BWI violated water act, group claims Environmentalists file notice of intent to sue

De-icing chemicals at issue

Airport maintains it has tried to keep pollution contained

January 08, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore-Washington International Airport would have to build better pollution control systems or face millions of dollars of fines under a federal lawsuit announced yesterday by a national environmental group.

The Natural Resource Defense Council of New York City claims the airport has violated the federal Clean Water Act by allowing toxic de-icing chemicals to flow from runways into Chesapeake Bay streams, according to a notice of intent to file suit in federal court in Baltimore sent to BWI yesterday.

The council alleges in the notice of intent that thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals have flowed into the streams near BWI for at least the past three winters.

The group also said it would sue Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on similar grounds.

Maryland transportation officials say any lawsuit against BWI would be unfair because the airport has made major improvements to its de-icing fluid containment system this winter. BWI has built a $1.67 million drainage system to collect de-icing fluid and plans to request state money to build a third pollution-trapping de-icing pad for next winter, said David L. Winstead, Maryland secretary of transportation.

"I think the facts show that BWI is a leader in the area of glycol recovery," Winstead said. "It is one of only 13 of about 800 airports nationally that have invested significant amounts of capital in its glycol collection systems."

Richard Webster, an environmental scientist working for the environmental organization, said he welcomed the improvements, but said the lawsuit should move forward to assure that the new systems work.

A much-touted $16 million de-icing containment system built three years ago repeatedly failed to meet the requirements of its state pollution discharge permit, Webster said.

At the center of the complaints against BWI and O'Hare, which the organization accuses of breaking federal laws by failing to report runoff pollution, are foul-smelling glycol compounds. They are similar to those found in car antifreeze and are considered vital to the prevention of wintertime airplane crashes. They consume oxygen in rivers, disrupting the ecological balance and suffocating fish.

Airports have faced increasing pressure over the past decade to prevent the runoff of de-icing chemicals. Airport officials, though, say they need to balance environmental concerns with air safety, pointing to findings that a buildup of ice on wings has been blamed for several airline disasters.

"It's a fact of life: If you want to fly in the winter, you've got to use de-icing chemicals," said Bob Flocke, spokesman for the Airline Pilots Association. "Our primary concern has got to be aviation safety. The only other alternative is, don't fly."

BWI sprayed 199,813 gallons of de-icing chemicals onto planes last year -- and as much as 68 percent of these may have flowed into the ground and nearby streams, according to a May report of the Maryland Aviation Administration.

Dennis Culloton, a spokesman for Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, said that the airport this winter installed a $75 million drainage system in its north airfield. The system collects glycol after it is sprayed on jets and directs the substance into a sewage treatment system.

"We think we have been very progressive in dealing with de-icing chemicals," Culloton said.

Peter Lehner, a senior attorney with the NRDC, said that the federal Clean Water Act requires plaintiffs to file written notice at least 60 days in advance of any lawsuit to the federal Environmental Protection Agency and to the defendant.

Lehner said the NRDC's lawsuits did not aim to force an end to the use of de-icing fluids or endanger the public's safety.

Better pollution control

He said he hopes they would spur airports to install better pollution control systems.

Lehner said the lawsuits should also encourage airports to meet federal reporting requirements. He said such requirements, which give the public the right to know about pollution in their neighborhoods, are often ignored.

Webster, the New Jersey-based scientist working for NRDC, said the group's lawsuit against BWI was inspired in part by an Aug. 9 investigation by The Sun.

The newspaper reported that BWI's much-praised $16 million dollar de-icing collection system has repeatedly fallen short of requirements of its state storm water discharge permit.

To comply with the federal Clean Water Act, the state in 1994 issued the airport a permit that required it to collect at least 50 percent of the de-icing chemicals it sprayed, to prevent any "persistent foam" in two streams that run from the airport and to keep them clean enough for wildlife to inhabit and people to wade in.

Patapsco affected

These streams are the Kitten Branch of Stony Run and the Muddy Bridge Branch of Sawmill Creek, both of which run south of Baltimore into the Patapsco River.

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