Scientists study effect of U.S. antennas on birds


September 22, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

MISHAV IDDAN, ISRAEL — MOSHAV IDDAN, Israel -- When it comes to bird-watching, Dieter Peter and Thomas Steuri are no featherweights.

They and a team of Swiss ornithologists camp in the searing heat of the Negev desert, rarely bothering with binoculars. They track birds with two radars, space-age infrared scopes and computers that record every wing beat.

Their goal is to figure out how many birds could die if this patch of desert were to sprout a huge array of radio antennas, as the United States wants.

The Israel Supreme Court wants to know how migrating birds will be affected by the proposed transmitting facility for the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, all run by the U.S. government.

The project has been delayed by controversy for eight years. One of the last obstacles is the complaint by bird-watchers that millions of migrating birds will fly into the antennas, be cooked on the wing by the radio waves or be dizzied by the electromagnetic energy.

Ditta Braunstein, who lives next to the site, is wondering if much the same would happen to her.

She is nine months pregnant with her third child. She vows to move from the small community of desert farmers here if the radio station, which would be among the most powerful in the world, ever is switched on.

"No one can prove it's not dangerous, and I won't play games with my children's health," she says. "I won't be able to explain to my children in 10 years, ' I'm sorry, but they told me it was safe, and now you have cancer.' "

The Israel Supreme Court so far has rejected arguments that the facility would be dangerous to humans, saying there is no such proof.

Backers say such fears are groundless.

"The studies we have done are unprecedented," says Reuven Yeredor, overseeing the project for the Israeli government. "We've adopted the strictest standard of the World Health Organization, and in the worst case, people would be exposed to one-tenth of that."

But the 100 residents of Moshav Iddan, 20 miles south of the Dead Sea, are not convinced. They are angry at this intrusion of technology into their rural, pioneer community.

The moshav is part of the patriotic push to expand Israel and turn the desert green.

The residents consider themselves patriotic frontiersmen and feel betrayed by the government.

"Now we are going to be guinea pigs," Robert Golan says of the Voice of America transmitter.

Critics charge the $300 million station is not even needed. President Ronald Reagan asked for it in 1984 partly to overpower Soviet jamming. But the Soviet Union collapsed, and jamming has stopped.

John A. Lindburg, general counsel of the Board of International Broadcasting in Washington, says the station's size was cut back. But he says it still is needed to broadcast to emerging nations in Central Asia and Africa.

"There has been an unfortunate amount of hysteria and distortion" about the hazards of the proposed facility, he says.

The moshav residents joined with environmentalists to file suit against the station in 1990. The complaints by the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel are the last ones still on the court docket.

"We have to stop this project," says Yossi Leshem, executive director of the nature society. Nearly 1 billion birds fly past Israel from Africa to Europe each spring, and back in the fall. Some of the 200 species are endangered.

He feels whole flocks could be lost if they collide with the towers, some of which will be 500 feet high and connected by nearly a half-mile of open-mesh "curtain" antennas. Large storks and vultures could be overheated by thermal radiation, he says, and the natural compasses of the migrating songbirds could spin awry in the radiowave beams.

Supporters of the project say birds have enough sense to fly over an obstacle. But the court ordered the Swiss Ornithological Institute to check it out.

Mr. Steuri and Mr. Peter have sweltered in the Negev two summers now, and the team's report is due this fall. They figure about 4 percent of the passing birds fly at antenna height or lower. With lights and reflectors on the towers at night, probably few birds would be casualties, says Mr. Peter.

"Still," he says, "it's not good for the ones that do get killed."

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