They came from fields that include business, economics, biology and aviation safety.
And all but one said the North Shore Marine Transfer Station now under construction in College Point is a disaster waiting to happen at the foot of one of the busiest commercial runways in the world.
Their remarks came on Sept. 20 at a town hall meeting hosted by Assemblywoman Grace Meng (D-Flushing) at the Flushing branch of the Queens Library.
At issue is a garbage transfer station under construction as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s five-borough sanitation plan.
Critics say the structure — located less than 2,200 feet from the end of Runway 13/31 at LaGuardia Airport — would be a magnet for birds that could cause an accident similar to the one that resulted in the “Miracle on the Hudson” ditching in 2009.
On that US Airways flight, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger successfully ditched a jet with 155 people on board after multiple strikes from a flock of Canada geese destroyed both engines. All got out alive. Sullenberger has filmed a public service ad opposing the station.
“Our concern is for people’s safety,” Meng said to open the forum. “This is something a lot of Queens residents don’t want.”
Even Councilman Dan Halloran (R-Whitestone), who is running against Meng for Congress this fall, dropped by to voice his opposition to the terminal.
Meng, along with Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz (D-Flushing), has sponsored a bill that would prohibit “the construction, development or siting of hazardous wildlife attractants near an airport.”
State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing) has authored companion legislation in the Senate.
Meng said representatives of the mayor’s office, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, and the Federal Aviation Administration were invited but declined to attend.
Ken Paskar is president of Friends of LaGuardia Airport, which is trying to stop the construction in federal court. Paskar believes the PA caved to political pressure from the mayor’s office in accepting the site; and that the FAA granted its approval in violation of several of its own regulations, starting with the 2,200-foot distance.
“It is indefensible,” Paskar said. “We were misled. The FAA is not saying it is safe. It is saying the Port Authority can mitigate any problems.”
Several speakers said those problems can be caused by the birds that will be attracted to the 3,500 tons of garbage that will be processed in the structure daily before it is barged away.
“Killing birds isn’t the answer,” Paskar said. “You have to keep them from coming in the first place. The FAA has abrogated its responsibility.”
But James Cervino, a marine biologist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a member of Community Board 7 and an appointee to the transfer station’s Community Advisory Group, disagrees.
He said the station is not the hazard that opponents fear.
“One out of every one billion bird strikes results in a human death,” Cervino said. He added that it will be a modern, sealed facility that will carry out invaluable environmental services by sorting the trash brought there.
The College Point resident added that sea gulls, for example, would not be attracted to the garbage.
“They eat marine vegetation,” he said.
He acknowledged that the FAA should have conducted a full environmental impact study. But along with citing the jobs the site would produce, Cervino asked opponents what their alternative would be.
“Would you support any trash facility that barges trash?” he asked. “If not, do you want a facility with two-way trucking to and from the site?”
On the opposition’s side was biologist Ronald Merritt, who has more than 25 years of experience in the field of aircraft bird strikes with the U.S. Air Force and the Pentagon.
“Solid waste facilities attract birds because of food, odor and visual attraction,” he said. Contrary to Cervino, Merritt said birds like sea gulls are scavengers who will take food where they can find it.
“When birds identify a food source, they will come back,” he said. “They will come back in numbers and they will come back fast.”
He said bird strikes have resulted in 228 deaths since 1988, and that the 1,770 strikes reported in 1990 have increased nearly five fold to 9,840 in 2011.
“And we’re not certain those are the full number of strikes,” he said. “[Airports] are not required to report them.”
Opponents saved their heaviest hitter for last, with Jim Hall, former director of the National Transportation Safety Board under President Clinton, coming in from Tennessee.
Hall accused the FAA of distortions and malfeasance in the approval process, and, repeating a comment he gave the Chronicle last spring, said this is the first time in his memory that the FAA was approving a hazard where one had not previously existed.
“The FAA is endangering the lives of all people who fly into and out of LaGuardia Airport as well as those people on the ground living in the flight path,” Hall told the Chronicle in an interview prior to the meeting. Inside, he was just as direct:
“I was here for TWA Fight 800. I was here for the Egypt Air crash. I know this airspace.”
He and Arline Bronzaft, an expert on the effects on noise pollution, said the transfer station would serve as a bookend to another one planned for 91st Street in Manhattan, sites that he said will fill the air with birds.
“You will have 91st Street on one side and this on the other,” Hall said. “And you can draw a straight line between the two of them that runs right through LaGuardia Airport.”
Hall said that the FAA in 2005 declared any building in a runway zone to be a hazard at more than 48 feet in height, but then in 2006 gave first approval to the College Point site at more than 100 feet.
Charles Hannon, who worked in the LaGuardia control tower and in management for 30 years, formerly taught air traffic controllers in Flushing. He said the Port Authority’s decision to accept the trash station eliminated its ability to install the newest flight guidance technology on Runway 31, technology that guides pilots in on instruments at times of low visibility and low cloud ceilings.
“A modern system can let pilots land with 200-foot ceilings and a half-mile visibility,” Hannon said. Now a cloud ceiling below 600 feet can force a pilot to delay or divert his landing.
“And when there is a delay at LaGuardia, it is felt across the country,” he added.
LaGuardia’s already infamous delays had been cited earlier in the evening by Jack Friedman, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, and economist David Berkey, both project opponents, who discussed the potentially negative economic impacts for the region.
On the subject of visibility, Paskar wondered aloud what would have happened in 2009 had Sullenberger and copilot Jeff Skiles struck geese at night, rather than in the middle of the day.
“My guess is you would have lost the plane, the crew and everyone on board,” he said. “There would have been five or 10 seconds where the crew would have had to ask ‘What was that?’ They knew because they saw it coming.”
FOLA supporters said all it would take to stop the project is for city officials to order it stopped.
Hall, however, has his doubts that officials have a desire to stop anything.
“Where is the FAA tonight?” he asked. “Their office is right here in Queens.”