Juneau International Airport officials say state law allows the airport to acquire land within the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge for expansion, such as the runway safety project now proposed.
But the writer of the legislation said it was never his intention to take away refuge land if other means are available to achieve the same level of safety. Federal officials have proposed an engineered runway slowdown zone that would require less space.
"The wetlands are world-class," said Mike Miller, who introduced the bill to create the refuge in 1976.
Miller was one of a few residents who spoke Wednesday at the Federal Aviation Administration's first public hearing on a draft environmental study of Juneau airport projects.
Miller, who was House majority leader when the refuge was created, said he supports using an engineered-materials arresting system to extend the airport's runway-end safety areas.
The arresting system is a bed of cellular cement blocks that crush under weight to slow an overrunning aircraft. Three out of the five proposals in the draft study would use the method to bring Juneau's runway safety areas to federal standards.
A standard runway safety area is 500 feet wide and 1,000 feet long at both ends of a runway. Juneau's safety areas are less than 300 feet long.
If Juneau fails to comply, the agency can withdraw funding.
Whether to use the arresting system has been a contentious issue between the FAA and Juneau airport officials even before the FAA released the study May 2.
FAA representatives said the arresting system has been used in 15 airports around the nation, some of which have a cold climate like Juneau's. The system has prevented three airplanes from crashing, the latest one in January at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
One benefit of the arresting system is that runway safety areas using the method need less land compared with traditional ones made of dirt.
The draft said 600 feet of safety areas with a 337-foot-long engineered bed would provide overrun protection equivalent to a standard runway safety area. Building traditional runway safety areas would require 9.4 acres of the refuge while one alternative using the arresting system would need only 1.8 acres from the refuge.
Juneau airport officials have rejected the arresting system, saying it costs too much to maintain and might not be safe for Juneau's temperate rain forest climate.
Ron Swanson, chairman of the Airport Board, offered a compromise: The airport would build the footprint for the arresting system but wait for five years to see whether the technology is working in other parts of Alaska. Cordova is planning to install the system in 2006.
Steve Zimmerman, board member of the Juneau Audubon Society, said the conservation group would support the alternative that causes the least damage to the refuge or the compromise proposed by the Airport Board.
"In the interest of reducing controversy, the Airport Board's compromise seems like a good short-term solution," Zimmerman said.
Ken Wallace, manager of the project's consulting team, said the FAA might consider the offer but the airport would still fail to meet the safety standards.
The FAA has another public hearing today at 7:30 p.m.
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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