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.

Indeed, Miami International Airport, perhaps more than any other industrial facility in Dade, haunts water managers. The airport is located only 2000 feet from the pumps of the Miami Springs well field, which draws water from the Biscayne Aquifer and provides about 40 percent of Dade County's drinking water. Part of the airport actually sits within the well field's "cone of influence," the area from which water is drawn by underground pumps. Federal and state regulations prohibit a wide range of industrial activities within the cone of influence, but the airport predates those laws. If it were to be built today, MIA would never have been located on its current site.

The uncomfortable relationship between the airport and the well field was thrown into sharp focus in 1982, when contamination forced the closure of the Miami Springs well field, then the largest source of drinking water in Dade. While investigators were unable to pinpoint a specific source, they concluded that a range of industrial activities in the area, including the airport, caused the problem. To deal with the crisis, a $39 million decontamination system was installed at considerable public expense (water customers paid for 60 percent of the cost), and the well field was reopened last year. According to Dade environmental officials, the water-purification mechanisms now in place are able to screen out every known industrial contaminant produced in the well field's cone of influence. "But," adds one top DERM executive, "we will always worry about the contamination. Systems can always break down, and we want to be vigilant and maintain the risk as low as possible. We're walking a fine tightrope."

The Water Management District meeting catapulted the issue of contamination to the top of the regulatory agenda. And it was about time. The issue had been largely ignored and neglected for decades by aviation department officials and had been allowed to languish by Dade and state officials responsible for enforcing environmental laws. Which is not to say that contamination had never been a concern. Indeed, the aviation department has, over the years, launched cleanups of specific polluted sites around the airport and now maintains hundreds of monitoring wells to measure the extent of ground-water contamination. And since it was created ten years ago, DERM's "Airport Program" has periodically sampled ground water around the airport and tried to ensure that the aviation department and its tenants comply with environmental laws. But despite these measures, airport contamination has persisted.

To worsen matters, the presence of state environmentalists at the airport was virtually nonexistent before this autumn. As one Dade regulator joked, state engineers have been crashing into each other on State Road 836 as they frantically try to find the correct off-ramps to the airport. Their involvement is long overdue, if only for the fact that they provide a power of enforcement that Dade environmentalists lack. With state officials absent, DERM is left alone to police the aviation department -- a county agency monitoring another county agency. And as if that relationship isn't incestuous enough, the aviation department actually funds DERM's Airport Program and pays the salaries of its inspectors.

DERM officials don't see the inherent conflict of interest in this arrangement. "We don't answer to the airport," insists DERM's assistant director David Ettman. "We answer to the director of DERM. We don't treat the airport any different from any other business except for the fact we can't sue them." DERM certainly has the legal firepower to combat environmental crimes; the department has cited dozens of airport tenants for environmental violations, sometimes levying huge fines against them. Investigations into contamination at sites leased by Pan Am and Eastern Airlines resulted in hefty legal settlements: Eastern eventually paid out about $42 million, Pan Am about $5 million. But in the meantime, DERM has filed only a few notices of violation against the aviation department itself. "I think the quotable quote of the day is, 'The fox watching the hen house,'" comments Mary Williams, district director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. "That is something we specifically endeavor to avoid."

Since the Water Management District governing board's decision, state officials have begun combing through aviation department files, and Dade County officials are distilling their own data and beginning to revamp the decade-old Airport Program. Meanwhile, says James Bussey, who is coordinating the state's investigation, the aviation department is "bending over backward to accommodate" the regulators. Among the environmentalists' concerns are the following:

DERM and aviation department data indicate that an enormous underground plume of dangerous vinyl chloride has spread beneath more than half the airport's acreage. The northwestern edge of the plume bulges beyond the perimeter of the airport and 36th Street. Its northernmost extremity is within 2000 feet of the Miami Springs well field. While no one is certain, the contamination may derive from dumped motor oil and solvents used to clean machinery at an old military installation on the west side of the airport.

Underground plumes of jet fuel and solvents still contaminate the soil and ground water beneath the old Eastern Airlines base in the northeast corner of the airport. Cleanup efforts at the site have been ongoing since the Seventies. That plume may also be migrating toward the well fields.

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