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Bird bangers heading to Williston

Casella trash transfer station creates increasing hazard for airport

BY JASON STARR

Observer staff

Seagulls are flying from Lake Champlain to the Casella transfer station off Industrial Avenue in Williston, crossing over the main runway at Burlington International Airport for a reliable source of food at what is the largest trash transfer station in Vermont.

It’s a potentially disastrous hazard for commercial and Vermont Air National Guard pilots as they take off and land. Jacob Borgeson is a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) biologist working with Casella and the airport to mitigate the problem.

It’s gotten worse over the past year as the pandemic lockdown created an increase in residential trash and a decrease in other food sources from human activity that birds typically rely on, Borgeson said. He’s ready to deploy the most disruptive tactic in the USDA’s bird disruption arsenal.

Although noise from the airport is the subject of ongoing controversy as Chittenden County residents absorb increased decibels from the Air Guard’s one-year-old F-35 fighter jet program, Borgeson proposes adding 100-110 decibel “screamers” and “bangers” to the Industrial Avenue neighborhood in an attempt to train seagulls to seek food elsewhere.

To do so, a waiver from Williston’s noise ordinance is required.

The ordinance allows a maximum of 90 decibels in the industrial zoning district. If the Williston Selectboard grants a waiver, the noisemakers would be set off up to 20 times a day in the early days of the program, Borgeson told board members last week. The noise devices are already used occasionally at the airport itself. The Casella facility is within the 3-mile buffer zone around the airport where the Federal Aviation Administration requires bird mitigation.

According to the airport’s deputy aviation director, Nic Longo, there are occasional incidental bird-airplane collisions at the airport. A worst-case scenario, where a bird is sucked into an airplane engine, would be life-threatening.

“It really is the safety of what could be 100 to 200 people on an aircraft coming in for landing,” Longo said.

Longo occasionally sees dozens of seagulls crossing the airfield to get to the Casella facility. Borgeson said the trash transfer station sometimes has as many as 200 birds on site, especially during the spring and early summer when birds are rearing their young at roosting sites on Lake Champlain.

“The birds cross the southern end of the airfield on an east-west pattern,” he said. “It’s definitely starting to create more of a hazard, especially for departing aircraft.”

The noisemakers are akin to fireworks and emit either an extended 110-decibel screech, or a single 110-decibel bang. Casella uses them at their landfills around New England, said Casella spokesman Joe Fusco. In Williston, Casella transfers trash from residential pickup trucks to larger trucks that deliver it to Vermont’s landfill in Coventry. The transfer happens under an open-air canopy. “Wherever you are managing waste, you attract birds,” Fusco said.

Williston resident Terry Marron urged Borgeson to try less impactful bird deterrent tactics, noting that the Industrial Avenue area has a number of offices and retail activity.

“With the F-35s it’s pretty noisy over there as is,” Marron said. “To be adding another 110-decibel noise at random, unpredictable times … will definitely (be) disruptive to people’s lives. It seems like there could be other alternatives looked into. I would really like to see less noise pollution in Williston.”

Borgeson said other bird mitigation methods are already in use at Casella, such as anti-perching devices and silent scare tactics. Noisemakers are the most effective technique, he said.

“Just as the birds will educate themselves to the food, they will become educated negatively to the discharges of these pyrotechnics,” he said.

Borgeson hopes to start the program as soon as possible. The selectboard put off a decision on the noise ordinance waiver until a future meeting and plans to seek input from the Williston Conservation Commission.