Airport Commission Abandons "PFAS Berm" For Ramp Expansion Project

David Creed •

Airport South Apron
The south apron at Nantucket Memorial Airport.

The Nantucket Airport Commission on Tuesday officially abandoned the most controversial aspect of its plan to expand the parking area for private jets.

A berm filled with PFAS-contaminated soil meant to protect neighboring residents from noise is no longer being considered as part of the airport's south apron ramp expansion following a unanimous vote Tuesday by the commission. It will instead investigate ways to improve forest management of existing trees and woodland in the area, as well as a “noise wall” to reduce the noise for abutting property owners.

The proposed berm would have been filled with fill dug up during the ramp expansion project that had been contaminated with PFAS as a result of firefighting foam dispersed during drills. While airport officials have said the berm would be encased with fabric to prevent the PFAS-contaminated soil from continuing to leach into the surrounding area, thus improving the situation for nearby residents, those individuals living closest to the ramp remained unconvinced. They previously said it was as if the airport was creating a "toxic waste dump" near their properties.

“I spent a lot of time talking with you Noah (Karberg) but also other people at the airport and you Arthur (Gasbarro) regarding keeping as much plantation as we can put in that area to protect our neighbors,” commission member Anthony Bouscaren said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I think we all agree that a wall is a lot better than a berm and I think we are going to study that. We’ll certainly get that built after the summer season but between now and then we should do active management of the forest.”

Following approximately two hours of discussion, the commission listened to more public comments from neighbors and other island residents concerned with the project. Many of the comments were similar to those made during last week’s joint meeting between the Airport Commission, Select Board, and Board of Health, as well as the Airport Commission’s heated February meeting.

Many residents reiterated their stance that they would like the project moved to the north side of the airport and away from the existing properties in the vicinity of the proposed expansion. They cited noise and possible air pollution from the fuel exhaust produced by aircraft that operate using leaded fuel, also known as AVGAS.

Gasbarro said in response to the leaded fuel concerns that the fleet mix coming to and from the airport has significantly changed over the years and that almost all of the aircraft utilizing the airport now use unleaded fuel.

Regardless, Gasbarro said the airport can look into the issue, weigh the concerns, and evaluate how to combat the issue if necessary.

"I think we share concerns as well for any kind of environmental protections that can be put in place and really best management practices and that sort of thing within the context of applicable regulation,” Gasbarro said. “So I think it is something that we can have a look at and report back on.”

Island resident and airport neighbor Peter MacKay said that while he is happy to see the airport listening to the community and adjusting their project based on the concerns expressed to them over the past three months, he believes they are missing the big picture.

"In all my 35-plus years at the hospital, one of the big concepts I followed was always stepping back and looking at the big picture and I think that's what we're really looking at here,” MacKay said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I think you're actually starting to do that, but you get caught up in minutiae so many times when you think about all the little things, the details, and you lose sight of the big picture. The big picture is you're extending parking and jets and noise and that stuff to the only area of the airport perimeter that has residents, so the residents are saying 'We don't want that.' I think everybody would say relocate to the north side. It's industrial and nobody's there.”

Karberg presented three alternative solutions to the PFAS-constructed berm prior to public comment.

One option was a berm with offsite, clean soil – however, no commission members expressed interest in pursuing that option after hearing the public’s input and that alternative was abandoned. A berm of any kind is now out of the picture.

Another was forest management, which would call for the airport to focus on improving its management of the area's existing forest land while also adding supplemental vegetation.

The commission expressed interest in this suggestion, which would include a focus on supporting taller trees with fuller crowns to help reduce noise carrying over to neighbors, removing invasive species such as escaped yellow bamboo, monitoring the southern pine beetle, and retaining a qualified forest consultant to assist with the oversight.

The last alternative was a noise wall, which could be installed with “minimal tree removal,” according to Karberg.

“I think the ramp side for a wall might be preferred for both function and aesthetics,” Karberg said. “The closer this wall is to the source of sound, the better it might perform at deflecting or minimizing it. I have also heard from an aesthetics standpoint people might not want to look at a wall so if you put it on the other side of the woodland, I think that might be to a benefit as well.”

Karberg and the commission agreed they would continue to investigate how a noise wall could be constructed, as well as how big and far it would stretch.

Commission member Phil Marks said he would like to see the wall stretch the duration of the expanded ramp to ensure all neighbors have protection from noise and reiterated his support for that alternative.

“I support the wall. I think that is probably the best thing for the neighbors as far as dealing with the sound,” Marks said. “It also gives them the added benefit of the trees behind it which will help mitigate the sound as well but obviously not as effective as the wall, but aesthetically too, the trees are more aesthetically pleasing to the neighbors versus a big pile of dirt and/or seeing a wall.

“I agree with supplemental planning behind the wall, I support the wall. I think the wall needs to be extended to the extent of where the aircraft will be and on the south end of that wall, I think we need to have a return,” Marks continued. “Of course, a sound expert will be better handled at this than myself, but it makes sense to me that you wouldn't just run the wall straight out. You'd want to have a maybe 30-degree angle on that at the end to help send the noise back away from the houses as well that would be created back in there.”

MacKay, as well as several other neighbors, added that they were disappointed the location of this project appears to be locked-in and not up for debate.

"I think everybody would appreciate relocating however the die was cast years ago before communication occurred to have it where it is,” MacKay said. “That being the case, I have no doubt but given my logic and understanding of all my 67 years, you guys are going to continue to keep it here. I don't think it's realistic, on your part, to consider someplace else. That's where any activity, any noise, fumes, smells, etc. should be. If you have a jet landing, couldn't the FAA allow it to wait until parking, until a tow is available on the north side? I mean, that's the big picture. Anything to safeguard the noise and the smells here should be done and I again, recognize that you guys are working in that direction, and I appreciate that. But just, as I say, put it in the big picture. There are things that can be done that I believe are in your control, that may take some rethinking, as is occurring right now.”

The airport began construction of the expansion project on Wednesday, March 6. This included tree removal, which the airport said was done in order to minimize any impact to the Northern Long-eared bat habitat.

However, Karberg announced in a March 5 press release that the airport directed its engineering and contractor team to retain 125 feet of woodland while it reviews its options for an alternative noise attenuation feature.

“The airport has worked closely with its team to identify the minimum amount of tree clearing necessary to accommodate the ramp extension,” Karberg said in the release. “The original project design called for clearing 5.4 acres of woodland. This revision will retain 3.5 acres of woodland and minimize clearing to 1.9 acres, or 35% of the original impact, while the airport is reviewing alternatives.”

The next airport commission meeting is slated for April 9.

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