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Group sues to stop transfer station

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Planes may be in grave danger of striking birds as they take off from and land at LaGuardia Airport if a 100-foot-tall College Point trash transfer station moves forward as planned, according to a federal court case aimed at blocking the station’s construction.

The Federal Aviation Administration reduced the “protection zone” buffer requirement around Runway 31 at LaGuardia from 2,500 feet to about 1,700 feet at some point between 2006 and 2009, allowing for the city Sanitation Department’s North Shore Marine Transfer Station to be built closer to the airport than would usually be allowed, according to allegations in federal court documents.

That move increases risks that birds attracted to garbage could be sucked into jet engines and cause planes to lose power and fall from the sky if the building is completed as planned in 2013, the plaintiff in the lawsuit — the Friends of LaGuardia Airport advocacy group, which is seeking nonprofit status — alleges.

The plaintiff filed its opening brief in the case May 31. The issue of bird strikes was thrown into the national spotlight in January 2009, when Canada geese were blamed for bringing down US Airways Flight 1549 in the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson,” during which Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger saved hundreds of lives by steering the plane, which had just taken off from LaGuardia, to a safe splash in the Hudson River.

“It flies in the face of the mission of the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the responsibility that the city of New York and the Port Authority have to the individuals both that fly in and out of LaGuardia Airport, as well as those who are underneath the flight path of aircraft coming into and leaving that facility,” Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a paid consultant of the Friends of LaGuardia, said Monday. “The project needs to be stopped.”

But the city and FAA have repeatedly said the station will not increase safety hazards to aircraft, while concerns that some of the project’s opponents have a financial interest in opposing the facility’s construction have arisen.

“After the [station] was initially approved, the FAA convened a special technical panel to look specifically at the risk of bird strikes,” Julie Wood, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said Monday. “The panel made some recommendations, all of which the city is implementing, and concluded that this transfer station will absolutely not increase the risk of bird strikes.”

U.S. Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) and Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) sided with the skeptics.

“The residents of Queens, as well as the American flying public, deserve to know that every possible effort has been made to guarantee their safety,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “We cannot allow questions about the safety of this facility to linger.”

The federal court case is currently pending in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and the group is also suing the city and state in State Supreme Court in Queens because of increased safety concerns due to bird strikes it believes the station will cause.

Bloomberg defended the project Monday, according to the New York Post.

“The building has been fully vetted by the FAA,” he said. “It is a totally contained location or building with low air pressure to keep air from getting out. And nobody thinks it’s going to attract geese.”

Sullenberger disagreed, and criticized the plans for the trash transfer station on CBS’s “Early Show” Tuesday morning.

“Putting a trash facility this close to one of the busiest runways in the nation just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It’s really a terrible idea. It should be put much farther away.”

A spokesman for the FAA declined to comment on the case and referred all inquiries to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing the FAA in the suit. Neither Justice nor the office of state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman responded to requests for comment.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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