Toxic Runways

Years of neglect have poisoned the land and contaminated the water under Miami International Airport. Investigators are just now beginning to grasp how bad it is. It's very bad.

Amid the usual cacophony of midday airport sounds, passengers who happened to have heard the explosion probably didn't think much of it. A brief roar off in the distance barely intruding on the aural blur of arrival information and public announcements, crying children, vehicles loading and unloading travelers. Perhaps the noise came from a construction site. Or a plane taking off. Nothing to worry about.

But just southeast of Miami International Airport's horseshoe-shaped terminal, in an area where 20 million gallons of jet fuel are stored, panic reigned. A mysterious explosion had blown out the windows of a building at the Citgo fuel facility and ignited a small fire. Miraculously no one was seriously injured, not even the two Citgo employees who were in the building at the time.

Local fire and environmental investigators who descended on the site that afternoon of November 18, 1992, deduced the likely cause of the explosion: A spark in a circuit-breaker box had ignited a buildup of methane gas within the building. The methane had leaked up through a hole in the floor and apparently had been created by either the decomposition of sewage from a leaky sewer pipe or the degradation of jet fuel in the soil beneath the building.

The incident seemed to fade away almost as quickly as it had occurred. Few people learned of the explosion. It never made the evening news. And except for a brief report issued by the fire department, no one apparently regarded the accident as serious enough to warrant a more thorough and public explanation. Despite laws that require state notification of certain environmentally related malfunctions, Florida's regional environmental regulatory agency never even heard about the explosion. Neither, for that matter, did Dade's top environmental official, John Renfrow. The incident was quickly filed away in the minds of a few local officials and forgotten -- that is, until the past few months.

State environmental regulators, as well as a federal grand jury, have launched separate investigations into the general issue of pollution at the airport, including the Citgo explosion. In fact, when Renfrow was called before the grand jury this past June, he was asked several questions about the explosion. Having only been informed about the incident a couple of days earlier, Renfrow recalls, his responses were sketchy. He purportedly returned to his offices at Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) livid with rage, demanding to know the full story. Since then both DERM and Citgo have produced reports attempting to explain the explosion.

The incident highlighted a contamination crisis at the airport and the lack of coordination between governmental agencies to address it. Decades of sloppy maintenance practices and a blatant disregard for the environment have turned the ground beneath the airport into a cesspool of chemicals that threatens Dade's fragile environment and drinking-water supply. Environmental officials also acknowledge that the potential exists for more explosions like the Citgo incident. Millions of gallons of jet fuel from leaky underground storage systems and above-ground accidents, solvents used to clean airplanes and parts, and heavy metals have contaminated vast swathes of soil and underground water, from which Dade draws its drinking water. Conservative estimates maintain that at least two million gallons of hydrocarbons -- including fuel, oil, and industrial solvents -- have been discharged into the ground during the past 25 years alone. Still, no one knows the full extent of pollution at the airport, and until recently attempts to document and clean up the mess have been halfhearted at best.

"We believe there may be problems in a variety of areas, including air, waste, wetlands, and domestic and industrial waste," says Mary Williams, regional director of the state's environmental regulatory agency, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). "We have started to discover that there's a problem greater than we were aware of." While Williams says the state's response will depend on what her engineers find, she offers several possibilities, including enforcement action on specific environmental infractions, or an all-encompassing consent agreement between Dade County and the State of Florida, which would include a rigorous timetable for cleanups and tough penalties for noncompliance.

State officials also have discussed the option of halting all construction at the airport with a court injunction until the pollution crisis is properly addressed. DEP has already requested that the state suspend federal transportation funds earmarked for the airport's development -- according to state sources, more than $500 million in all.

As for the federal probe, officials at the U.S. Attorney's Office will neither confirm nor deny that a grand jury is investigating airport pollution. But several witnesses who have testified before the grand jury say they have been asked questions about possible cover-ups of information and the whereabouts of money specifically allocated for contamination cleanup.

"The mission of the past," asserts Allan Milledge, a member of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board, "was to get everything done the cheapest: the cheapest sewer system possible, the cheapest solid waste system possible. The same with the airport. If you can build it without all of these fail-safe devices, without concern for the environment, it's a hell of a lot cheaper. There's got to be a balance between the economic needs and the amount of our resources we're willing to allocate to keep from polluting our environment. Up until recently the balance was 99 percent for economic development and 1 percent to keep the environment from going to hell. That's totally inadequate. As a society we're in the process of redressing that balance. And it's going to be very expensive."

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