January 8, 1998 -- Citing over 150 separate violations of federal clean water and right-to-know laws, a coalition of local and national environmental groups yesterday filed a notice of intent to sue Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) for discharges of toxic chemicals into Sawmill Creek. At the same time, citing over 100 violations of public right-to-know laws, environmental groups filed a notice of intent to sue Chicago O'Hare International Airport.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. (NRDC), the Airport Environmental Coalition (AEC), the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and US-Citizens Aviation Watch (US-CAW) charged the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA), which owns and operates BWI, with violating the federal Clean Water Act through its discharges of stormwater that is highly contaminated with airplane deicing fluids containing ethylene glycol and other toxic chemicals. The groups also cited MAA for violating federal Superfund (the law governing cleanup of toxic waste sites) and community right-to-know laws requiring it to report releases of these hazardous substances to federal, state, and local emergency planning agencies.
NRDC, HSUS, the Alliance of Residents Concerning O'Hare (AReCO), and US-CAW are also charging the City of Chicago, which owns and operates O'Hare, with violation of federal Superfund, community right-to-know and clean water laws which require public disclosure of their massive releases of ethylene glycol. "Despite a lot of talk about how well they are doing, these airports are regularly violating federal environmental laws," said Peter Lehner, Senior Attorney at NRDC. "With these anticipated lawsuits, we aim to have the airports expedite improved runoff collection and management systems and switch to less toxic deicing chemicals," said Nancy Marks, Senior Attorney at NRDC. "We are emphatic that we are not in any way advocating reduced deicing or anything else that could compromise passenger safety. It is clear, however, that great environmental and public awareness improvements can be made while protecting flight safety." Ethylene glycol, which is used as an aircraft and runway deicer, is also the primary ingredient in consumer anti-freeze. Since it has a sweet taste, it is attractive to wildlife and companion animals when spilled on the ground or in streams or puddles. Ethylene glycol has been found to be a significant cause of animal mortality and human poisonings.
Leslie Sinclair, D.V.M., the Director of Companion Animal Care at HSUS, said, "Animal deaths from ethylene glycol are preventable. A good first step is to stop the runoff of toxins from airports. BWI and Chicago's O'Hare airport should begin using the less toxic and equally effective propylene glycol-based deicer as part of their long-range plans to comply with all environmental laws and standards." BWI's Clean Water Act discharge permit requires it to take steps designed to reduce or prevent discharges of stormwater contaminated with deicing chemicals. In fact, for the past several years, BWI has boasted of a $16 million "state of the art" reclamation system for deicing fluids. From the start, however, the system has been ineffective, in part because it can be used only when planes depart to the East. Over the past ten winters, planes at BWI have departed to the West about 80 percent of the time. The environmental groups charge that MAA knew the system would be unused most of the time, and that MAA has failed to take steps required under its permit to improve the system, track usage of deicing chemicals, and prevent the violation of state water quality standards in local streams that are protected for swimming, fishing, aquatic life, and wildlife.
Under federal right-to-know laws, any facility, such as an airport, that releases into the environment over 5,000 pounds of ethylene glycol per day must report such releases to federal, state, and local authorities. Airplane deicing at BWI and both airplane and runway deicing at O'Hare use and release vast quantities of ethylene glycol-containing fluid -- often over 100,000 pounds per day. Yet neither airport is reporting this release information to the federal, state or local governments from which it could be made publicly available. Deicing records from O'Hare, for example, indicate that approximately 8.3 million pounds of ethylene glycol were applied there in January 1997.
Jack Saporito, Executive Director of AReCO and President of US-CAW, said, "We need stronger regulations and enforcement by the state to protect the people. The Clean Water Act permit given to O'Hare by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is far too weak and imposes virtually no limits on discharges. And they are still not complying. We often get complaints of noxious smells. Near O'Hare, neighbors have seen evidence of wildlife and waterfowl poisoning as well as fish kills caused by ethylene glycol." Expressing a preference for compliance over litigation, the organizations invited the airports to discuss a negotiated settlement with them. Under federal law, the groups may not file their lawsuits for 60 days.