“It’s dangerous for the airplanes and it’s dangerous for the birds too,” North Carolina Rep. Jon Hardister said of water retention ponds near airports.
And, thanks to brand new state legislation that Hardister and State Sen. Trudy Wade helped push through in the final hours of state budget negotiations, Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA) and other airports in the state won’t have to worry about that hazard.
The new law is a big help to PTIA, especially where there’s major development underway – including a new taxiway bridge across I-73 that will allow runway access to a roughly 800-acre aviation megasite just across the interstate from the airport.
These days, PTIA is laying down a lot of concrete, and usually projects of this sort require the construction of corresponding retention ponds to manage storm water runoff. That’s a fine plan for most projects – it helps protect the water supply – however, retention ponds near airports are a big problem since they attract geese and other fowl, which notoriously don’t mix well with aircraft.
The new law pushed through by Hardister and Wade provides some relief from those watershed regulations, and PTIA Executive Director Kevin Baker said this week that this change will help cut the red tape as the airport moves forward with its new projects. Since 2012, airports outside of watershed critical areas have had some exemptions from the retention pond requirements of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCEQ), but airports haven’t necessarily been exempted from storm water controls in local water supply watersheds until now.
In June, PTIA airport announced that the long awaited taxiway bridge across I-73 was complete and the airport is now ready to build the taxiway on the bridge as its next major undertaking.
Baker said of the new legislation, “It clarifies the storm water design requirements for airfield projects at our airport and clears the way for us to begin the design and construction of a very important taxiway on the western side of the airport that will provide access to economic development sites.”
He added, “With all the projects we have underway, this certainly would have been an issue.”
Baker said that, as one can imagine, PTIA – which is surrounded in large part by natural areas – already has enough problems with animals of all types and it doesn’t need any additional issues from flocks of birds being drawn to inviting retention ponds.
According to Baker, PTIA contracts with the Wildlife Services branch of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to manage the threats of everything from birds potentially disrupting air traffic to deer on the runways that pilots may have to dodge on landing or takeoff.
“We have on ongoing contract with the USDA to control not only geese and birds, but also deer and any other wildlife that interfere with operations,” Baker said.
Baker added that the USDA currently uses interesting methods of various sorts to let the animals know they are by no means welcome on or near airport grounds – or in the airspace above PTIA.
“One of the first things they do is harassment,” Baker said of the federal wildlife workers.
He said that, for instance, they use a loud noisemaker that explodes blank ammo to mimic the sound of a shotgun – a sound that understandably makes geese and other birds uneasy.
Nationally and internationally, there have been a number of incidents over the years with birds being sucked into aircraft engines or slamming into propellers – in some cases leading to crashes or emergency landings. In January 2009, in the Miracle on the Hudson incident, an Airbus A320 struck a flock of geese north of the George Washington Bridge in New York and that caused an engine failure that forced Capt. Sully Sullenberger to land the plane on the Hudson River. Area authorities want to control the geese and other fowl around PTIA so planes aren’t forced to attempt anything similar on Buffalo Creek.
Wade said she was happy to spearhead, in the state Senate, what she called a “commonsense” change, and she commended Hardister for his work in the House with regard to the legislation.
Hardister said the previous watershed regulations would have had a negative impact on projects now planned at PTIA. He said this type of legislation often goes unnoticed but it’s important for things like passenger safety and economic development.
Hardister said this legislation was added to a related bill late at night as lawmakers were wrapping up their recent session.
“Trudy Wade and I had to do our best to get this resolved and it was literally done at the 11th hour,” he said.
Hardister said things wrapped up about 1:30 a.m. in a late-night lawmaking session when the changes were finally adopted.
The NCEQ has signed off on the changes in the new legislation.
Baker said that, when it comes to environmental concerns, runways are in less need of water retention ponds than other projects are.
“They have huge, big, flat expansions of grass on the sides, and water runs off and has a chance to be absorbed back into the ground,” Baker said.
Guilford County Chief Plans Engineer Frank Parks said that water retention ponds are just one strategy for addressing storm water issues for developments.
“Any time you build a building and parking lot with concrete where you are developing more than 24 percent of the total area, storm water control devices are put in,” Parks said.
He said that’s done largely to protect the drinking water.
Some of the water from the airport area, for instance, ends up in Lake Higgins.
He said his department checks retention ponds regularly to make sure proper water levels are maintained and see that the ponds are serving the intended purpose.
Though county inspectors handle compliance issues in unincorporated Guilford County and in some of the county’s towns, state inspectors check the airport for compliance.
Parks said that exceptions to the state regulations are rare, though he added that some sites were grandfathered in before the current legislation that applies to county construction came about.
The State of North Carolina, in its information on storm water issues, lists several types of control devices to help address storm water runoff, erosion and pollution issues created by land development. Those include filtration basins, dry detention basins and swales – a shallow channel with dense vegetation around that helps purify and redirect storm water.
In one example of an alternative method, there’s a large water retention holding tank under the Greensboro Coliseum’s parking lot. As the projects at the airport are designed and implemented, it will be determined what types of storm water mitigation strategies are used there.