Two weeks ago today, County Commission Chairman Art Teele and Commissioner Pedro Reboredo convoyed north to the West Palm Beach headquarters of the South Florida Water Management District, along with Aviation Department Director Gary Dellapa and Department of Environmental Resources Management Director John Renfrow.
When the future of your county's economy is at stake, you wheel out the heavy artillery.
At issue that Thursday was a permit. This past August officials from Miami International Airport had paid a call on the South Florida Water Management District, in order to secure a permit allowing construction in the terminal area of the airport. The central building project in question was Concourse A, which is scheduled to become part of American Airlines's planned $950 million facility. Also in the construction pipeline were $40 million worth of renovations to Concourse H.
For large-scale building projects, the state must evaluate the amount and purity of rainwater that runs off the site into surrounding bodies of water. There is considerable potential for contaminated rainwater at the airport, where 2.5 million gallons of fuel are pumped into airplanes every day. Pollutants that spill on the ground are carried by rainfall into the storm-water system, which drains into the surrounding canals and, via the Miami River, into the ecologically fragile waters of Biscayne Bay.
The Water Management District's governing board denied the permit. Metro-Dade hadn't done its homework thoroughly and hadn't calculated the full extent of storm-water contamination. Moreover, the airport was allowing storm water to flow directly into the canals A without taking any measures to decontaminate it. The governing board asserted that the permit would not be approved until the contamination issue had been thoroughly examined and the airport designed a storm-water treatment system.
The decision, which effectively stalled construction in the airport's terminal area, sent local, state, and federal environmental regulatory agencies into an investigative frenzy. Increased scrutiny has revealed chronic and widespread underground water and soil contamination at the airport, the remedy of which Metro-Dade engineers now expect will cost at least $100 million. (These investigations were the subject of a December 1, 1993, New Times cover story, "Toxic Runways.") State and Metro-Dade officials also attempted to address the specific issue of storm-water contamination, in the hopes of solving the permit issue.
After seven months of discussion regarding possible storm-water treatment methods, water managers and the airport engineers were at an impasse. According to Tony Waterhouse, area manager for the regulation department of the South Florida Water Management District, airport officials had proposed a series of "best management practices" including improved spill treatment and removal, sweeping and scrubbing, and more intense tenant oversight. Water managers, however, insisted the county provide "a more reasonable assurance" of its commitment to purifying the storm water A such as a waste-treatment plant. Aviation officials complained that the costs for such facilities were prohibitive.
After Water Management District staffers again recommended that the permit be denied when it came back for governing-board review, along came the Teele brigade. "My plans were to get an agreement even if I had to go beyond the point where the airport wanted to go," Teele says in retrospect. "My number-one priority as stated in the State of the County message was to maintain the aggressive construction schedule at the airport. But I wasn't going to carry the water for the airport if they were wrong."
The Dade delegation hunkered down with Water Management District personnel -- first in the corridors outside the governing board auditorium and later in a back conference room -- in a last-ditch effort to reach common ground. Miraculously, the eleventh-hour session produced an agreement, scrawled by Water Management District senior attorney John Fumero on a blank piece of paper and initialed by Teele.
Under the pact, the Aviation Department agreed to implement the "best management practices" immediately and to construct a treatment facility within the next five years. The system, according to the agreement, will capture and treat 90 percent of storm-water runoff, a requirement that meets state water-quality standards. (If the Aviation Department violates any part of the permit, it may be subject to steep fines, according to John Fumero.) Estimated cost of a treatment facility: $40 million.
When the deal was outlined to the governing board, water managers trumpeted the dawn of a "new day" and a "new generation of leadership in Dade County." Stating that the county had taken "a very proactive position" vis-a-vis environmental agencies, Teele credited Dade's single-member districts with bringing about "perhaps a totally new way of looking at things, hopefully with more sensitivity not only to our citizens and taxpayers but also to our environment." The Dade County Commission chairman specifically cited the importance of the Summit of the Americas, scheduled for December, as a major incentive to reach an agreement with state water managers. Fifty percent of the construction on Concourse A is scheduled for completion by the time of the conference; Teele says the new terminal will be inaugurated by the arriving dignitaries and their entourages.
Another motivating factor went unspoken: money. According to airport spokesman Chris Mangos, the Aviation Department expects to begin paying contractors compensation as a result of construction delays caused by the permit denial. Further delays of those projects, Mangos explains, would undoubtedly create a "domino effect," which would impede other construction projects around the airport.
Motivation notwithstanding, Teele's "proactive" boast to the governing board is a little misleading. Dade's commitment to an omnibus cleanup program at the airport was prompted by intense state and federal scrutiny. Likewise, state enforcement and a federal lawsuit forced the county to confront the realities of its aging sewer system.
Some environmental regulators, in fact, remain wary about Dade's newfound concern for South Florida's environment. "I want to feel good about the county's commitments because clearly these commitments will protect the county's water supplies and Biscayne Bay," comments one state water manager who requested anonymity. "I'm left, however, with a nagging question: Is this a unique outcome driven by the prospect of lost economic opportunity to the county, or is the county seriously committed to protecting public health and the environment as a cost associated with economic development? I want to believe the latter.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.