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.

Beneath several passenger concourses, the soil and ground water are contaminated with jet fuel. The most serious pollution is under Concourse E, where a fuel line leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of jet fuel over several years. Officials have been removing methane from the soil and ground water at the site since the mid-1980s.

Several locations in the "tank farm" -- the area southeast of the terminal where the airport's fuel is stored in huge above-ground tanks and where the Citgo explosion occurred -- also have extensive soil and ground-water contamination caused by leaking pipes and connections.

State regulators are trying to determine whether the airport has illegally excavated, transported, stored, and reused contaminated soil during a procedure to fill several drainage ditches on the western edge of the airport.

Regulators and airport officials suspect that dozens of lost and abandoned underground tanks may be leaking chemicals into the soil and aquifer. A sonar-testing program for the detection of such tanks is under consideration.

No thorough assessment has ever been made of the quality of rain water that runs off the airport into surrounding waterways, including the Miami River. "It's definitely my impression that the airport is a substantial contributor to pollution of the Miami River," remarks Allan Milledge, Water Management District board member, echoing the sentiment of many local and state environmental regulators.

Environmental regulators are wondering whether all fuel or solvent spills have been reported. According to state laws, spills exceeding 25 gallons on a permeable surface (such as soil or grass) must be reported, as does any mysterious indication of contaminated soil or petroleum odor and discharge, or malfunctions in the fueling systems that could present an environmental hazard.

Not all these concerns are new. The aviation department and DERM have known about certain areas of contamination for years, but cleanup has been alarmingly slow. According to Eugene Scott, who coordinated DERM's Airport Program until his retirement in 1992, by the mid-1980s he, his staff, and hired consultants had identified many of the contaminated areas currently under discussion. DERM eventually grew so frustrated with the pace of cleanup that in 1992 the agency forced the aviation department into an agreement and timetable for cleanup. Even that document took a year and a half to assemble. "In my view, things were taking too long," says DERM director John Renfrow. "Response to the problem wasn't as quick as I would've liked."

But the plan amounted to little. The airport proceeded to blow deadline after deadline. By this past summer several items were nearly a year overdue, including an emergency-response plan for an environmental catastrophe at the tank farm. "It is the perception of DERM that the cleanup of the MIA site is taking excessive time," wrote Aviation's deputy director of engineering Dulce Rodriguez in a memo to Richard Raymond this past June, chastising him for delays in general cleanup at the airport. "There is no excuse to avoid a fast and positive result on this issue."

Two months later, with state regulators descending on their heads and federal agents already rummaging through their files, aviation department officials were more than happy to enter into another agreement to show their newfound willingness to make the airport pristine once again. The new agreement is a much more exhaustive attempt to attack existing contamination at all known polluted sites and to prevent new contamination. However, the deal may still lack the teeth needed to force the aviation department to clean up the mess: it only calls for a fine of $1000 per day for any failure to complete a task -- mere pennies as far as the airport is concerned.

Richard Raymond admits that for years the environment wasn't an important concern at the airport, but he insists that the sentiment is changing. By way of example, he points out that a year ago there were only two people on the aviation department staff assigned to environmental matters. That number has quadrupled and is still growing. "Ten years ago, when you talked about environmental concerns, you talked noise and land use," he points out. The airport has budgeted $8.5 million per year for environmental cleanup; Raymond says that for some sites the cleanup will take more than 25 years.

During any discussion about airport contamination, Raymond inevitably notes that none of the pollution is the fault of the aviation department itself. Rather, he contends, tenants caused the mess. "Maybe we're lax in the way we handled our tenants," he admits, "but that has changed in the past year." Raymond also boasts that there are no U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "Superfund" sites at the airport, nor are there any "hazardous" wastes present. (Jet fuel, vinyl chloride, and other contaminants common at MIA aren't considered hazardous.)

That is exactly what Raymond said at a multiagency meeting in late August. "We asked them, 'Do you have hazardous wastes on site?'" recalls James Bussey of the Florida State Department of Environmental Protection. "And they said, 'No.' We asked, 'Are all the hazardous materials being properly stored and handled?' They said, 'Yes.' They answered to the effect that there is nothing to be concerned about." But several days later state investigators strolled through an overgrown area on the western perimeter of the airport. They discovered dozens of abandoned containers and drums containing unknown chemicals; ten underground and above-ground storage tanks; a dozen abandoned, leaky transformers, one of which was later determined to be discharging hazardous waste; an oily substance leaking into a monitoring well, which led directly to the ground water; several piles of abandoned tires; the possibility of asbestos in a building demolition; and jet fuel floating in a drainage ditch.

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