City questions impact of airport on Buckeye Brook watershed
by John Howell
Warwick Beacon Online - Rhody Beat
Aug 31, 2010

SUNSET ON BUCKEYE BROOK: City officials argue that airport expansion has had a cumulative effect in degrading the eco system of Buckeye Brook. In mitigating the latest proposal to alter 7.3 acres of book wetlands, the city argues the airport should expand the scope of its study to include this area south of West Shore Road. slideshow

While the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on proposed airport improvements terms the effect on Buckeye Brook as minimal, the city’s principal planner believes it could be another cut in a “death by a thousand cuts.”

William DePasquale, who has closely followed the highly technical aspects of airport development plans for years and questioned assumptions made by airport planners, is researching the administration’s response to the latest proposal to extend one runway and lengthen the safety zones on the other. The response to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers is due by Sept. 15. The Corps of Engineers is responsible for evaluating the impact of the project on waterways and wetlands.

Whether DePasquale’s questioning, which could become part of the administration’s argument, could stop the airport is doubtful. It could, however, alter how the FAA and Rhode Island Airport Corporation act to mitigate the impacts on a brook that is one of the state’s few unimpeded herring runs.

Mayor Scott Avedisian said yesterday the city would object to an Army Corps permit on a number of points including that most of the proposed mitigation is off site, that the study should be more directed at the Buckeye Brook watershed and there needs to be an evaluation of all reasonable alternatives.

Avedisian said the response to the Army Corps should be finalized this week and that the city would then concentrate efforts on responding to other issues raised by the draft EIS.

Lengthening the safety zones on Runway 16-34 to meet FAA requirements would alter 7.3 acres of brook wetlands. To mitigate that impact the airport suggests creating wetlands along the Pawtuxet River. The creation of river wetlands with the buyout of homes in Warwick, Cranston and West Warwick has widespread support in the aftermath of the March flood. But, as DePasquale observes, this plan is short on specifics including timing and funding.

A bigger issue is that it doesn’t address the Buckeye Brook watershed nor, in DePasquale’s opinion does the draft EIS examine the cumulative impact of past and proposed airport developments on the brook. In addition, in examining mitigation the FAA did not consider the brook’s complete watershed or a less intrusive safety zone proposal.

DePasquale maintains there has been an “historical destruction of the wetlands” that over years degraded the brook’s eco system and contributed to the dramatic decline of the herring run. Rather than looking at this cumulative effect, the draft EIS uses existing conditions as a baseline in forecasting the impact of the longer runway safety zones. Also, the EIS looks only at Runway 16-34 as it impacts the wetlands although virtually all airport property is located within the Buckeye Brook watershed and runoff from an extended runway and other projects would eventually impact the brook.

“They,” DePasquale says of FAA consultants who performed the study, “never looked at it (the overall project) from a watershed area.” As a result, he says, the EIS “under reports what’s really happening and it’s not going to have full disclosure on what’s going to happen.”

Also, DePasquale says the FAA and RIAC erred when they rejected an earlier proposal that would have had Main Avenue tunnel under an extended runway. Part of that plan was to gain the space for the safety zones on the shorter runway by going northwest. This would have required a major relocation of Post Road as well as the acquisition of more businesses, but on the other end of the runway it wouldn’t have as severely impacted the wetlands. That option was dropped along with the Main Avenue tunnel when RIAC president and CEO Kevin Dillon proposed revisions to Main Avenue and the runway extension now under review.

In considering mitigation to the brook, DePasquale suggests the scope of study should extend beyond the Route 117 boundary and include Mill Cove where the brook meets the bay. He suggests mitigation to offset the loss of wetlands could include Mill Cove restoration projects including the purchase of properties to ensure they would not be sites for development.

If the added safety zone is so critical, DePasquale was asked, why doesn’t RIAC shorten the runway, which is 6,081 feet, and use that space?

DePasquale said the FAA and RIAC have determined that is not practical. He said the current proposal is considered to be the least damaging practical alternative.

As long as the wetlands are being altered, that aspect of the project is subject to City Council approval. Council members have expressed their support of safety enhancements at the airport although they have questioned a runway extension.

Avedisian said a proposed memorandum of agreement would not compromise the city’s right to object to the alteration of wetlands or proposed mitigation. The agreement to be considered by the council in September addresses a variety of topics relating to the airport project.

Avedisian defends the agreement on the basis that it sets aside those issues such as the relocation of the ball fields at Winslow Park and airport replacement of the Airport Road water main where there is consensus.

Avedisian said last week’s announcement that Dillon is one of four finalists as executive director of the Tampa International Airport is “certainly not helpful.”

He said from “a process standpoint” the prospect that Dillon could leave by the end of this year injects uncertainty and negativity into the process.

“Are we now going to have to start work with someone new,” he asked. He characterized Dillon as “reasonable” although the two have had their differences.

According to news reports, Dillon did not seek the post but was approached by headhunters. Dillon came to Rhode Island from the Orlando airport. He still owns a house in Florida.

Dillon could not be reached Friday or yesterday for comment.

Paul Earnshaw, president of the Buckeye Brook Coalition, said the coalition is preparing its own response to the draft EIS. He suggested the airport seek a waiver to the safety area requirement, adding that the removal of more than seven acres of wetlands “is totally unacceptable to me.”