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Local environmental activists have raised concerns about the use of pesticides at Tweed New Haven Airport and Sikorsky Memorial Airport, which can have negative impacts on water supply, neighboring residents and wildlife. 

Tweed recently gained approval from the New Haven Board of Alders and the Federal Aviation Administration to expand the airport, which could affect pesticide usage on the property. Pesticides are chemicals that kill or control pests, like weeds and insects, and are primarily used to protect crops. The dangers of pesticides have entered the mainstream in recent years, especially with a class-action lawsuit brought against manufacturers of the weedkiller Roundup, the use of which has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Tweed uses herbicides to eliminate vegetation on airport signage, lighting and fence lines, per FAA and Transportation Security Administration guidelines. When sprayed, these pesticides have the potential to seep into groundwater, contaminate soil or spread through the air. 

“The companies that make these chemicals have done their very best to stop from even doing the research and asking the questions that need to be answered about whether they’re safe or not,” said Laura Cahn, chair of the Elm City’s Environmental Advisory Council. “And it has been proven that they are not safe.”

The Environmental Protection Agency evaluates pesticides for potential risk to humans, wildlife and the environment before they can be sold, and requires safety regulations for use. 

In 2017, the Board of Alders approved a voluntary ban on pesticides, encouraging residents to stop using them on their own lawns. However, the city cannot enforce such a ban — only the state can. 

On Sept. 23, the New Haven Board of Alders unanimously approved a 43-year agreement between Tweed and the city, citing new jobs, economic development and an environmentally conscious approach. This agreement opens the door for a considerable expansion of the existing airport, including a new terminal near East Haven and a longer runway. Since the FAA has approved these plans, the airport is now conducting an environmental assessment process, which Tweed Executive Director Sean Scanlon told the News will take approximately a year to complete. The airport has hired consulting firm McFarland Johnson, Inc. to study the proposed expansion’s potential impact on the environment. 

In June 2018, New Haven resident Jody Rowell observed dead vegetation on Tweed’s fence line near Morris Creek, which flows into the Long Island Sound, according to a complaint filed with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and obtained by the News. DEEP  investigated the incident and found that airport personnel had applied Roundup and Topsite herbicides on the perimeter to discourage animals from trespassing onto the runway. DEEP found that the airport had applied Topsite without “any application equipment at all,” according to the report, and that the lack of calibrated equipment could have harmed the herbicide applicators or led to water pollution. 

According to Scanlon, Tweed now employs a certified herbicide applicator licensed by DEEP to eliminate vegetation that might obscure the airport’s fence line, signage or lighting in accordance with FAA regulations.

There may be more lighting and signage at the airport due to the expansion, Scanlon told the News.

“I think there’s a good chance that [herbicide use] would increase but the percentage of how much it would increase by would not be much different than it is today,” he said. “We are being thoughtful about this. We are not using pesticides all over the airport.”

The airport uses herbicides rather than gas-powered trimmers to reduce exhaust emitted into the air and potential occupational hazards, he added. 

Scanlon also said that he has not received specific complaints from residents about the airport’s pesticide use impacting their properties, but Cahn noted that pesticides applied at the airport can still affect residents who live nearby. 

“They are at risk because we know that herbicides that are sprayed don’t stay where you spray them — they’re in the air, the wind blows and they drift,” she said. 

Another concern shared by airport officials and environmental activists is mediating migratory bird activity near Connecticut airports. Birds seek out marshy areas, like those near Tweed and Bridgeport-owned Sikorsky Memorial Airport, to eat insects. Insecticides have been proposed as a solution, since eliminating the birds’ food source could reduce their activity in the airspace.

On Aug. 26, Michelle Muoio, the airport manager at Sikorsky, wrote in an email to airport tenants and users that airport personnel had “observed a significant increase in birds,” specifically tree swallows, which could cause “temporary closures or other restrictions” at the airport.  

In an undated email obtained by the News, a wildlife specialist at the United States Department of Agriculture wrote to Muoio about the Sikorsky’s tree swallow problem. The email read that USDA Wildlife Services “recommends the use of insecticides to reduce insect numbers and lower swallow activity.” 

In a statement to the News, Muoio and other airport officials wrote that Sikorsky complies with FAA and USDA regulations regarding wildlife hazard management at the airport. 

“Historically, pesticide application has not needed to be a large component of field maintenance; however, it is something the USDA will recommend if required,” the statement reads. “This airport primarily employs other methods of hazard management such as nonlethal, sound-emitting devices to deter wildlife from entering airport property.”

Scanlon said that he is “not aware of” Tweed using insecticides to reduce bird numbers near the airport.

Though Tweed is in the midst of its environmental assessment on the proposed expansion, some activists hope the project will be subjected to an environmental impact statement, a report mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Tweed would need to bring in outside experts to assess the impact the airport’s expansion could have on the environment. Scanlon said that as of now, it seems that the expansion will not need an environmental impact statement. 

“Airport managers are just thinking of how to get airplanes to fly,” said New Haven resident Rachel Heerema, who works with 10,000 Hawks, an environmental conservation organization that has opposed the Tweed airport expansion. The organization’s name refers to the 10,000 raptors that migrate over Tweed airspace each year. “Pesticides are an outdated and unsustainable way of living and cohabitating on this planet.”

Tweed New Haven Airport is located at 155 Burr St.

Anastasia Hufham reports on climate and environmental issues in New Haven. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she is a junior in Saybrook College majoring in Ethics, Politics & Economics.