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.

Miami International Airport (MIA) is more than a huge, lucrative business; it's like a small, wealthy city, with its own zip code, quasi-government, and a monstrous $232.5 million annual operating budget. It covers five square miles, making it larger than eleven Dade municipalities, and 30,000 people work there every day. In 1992, 26 million passengers trudged through its concourses, and more than one million tons of cargo passed through its gates, making it the second-busiest international passenger and cargo hub in the United States.

The Dade County Aviation Department's planners foresee a day (in the year 2005 to be exact) when the airport will handle 48 million passengers and 2.2 million tons of cargo annually. To make that vision a reality, the department has embarked on a sprawling, three-billion-dollar capital improvements program that includes concourse and runway construction and the development of new cargo facilities.

But this past August expansion plans were grounded. Airport officials had gone to the South Florida Water Management District to secure a permit that would allow them to proceed with the $500 million construction of a new terminal for American Airlines. For such a large undertaking, the state must assess the amount and quality of water from storm drains and runoff that the the project will add to surrounding bodies of water, such as several canals bordering the property and Blue Lagoon Lake to the south. The Water Management District's staff had already recommended permit approval to its board; they had concluded that the American Airlines project would not cause any additional water contamination. Airport officials thought it was going to be a slam dunk.

However, they hadn't reckoned on 60-year-old Nathaniel Reed, a veteran member of the district's governing board and a long-time South Florida environmentalist. "Ask a few simple questions," he says, "and you get dumb, stupid replies with no commitment, no energy. And suddenly your back straightens up and you say, 'Godammit, I let this one go twenty years ago. Sorry, folks! Katie, bar the door! We're going to take a lot of time, folks, but I'm going to hear this one out.'"

Reed listened to the presentation by an aviation department official who said that, after years of neglect, the department finally had the manpower and money to deal with the pollution problem and would proceed with cleanup immediately. But Reed thought he'd heard all that somewhere before. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Reed was a top state environmental regulator before moving to Washington, D.C., to work as assistant secretary for the Department of the Interior in the Nixon and Ford administrations. "The same issues popped up then," he points out. "There were all kinds of statements made at the time by the [Dade County Aviation Department] about how they were going to clean up all the toxic waste and protect the very valuable water supply. But when I went to Washington, the crack opened and these things were lost again."

At the August governing board meeting, though, Reed wasn't about to let the issue slip by. "Somehow," Reed said, peering down from the dais at the aviation official, "I'm not thunderstruck by the amount of money that's being spent or the feeling that this is a major concern to the powers that be. I wish you could tell me, eyeball to eyeball, that this is a major priority, not only of the senior staff but of the Dade County Commission, that this is an open sore that needs maximum attention. I feel that if we gave any kind of lengthy permit, ma*ana will take over, and sleepytime will come back, and I think we will share in the blame that will be castigated on public agencies for failure to enforce the law on public land. And, dammit, it's as simple as that!"

After the hour-long discussion, the water management board denied the permit application, and Reed requested that an interagency task force be created to study pollution at the airport. The board, however, allowed the aviation department to continue its construction of the American Airlines terminal with the caveat that no more runoff water be added to the storm-water system and the permit not be approved until the contamination issue had been thoroughly examined. "We got to send a message to the bosses that this isn't going to come easy," Reed urged.

His concern is well-founded. The airport, where 2.5 million gallons of fuel are pumped into airplanes every day, is built upon a delicate, water-based environment. The facility is surrounded by canals that empty into the Miami River and, by way of the river, into the ecologically fragile Biscayne Bay. Storm water that drains from the airport carries with it any pollutants that have spilled on the ground.

In addition, the airport, like all of Dade, rests only a few feet above the county's drinking-water supply A the Biscayne Aquifer. Water from the Everglades and rain over Southeast Florida seeps through the soil to the sponge-like aquifer of highly porous limestone. Near the surface, only a thin layer of soil A a few feet thick A covers the aquifer. Anything that spills on the ground A industrial waste, chemicals from leaky storage tanks, motor oil, pesticides and fertilizers -- is liable to seep through and contaminate the water supply. Dade officials estimate that small spills occur every day at the airport, often through sloppy fueling procedures, but they insist that almost all occur on impervious surfaces and are cleaned up before they escape down storm drains or into the soil. However, accidents can and do happen. This past October 30, for example, a fuel truck spilled more than 8000 gallons of jet fuel after colliding with a flatbed truck in the northwest cargo area. According to Richard Raymond, who until two weeks ago served as director of the Office of Environmental and Airport Engineering, some of the fuel escaped into the soil bordering the tarmac. The truck operator was cited for careless driving.

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