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FAA denies runway zone at LaGuardia shortened

By Allan Chernoff, CNN Senior Correspondent
  • Group charges location of garbage center will endanger passengers
  • "This is a colossally stupid idea," group says
  • FAA says runway protection zone unchanged
  • U.S. Transportation Department had panel review plan

(CNN) -- The Federal Aviation Administration denied Monday charges it had altered a runway protection zone around New York's LaGuardia airport to accommodate a controversial New York City garbage transfer center.

A coalition of aviation safety advocates, Friends of LaGuardia, which is suing the FAA, New York state and New York City to block construction of the large facility, alleges the Aviation Administration shortened the protection zone around the airport's eastern-most runway so there would be room for the construction site.

"Literally the lives of travelers and the lives of New Yorkers are at stake. This is a colossally stupid idea to locate a city garbage transfer station on the edge of an airport runway," said Randy Mastro, attorney for Friends of LaGuardia and litigation director at Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher. "FAA altered in the dead of night what it considers to be the danger zone around the airport."

The coalition claims FAA quietly shortened the runway protection zone by 800 feet to allow the trash transfer facility to fall outside the zone.

However, a person familiar with the situation told CNN that FAA never changed its runway protection zone around LaGuardia and that it is not large enough to include the plant site, across Flushing Bay from runway 31 at the airport.

"The planned Marine Transfer Station near LaGuardia Airport is not located inside the Runway Protection Zone at the airport," FAA announced in a written statement.

Four years ago, FAA said, it had received a proposal from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, operator of LaGuardia Airport, to expand the protection zone by 800 feet to permit a new landing approach for LaGuardia. That expanded zone would have included the garbage plant site. But the proposal was withdrawn, FAA said, after it determined the landing approach procedure was not feasible.

The so-called Marine Transfer Station is scheduled to receive garbage trucks from across the borough of Queens beginning in 2013 and to transfer the refuse to barges that will ship the waste out of state for disposal.

FAA's parent, the Department of Transportation, had an independent technical panel review the Sanitation Department's plan. The city intends to enclose the facility and have barges of garbage sealed to limit their attraction to birds. After its analysis, the panel gave a thumbs up to the trash center.

"The FAA thinks it's safe and they're the professionals," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told CNN. New York has engaged in "bird kills" to keep geese, seagulls and other birds away from airport runways.

Critics claim the garbage could attract large birds that can be sucked into jet engines, endangering aircraft.

"Bird strikes" can cause airplane engines to stall. That's precisely what forced US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia on January 15, 2009. Sullenberger has spoken out against the New York garbage facility project.