WASHINGTON— Wayne County Airport Authority (Airport Authority), which operates Detroit Wayne County Metropolitan Airport, pleaded guilty today to a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act, the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency announced. According to the information, the Airport Authority negligently failed to report a May 16, 2001 discharge of turbid water into the Frank and Poet Drain, a waterway that leads to the Detroit River, in violation of the airport’s discharge permit.
The Airport Authority has agreed to pay a fine of $75,000. An additional $25,000 will be paid as community service to Friends of the Detroit River, a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving, preserving, and restoring the watershed of the Detroit River.
The Airport Authority will also serve a four-year term of probation. As a special condition of probation, the airport will undertake and complete a “Force Main” project, which involves construction and use of a force main to connect Pond 3W at the Airport to sanitary sewer lines leading to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s treatment plant in Detroit. The planning of this project has been underway for a number of months, and its cost currently is estimated at approximately $8.5 million.
Stephen J. Murphy, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan stated that, “protecting the purity of our water system requires constant diligence. As a result of this enforcement action, the Airport Authority appropriately recognized where that diligence was lacking and has agreed to take necessary remedial action to prevent such harmful discharges from occurring again. This is a very positive result for our community.”
“Public entities – including the largest airports in the country – must comply with our nation's environmental laws, and they are not immune from criminal prosecution if they fail to meet their legal obligations,” said David M. Uhlmann, Chief of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section. "The unfortunate events that gave rise to this prosecution never should have occurred, but by cooperating with our investigation and agreeing to take steps to prevent future violations, the Airport Authority has taken constructive steps to protect the environment and restore public confidence." “Besides paying a significant penalty and community service, the Airport Authority will be required to take concrete steps to eliminate future illegal discharges and protect water quality," said Granta Y. Nakayama, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today's guilty plea should drive home the point that it is far better to comply with the law and to avoid the illegal mismanagement of pollutants in the first place.”
The airport maintains a number of large ponds on-site that collect storm water runoff. During winters, significant quantities of aircraft deicing fluids – primarily propylene glycol – are used on aircraft. Run-off from the deicing, which contains concentrations of the deicing materials, is collected in a separate pond identified as Pond 3W. Ordinarily, Pond 3W discharges to a sanitary sewer system that conveys the glycol-contaminated storm water to the Wyandotte Wastewater Treatment Plant. During the relevant time period, the Airport operated under a Clean Water Act permit, which expressly stated that any unusual characteristics of the discharge, including, among other things, unnatural turbidity and color need to be reported immediately to the Southeast Michigan District Supervisor of the Surface Water Quality Division.
Sometime during the second week in April, 2001, the valve connecting Pond 3W to the sanitary sewer became clogged. As noted above, Pond 3W consisted of storm water mixed with deicing materials, mostly ethylene glycol and propylene glycol. These chemicals, which were in the process of breaking down into their various constituents, gradually turned the water in Pond 3W turbid and odorous. Attempts to clear the pipe failed, as did efforts to pump water from Pond 3W to the sanitary sewer.
On May 16, 2001, Airport personnel opened a gate connecting Pond 3W to other ponds, identified as Ponds 3E and 4. They then opened an outfall valve that allowed these ponds to discharge directly to the Frank and Poet Drain. On May 17th, Airport employees, noting that the water being discharged was turbid and odorous, closed the connection gate and the outfall valve. Some 25 million gallons of water were discharged from the Airport from Ponds 3E, 3W, and 4. The discharge of the turbid, odorous water was not reported to the Southeast Michigan District Supervisor of the Surface Water Quality Division, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), as required by the facility’s NPDES Permit. The discharge, which occurred on May 16, 2001, was discovered during the course of an investigation of a fish-kill that was observed near the mouth of the waterway, as it enters the Detroit River, two days after the discharge.
At the time of the violation, the Airport was operated by the Charter County of Wayne, Michigan. Pursuant to a 2002 amendment to the Aeronautics Code of the State of Michigan, operational jurisdiction of the Airport was transferred to the Wayne County Airport Authority on August 9, 2002. This case was investigated by special agents of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI, and was prosecuted by Kris Dighe and James Morgulec, attorneys at the Environmental Crimes Section, U.S. Department of Justice, and Kris Vezner, Regional Criminal Enforcement Counsel for EPA Region V. The prosecution team received assistance from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan, in Detroit, the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.