Epa Probing Allegation Of Bwi Runoff

Polluting Chemicals Seeping Into Creek, Environmentalists Say

Airport Cooperating

Public's Health Is Not In Danger, According To State


Federal officials are investigating an environmental group's claims that potentially harmful amounts of an ice-melting chemical sprayed on airplanes at BWI are seeping into a nearby creek that runs toward the Chesapeake Bay.

A state environmental official said that the public's health is not endangered and that Baltimore-Washington International Airport is cooperating with state efforts to minimize potential risk to fish and wildlife.

For a decade, government agencies have been forcing airports across the country -- including ones in Dayton, Ohio, and Minneapolis-St. Paul -- to install systems that prevent rain from washing ice-melting chemicals off runways and into nearby rivers, said Jennifer Stenzel, a research associate with the Natural Resource Defense Council, an environmental group based in New York City.

The chemicals contain compounds called glycols and are similar to the antifreeze used in car radiators.

Environmentalists have applauded BWI in the past for doing more than other airports to prevent such chemicals from being washed by rain into nearby rivers, Stenzel said.

But a group of residents who live near the airport announced yesterday that they had hired an environmental consultant to test stream water flowing from the airport and that they had come to a disturbing conclusion.

Samples of water taken from Sawmill Creek, east of Aviation Boulevard, contained "shockingly high concentrations of glycol compounds," said Stephen Debreceny, a spokesman for the organization, which calls itself Airport Coordinating Team Inc.

When members of the organization inspected the creek that month, they saw an unhealthy foam on the water and detected a dizzyingly nauseating odor, Debreceny said.

"The Sawmill Creek that day was, essentially, a river of poison," said Debreceny, who lives near the airport.

After receiving a report on the group's observations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote to the Maryland Aviation Administration on March 18 announcing an investigation.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Sun, demanded information about the quality of water flowing from the airport's runways into nearby streams.

"The citizens contacted us and asked us to look into the facility, and so that's what we are doing," said Ruth Podems, a spokeswoman for the agency. "We are gathering information from the airport, and we don't know yet if there is or is not a problem there."

The federal government requires airports to spray the chemicals on airplanes during the winter to melt ice that collects on wings and to prevent ice from forming, airport officials said. Ice can pose a grave threat to airplane safety.

BWI sprays 30,000 to 180,000 gallons of the chemicals onto airplanes every year, depending on the weather.

Since 1994, the state aviation administration has spent about $15 million to install systems at the airport to limit the amount of de-icing chemicals flowing into nearby streams, said Michael West, an associate administrator at the Maryland Aviation Administration, which operates BWI Airport.

Those systems include two large, paved de-icing pads -- one large enough to hold five jets at one time. Workers spray the airplanes while they sit on the pads, which have drains that collect the runoff. The runoff flows into storage tanks and is rendered harmless at a treatment plant, West said.

The airport also uses three trucks with suction devices that vacuum the chemicals off the runways, West said.

Although the de-icing chemicals used at BWI could harm wildlife, the airport has been working closely with the state Department of the Environment since 1988 to limit pollution, said Quentin Banks, spokesman for the department.

The airport received permits for storm water runoff from the state in 1988 and 1994, and it appears to be complying with all the conditions of the permits, Banks said.

"This is not a problem for which you can just snap your fingers and make everything better. But the airport is working on it. And they appear to be on time and on target in their efforts," Banks said. "This is not a threat to public health."

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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