late February  of this year. I believe the expansion of the landfill particularly in its expansion upward to the bottom of what the FAA calls the “imaginary surface” of the approach path into Runway 35 left – building a landfill right up to the FAA’s limit for terrain to constitute a safe approach to the airport, to me, constitutes a hazard to all flying in and out of the airport.” 

Several homes and businesses are located near the landfill and ABIA’s flight path.

Chris Massey, who attended the online hearing, is a homeowner and member of TCE who lives close to the landfill. 

In addition to the pilots’ primary concerns with air traffic safety, Mr. Massey expressed concerns relating to:

  • Disposal of putrescible (rotting) waste;
  • Odor;
  • Attraction of hazardous wildlife including but not limited to birds;
  • Traffic in the community;

As a TCE member, Massey also gained standing in the SOAH hearing today. He said, “We live less than a mile from this dump and have concerns that expanding it will only make things worse,” said Chris Massey. “I just felt like I needed to get involved. I’ll always come to bat for environmental conservation.” The State Office of Administrative Hearings will set a schedule for its future proceedings. Once the judges make their decision at the conclusion of testimony and filings, SOAH will make a recommendation to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) regarding whether or not SOAH advises that TCEQ give the permit. This process will take several months. 

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