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."

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.

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.

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.

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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