The Warwick City Council still has a hand to play in Green Airport improvement projects, even though it signed an agreement for a longer runway and other projects in 2012. On Feb. 10, the council will consider the Rhode Island Airport Corporation’s (RIAC) request to alter wetlands for safety enhancements to Runway 16-34 (This is the shorter of Green’s major runways, which often is referred to as the “crosswind” runway).
While the wetlands proposal requires Department of Environmental Management (DEM) approval, RIAC also needs city approval.
Without that endorsement, said RIAC manager of environmental programs, Jay Brolin, “We wouldn’t be able to do the project.”
But such an objection, notes RIAC legal counsel Kendra Beaver, “really needs to be substantive.” She said RIAC has complied with all the DEM rules and statutes.
“I think we have addressed all the regulations,” she said.
Nonetheless, concerns are being raised.
City Planner William DePasquale agrees if the city is to object, it has to be substantive.
“We don’t need to rehash the need for alterations – safety is the reason for the work,” he said.
RIAC also faces meeting a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standard of a 1,000-foot safety roll-off at each end of the runway, to allow an aircraft to come to a stop if it overshoots the runway. As there is not enough space at either end of Runway 16-34 for the roll-off, RIAC will use an EMAS [emergency materials arresting system] at both ends of the runway. EMAS consists of cement tiles that are designed to crumble under the weight of an aircraft and slow its forward motion.
At the east end of the runway, about two acres of wetlands would be filled to extend the roll-off. Much of the fill for this extension will come from creating additional wetlands at five sites that are primarily within airport fences.
Richard Langseth, who has long followed airport developments, reasons that filling the wetlands would serve to impede a major storm surge in Buckeye Brook; resulting in a backup and increased flooding downstream. Langseth put forth his arguments in a letter published in Tuesday’s Beacon.
Brolin said storm surge was considered and that the longer protection zone was not seen as having a significant impact.
“It’s not like closing the door and the flow [from a surge] goes off property,” said Brolin. “We’re not creating a backup of Buckeye Brook. Period.”
In fact, one mitigating project, an enlarged culvert for Buckeye Brook on Lake Shore Drive and creation of additional wetlands along the brook between that and Airport Road, would improve the area’s ability to accommodate storm water. In addition, the project will reconnect to about 30 acres of wetland and upland forest habitat.
DePasquale agrees; calling that particular project “one of the tremendous renovations” that will provide better habitat for fish and other wildlife. In an eight-page memorandum to the council, DePasquale called that section of improvements significant in “unwinding years of incremental degradation.” But DePasquale has reservations with the proposal to remove fill from south of Warwick Pond near the landfill for the former Truk Away disposal service. DePasquale says that landfill was never properly capped and he thinks that excavating near the brook to create wetlands could have the effect of drawing pollutants into the brook from the old landfill.
Brolin said he does not see “a cone of depression” created by the wetlands as an issue.
“I would be very surprised if this was not [already] considered by DEM,” said RIAC general counsel Peter Frazier.
With the required approvals, RIAC hopes to start construction this May with the work being completed by November 2014. Much of the work to the western end of the runway has been completed with the removal of Hangar I that was within the safety zone and the paving of the zone in preparation of installation of the EMAS. The runway is open at this time, but will close once work starts late this spring. In his memo, DePasquale says it is his opinion that the wetlands petition should be allowed to proceed to the DEM. He also recommends actions and areas of study, including that the wetland “restoration and creation proposed is equivalent or superior to the values and functions of the habitat being destroyed by the immediate and previous actions.” He also suggests funding for a long-term monitoring program to measure the performance of the wetlands, consideration of additional wetlands and the establishment of a long-term maintenance schedule for the areas. He said the intent of the proposals “is to make it an even better project than it is now.” He said the DEM comment period on the project expires Feb. 24 and that he anticipates the City Council would vote on the matter on Feb. 10.