Saturday, January 24, 2015

New Bedford Regional Airport (KEWB) a bright spot among wetland quagmires • Airport works with state, consultants on broad project

Matthew Elia, New Bedford Regional Airport's assistant manager, talks about the wetland conservation that the airport has taken on with recent updates. PETER PEREIRA/THE STANDARD-TIMES

NEW BEDFORD — As an assistant airport manager and a pilot himself, Matt Elia’s eyes light up when he talks about the revamped runway that opened last fall at New Bedford Regional Airport. But Elia gets equally excited when he’s talking about the enormous environmental work that made the runway possible.

“This is brand-new, state-of-the-art wetland,” Elia said, standing on the edge of a bowl-shaped wetland site not far from the glistening runway.

The wetland’s ice-covered surface was surrounded by light green, straw-like matting, with woody debris and rock features scattered around to replicate a natural environment.  The site, the size of a few basketball courts, is twice the footprint of an adjacent light station that guides planes on and off the runway.

Elia said different teams of consultants designed the site, built it and monitored its construction, all in accordance with the Federal Aviation Administration.  

“The whole time, there were multiple levels of oversight,” he said.

Elia said the FAA required the airport, which recently completed a multi-year expansion and upgrade of its 5,400-foot Runway 5, to follow all state environmental requirements. That meant extensive wetland work. Wetlands account for a significant portion of the 850-acre airport site just off Route 140.

Driving around the airport in a yellow pickup Wednesday, Elia pointed out — on the other end of the upgraded runway — how engineers rerouted a stream and built a small dam to optimize the flow of water through wetlands covered in tall, wheat-like reeds called phragmites.

The airport and its massive wetlands, which required a state variance due to their size, could be viewed as a rare success story in a state riddled with wetland replication woes.

The revent investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting said “the state’s landscape is pocked with hundreds of examples” of failed wetland replication efforts. 

Developers failed to follow through with requirements, wetland sites were attempted in highly unsuitable areas or myriad other problems arose, the investigation found.

But wetland issues don’t arise in SouthCoast as much as might be expected in a coastal region, though, according to local conversation workers who say most projects in the area are on a small scale or don’t require much replication.

“We don’t have too many projects that involve wetlands filling — we have some, but not many,” said Sarah Porter, conservation agent for the city of New Bedford.  “The project that had the biggest wetlands impact was New Bedford Regional Airport.

“New Bedford is pretty built out, so a lot of our projects are just buffer zone projects, where people are proposing to work within 100 feet of a wetland area,” Porter added.

Both Porter and Michael O’Reilly, environmental affairs coordinator for the Town of Dartmouth’s Conservation Commission, said most of the required wetland work they see is done during construction, with close monitoring.

“We’ve had reasonably good success with our wetland replications,” O’Reilly said last week.

O’Reilly said his department has seen 15 or 20 wetland projects in the last two years, “mostly very small.”

“The maximum amount of wetland alteration that’s allowable (under normal permitting) is 5,000 square feet,” he said.

O’Reilly added that the mantra for wetland conservationists is “avoid, minimize, mitigate” — meaning don’t build near wetlands if you can avoid it, and work to create the smallest possible impact if you can’t.

More environmental decisions are coming onto the airport’s radar — Elia said plans to improve a taxi way and add green space islands are under way for next year. The city’s Conservation Commission gave a solid review of those plans at a meeting last week, Elia said.  

Elia said the airport has a mantra, as well — “Environmentally Working Better,” a play on “EWB,” the airport’s call letters.

“We’ve really adopted it,” he said, explaining that the meaning extends beyond wildlife concerns to working environment, airport environment, and so on. “It plays a role in every decision we make.”

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