90,000+ gallons of de-icing fluid are generated by the Gerald R. Ford International Airport each year, in addition to other contaminants like jet fuel. In January of 2011, the DEQ issued a new 5-year stormwater permit, but only under the condition that the airport would find a solution to stop the contamination of a small neighborhood creek. A proposal was submitted on September 1.
The proposed solution? Divert the runoff to the next biggest river in the watershed. Officials hope "there is enough fast-moving water in the river to dilute the fluid". The Thornapple, even by 2030, is expected to abut 53% agricultural lands and 37% natural areas. Downstream from the airport, it flows through neighborhoods and parks - where residents swim, canoe, and kayak - meeting at the Grand River and flowing into Lake Michigan.
The Thornapple River already sees some of this runoff as a consequence of the unnamed stream - which is seasonally plagued with a bacterial slime that feeds on glycol and sucks oxygen out of the water. DEQ and airport representatives rebuke locals' claims that the de-icer has killed their backyard wildlife; yet at the same time, there haven't been any studies in the Thornapple to determine if there actually are any fish. Just ten miles upstream, meanwhile, anglers say that there are "outstanding numbers of smallmouth bass". The facts do not add up. Who are these officials really protecting?
For a $15 million project aimed at environmental protection, can't the airport do better than just move the problem from the throat to the stomach? Airport officials reportedly complain other options are "too expensive", including more intensive recycling efforts on-site. Can we risk continued, and potentially even more, damage to our already polluted Michigan rivers for the sake of a quick fix?
The DEQ is investigating stormwater measurements and studies of the river to determine what are "acceptable" limits, what kind of permit(s) to issue, and, ultimately, which runoff proposal will get a green light. Let's keep the spotlight on this pollution. The airport needs to take accountability for its waste, and the DEQ needs to ensure a fair, thorough investigation that will protect our watersheds!
Report on runoff alternatives:
And a phone call to the Kent County DEQ (9/13/11).
Photo courtesy of Bonnie Westbrook.