Daggers of light called slayers of night

November 10, 1994|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

The state's plan to shine 10 powerful spotlight beams from the crown of the 28-story World Trade Center is drawing fire from astronomers, bird lovers and others who would rather see the sky get dark at night.

Michael A. Hall, president of the Baltimore Astronomical Society, told the Maryland Port Commission yesterday that "light pollution" from the $341,000 project will swamp the sky for amateur astronomers like him and "steal stars from every man, woman and child" within the likely 10-mile range of the beams.

"If that isn't grand larceny, I don't know what is," he said.

Herman Heyn, Baltimore's "street-corner astronomer," said the lights may not seriously affect the telescopic views of the moon and planets that he offers the public. But he said they will discourage the children who take his star maps home and try to find dimmer constellations from their own backyards.

The lights will also threaten migrating birds, waste tax dollars and buck "a nationwide trend toward more efficient and effective . . . night lights," he said.

Mr. Heyn urged the commission to schedule a public hearing on the project before the lights are turned on Dec. 31.

Commissioner Fred L. Wineland, who chaired the meeting, said the concerns "come as somewhat of a surprise to us." He said the commission would take them under advisement. The bluish-white xenon beams are planned as part of an effort by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and the Maryland Port Administration to draw attention to the state-owned World Trade Center tower as a hub for international trade.

The lighting plan is also part of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s expanding "Brighten Baltimore" campaign to illuminate the city's most prominent buildings.

Although lighting experts say buildings can be illuminated in ways that don't spray light into the sky, BGE spokesman Arthur J. Slusark said the "Brighten Baltimore" policies don't address light pollution.

BGE's goal, he said, has been to help the city enhance economic activity, the skyline's appearance and public security. "We're not going to make a lot of money off this."

Dr. Richard C. Henry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, compared the planned lights to "having smokers blowing smoke in my face. . . . I think it is an unpleasant, bad idea." He asked that it be reconsidered.

He expects the light to dim the view from the rooftop observatory operated on the Homewood campus by the NASA-affiliated Maryland Space Grant Consortium, which he directs. The consortium placed the observatory in Baltimore as a convenience, knowing the sky would be bright. The World Trade Center lights, he said, "would make it significantly worse."

Chandler S. Robbins, a federal wildlife biologist at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center near Laurel, said he is "extremely apprehensive" that the World Trade Center's beacons will become a death trap for migrating song birds.

"If it is something visible for great distances, or something really conspicuous, the birds are attracted to it in large numbers," he said. They may crash into the structures, or concentrate in the blinding beams so densely that they bump into each other and fall.

The project's Philadelphia-based designer, Ray Grenald, of the Grenald Associates Ltd., said he is "quite concerned" about the danger to birds. But "where it does occur, the lights can simply be turned out during that [migration] period," he said.

As for astronomers' concerns, Mr. Grenald said, "I don't believe any beam of light will go anywhere near Johns Hopkins University." Although the thin beams may be visible elsewhere, "I don't think they will be noticed." Where there is a problem, the beams can be re-aimed or switched off after a specified hour.

Other lighting experts, however, say the World Trade Center plans fly in the face of a growing national effort to reduce "light pollution" -- light beamed needlessly into the sky over metropolitan regions.

"I think people right now are looking at lighting as affecting the environment," said Bill Hughes, operations supervisor for streetlights in Portland, Ore., one of a growing number of places that are addressing light pollution issues.

Mr. Hughes said Portland's conversion to fully "shielded" street lights, which direct all their light downward onto the street, has darkened sensitive heron rookeries in wetland areas and reduced glare in residential neighborhoods.

Homeowners once feared it would increase crime, he said, but it hasn't. "Now it's amazing how many people call us and say, 'How can I get that [new shielded] light, the one that doesn't shine all over?'"

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