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Runway work lends itself to reef project

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Posted: Saturday, October 13, 2012 11:45 pm

BEAUFORT — It’s not every day that flying and sinking work so well together.

But a runway extension project underway at Beaufort’s Michael J. Smith Field will soon benefit marine life off the state’s coast.

The N.C. Department of Transportation announced in May that it had awarded the airport $3.1 million to increase the length of Runway 8-26 from 4,249 feet to just over 5,000 feet.

Trader Construction of New Bern started on the project in early September and a finish date is still months away. “It’s probably going to take through Christmas because there’s so much to be done,” said John Betts, the manager of the airport.

That’s because extending the runway isn’t just a matter of laying down some new asphalt. Much of the work so far has involved taking out a series of drainage pipes that ran underneath the area where the new runway is going. The pipes, made out of reinforced concrete, are now getting a second shot at life. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries is hauling off the concrete to use for artificial reefs.

Jim Francesconi, artificial reef coordinator with the DMF, said the division was contacted by Trader Construction and made aware they had 1,000 running feet of stormwater pipe available.  

In two weeks the division was able to transport all the material to a site it has at South River, where it ties up its larger vessels and has a large area to keep reef material. Mr. Fancesconi said it could be used on three artificial reefs, such as sites near New Bern, Oriental and New River.

The material supports the success of reefs in multiple ways. First, it provides a cover for fish. But it also provides substrate for organisms to grown on, which in turn provides a source of food for fish and crustaceans, such as oysters, barnacles and some freshwater muscles.

“This was a good opportunity and we’re grateful the pipe was available, as close as it was,” Mr. Francesconi said.

But the DMF isn’t the only entity benefiting. The concrete material would otherwise have to be disposed at the tri-county landfill in Tuscarora, which would have involved tipping fees.

The joint effort saves space at the landfill and money at the airport.

“This was a win-win situation, a cooperative partnership,” Mr. Francesconi said. “It was a good opportunity.”

The pipes were put in by the Department of Defense when it constructed the airport in 1943 as part of the war effort during World War II. Before that, the Civil Air Patrol had two dirt roads it used for runways at the beginning of the war. The patrol was formed because there was no Civil Air Patrol between Cape Hatteras and Cape Fear, Mr. Betts said, and the area off Cape Lookout became a “happy hunting ground” for German subs.

“I remember seeing tankers burn down there,” said Mr. Betts, talking about when he was 6 years old and living on Front Street.

The runway extension project is one of the largest to take place at the site since it was constructed almost 70 years ago. On Friday, mounds of dirt sprung up across the horizon next to construction machinery. The runway is being extended at both ends, and workers are digging down three feet at each end, and then filling it with a mixture of dirt and concrete. The new section of the runway will receive a four-inch layer of asphalt, while the existing runway will receive an additional two inches of asphalt.

New LED lights will also be installed to guide planes in, as will new wiring that runs to the lights.

The project also involves shortening Runway 3-21, to keep jets from flying over Beaufort’s historic district. The runway shortening was part of an agreement with the FAA, the state and the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources that was required for the 8-26 extension to take place.

The Department of Defense turned the airport over to the county at the end of World War II, but with a caveat that it can take it back if they need it.

But that also means the county cannot sell the property unless it finds a similar location elsewhere. And such property isn’t readily available around Beaufort.

“This airport is going to stay,” Mr. Betts said.

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