Birds endanger evidence at landfill

Federal biologists patrol Staten Island site to reduce damage

February 10, 2002|By Dina Cappiello | Dina Cappiello,ALBANY TIMES UNION

NEW YORK - When hundreds of firefighters, construction workers and police officers began to comb through the debris from the World Trade Center at a Staten Island landfill, no one expected they would find an ally in the wildlife biologist.

But as soon as New York officials reopened the Fresh Kills dump to receive the rubble of the World Trade Center, sea gulls and other scavengers of trash heaps returned - harassing investigators and jeopardizing evidence such as DNA, which can be used to identify victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Biologists patrol site

Among the first scientists to arrive on Sept. 18 were wildlife biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services office in Castleton, N.Y. Since then, more than 31 biologists, from 19 states, have patrolled the 175 acres that serve as a temporary crime scene.

"From a bird's-eye view, it looks like an active landfill," said Rich Chipman, the New York state director of wildlife services for the Agriculture Department.

Chipman arrived at Fresh Kills for his first 12-hour shift before dawn a week after the attacks. "But this has gotten to a point where it's not a landfill. The detectives describe it as sacred ground."

That first day, Chipman and other scientists watched as 2,600 sea gulls flew in overhead. The gulls, a perennial problem before the landfill was shut down by state order last year, were drawn once again to the world's largest dump by the new activity, the smell of exposed trash and the debris from the towers, which includes body parts.

In midst of migration

Adding to the problem, the birds were in the midst of their migration, when populations are the highest.

"At daybreak, you'd see flocks and flocks of birds over the landfill attempting to come in," said Chipman. Some just walked among the investigators, others loafed on the debris. Few ate, according to Chipman.

Birds at Fresh Kills, a dump that covers 3,000 acres on Staten Island, have always been a nuisance. But because of the sensitivity surrounding the ruins of the World Trade Center towers, and its value as evidence for possible future trials, biologists acted quickly.

"Obviously we want to preserve the evidence. We don't want the birds to take things off the site, especially if it's belongings of a loved one lost in tragedy," said Hallie Pickhardt, an Agriculture Department spokeswoman.

Using fireworks such as screamers and bangers, wooden cutouts of people to scare the birds, and silvery Mylar tape, which shoos sea gulls away with its humming noise and reflection, the Agriculture Department says it has prevented any gulls from landing on the landfill since the scientists arrived. The Agriculture Department has also trapped rats and mice but has found no population boom.

"Our goal has been to keep birds off the working face," said Chipman. "I can safely say we've dramatically reduced the damage."

Workers confirm the success.

"These are the toughest sea gulls you'll meet in your life," said Larry Mays, a Port Authority police officer who since mid-October has sorted through the thousands of cars brought to the landfill from ground zero.

"Once we got here, it was a little disturbing because you hear this firework go by," Mays said. Now, he said, "You don't see sea gulls here."

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