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.

The aviation department has since cleaned up most of that area, but not before provoking the state's ire. "Now we're trying to find out what else they're covering up," remarks one state environmentalist. Bussey adds, somewhat charitably: "[Our discoveries] showed that we -- DEP, DERM, and the aviation department -- need to take a better and closer look at the environmental regulatory situation."

Aviation department directors, under pressure from regulators and DERM's new consent agreement, and with its expansion plans in jeopardy, have stepped up their approach to pollution assessment and cleanup. Highlights of the program include:

An audit of hundreds of facilities under tenant lease. In the past, Richard Raymond explains, the airport only investigated tenant-leased property if it was changing hands. "Eastern taught us a big lesson," he says, "and we want to make sure we don't have another problem like that. We don't know what the audits might hold."

The installation of a complex ground-water decontamination system in the northwest section of the airport where the vinyl chloride plume has bulged northward toward the Miami Springs well field. The hope is that the process will prevent further migration of the plume.

A recently completed, and long overdue, storm-water plan that recommends the use of the most technologically advanced pollution-prevention equipment. Among possible techniques under discussion is the transformation of part of Melreese Golf Course along NW 37th Avenue, east of the airport, into a detention pond where the runoff water could be cleaned of chemicals before it enters the surrounding canals and the Miami River.

Dade environmental regulators have already intensified their on-site inspections, particularly involving tenants, and DERM is in the process of developing recommendations for more monitoring wells, and for increased sampling of ground water, surface water, and soil.

As if to signal their new commitment to environmental matters, aviation department directors two weeks ago transferred Richard Raymond out of the environmental arena and relegated him to an engineering post. Aviation department spokesperson Amaury Zuriarrain denied that Raymond was being made the proverbial sacrificial lamb. "The department feels we need to dedicate more resources and more expertise to the environmental situation at the airport," he explains. "Richard Raymond was transferred to another area in the airport that was more in keeping with his background as an engineer." Zuriarrain says private consultants with more expertise will run the environmental management program at the airport from now on, under the supervision of the director's office.

Meanwhile the federal grand jury continues to subpoena witnesses in its probe of Miami International Airport. Several people have been asked about the Citgo explosion. Following Raymond's testimony this past August, investigators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spent a weekend taking methane samples at Concourse E. Neither the U.S. Attorney's Office nor the EPA have publicly released their test results.

Witnesses have also been asked about the disposition of millions of dollars from the Eastern Airlines settlement, money set aside for environmental cleanup only. The grand jury also appears to be probing a possible coverup by airport authorities. Raymond, for one, was asked if he had ever failed to report accurately the extent of contamination at the airport. His answer: No.

"We've sinned in the past," Raymond pleads. "But please let the past be the past, and see how we're progressing now." In matters of environmental neglect and the endangerment of Dade's citizenry, however, Raymond and his county bosses are discovering that the past is not so easily forgotten.

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