Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Panama City airport to pay $251,323 for violations

Airport officials in Bay County have agreed to pay the state $251,323 -- reduced from nearly $400,000 as proposed in May -- to settle proposed violations issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

DEP in May cited the Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority for 72 water quality violations involving the construction of a new airport on a portion of 4,000 acres near West Bay. The airport is being built on land donated by The St. Joe Co., which plans to build homes, commercial and industrial sites on surrounding land the company owns.

The Airport Authority blamed the violations in part on heavy rains that fell in the region in March and April. Executive Director Randy Curtis said the project contractor, Phoenix Construction Services, will have to pay the fine.

James Finch, owner of Phoenix Construction, this week did not return telephone calls seeking comment. He said in June that his firm was not responsible for violations because the Airport Authority hired its own project manager to plan the sequence of construction activities.

But Curtis said the contractor was responsible, not the project manager. And Curtis said the Airport Authority takes responsibility for ensuring that the fine is paid if Phoenix Construction refuses.

"As far as the permit, we (the Airport Authority) are ultimately responsible," Curtis said. "But it is our position the contractor really has the ultimate control. We look to them for resolution."

The new airport is scheduled to open in May 2010 at a cost of $330 million. The new airport will include an 8,400-foot runway, seven gates and 120,000 square feet of terminal space. Airport officials hope the longer runway will attract the larger planes flown by major carriers or overseas charter flights.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Clean Water Network had opposed the airport saying it threatens water quality and wildlife in one of the nation's biological hotspots. But Gov. Charlie Crist, echoing Bay County elected officials, called the airport in 2007 "a national model for economic transformation and environmental preservation."

The airport terminal is being built to LEED standards for reduced energy and water use. As part of the development plan for the St. Joe land at West Bay, 41,000 acres will be preserved.

The Clean Water Network of Florida has warned Phoenix Construction and the Airport Authority that it will sue over violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The group also has blamed DEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for lax enforcement at the construction site.

A DEP spokesman responded that the department had begun enforcement action when it was informed of violations in April.

A spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville said the agency had issued a notice of non-compliance but there were no plans for issuing fines against the Airport Authority. The district was working to implement corrective measures including installing a silt fence, placing sod and removing sediment from wetlands by hand, the spokeswoman said.

But Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, said today that despite the fine, DEP and the Corps of Engineers haven't conducted the oversight needed to prevent violations from happening.

"Was the $250,000 (fine) adequate to deter future violations? I don't think so," she said. "Did it mitigate for the damage they caused? Absolutely not. Will it prevent future problems with these types of violations on this site? Definitely not."

Young said the state and federal government need to do an assessment of the future airport expansion and St. Joe's construction plans to determine how West Bay and the creeks flowing through the area will be protected. St. Joe announced in May it will accelerate construction on 1,000 acres surrounding the airport.

(Photo and map courtesy of the Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com, Do not redistribute without permission.)

3 comments:

Bruce Ritchie said...

Someone submitted the following comment anonymously:

"We can't figure out why they lowered it (the fine) from the original $393,000. When the airport board said Phoenix construction would have to pay, they then gave James Finch an additional $400,000 contract to fix the stuff he was already supposed to have done."

I have asked Randy Curtis, the Airport Authority executive director for a response.

The poster made additional comments that I did not allow to be posted. They were potentially libelous and were not backed up with factual details. If that person would like to email more details to me, I would welcome them.

I regret having to moderate the comments but I began doing so after some people were posting spam sales solicitations. And I cannot allow comments to be posted that I believe are libelous or make factual claims without substantiation.

Bruce Ritchie said...

Randy Curtis, executive director of the Airport Authority, said in a response e-mail that the $400,000 was approved by the board in April following heavy rains to accelerate work on ditches that would assist in alleviating flooding at the construction site.

Mr. Curtis further stated:
"More than one month later on May 19, 2009 the FDEP issued a proposed Consent Order, which called for $393,849 in fines against the Airport
Authority. The fact that this amount approximates the $400,000 upper limit for ditch work is purely coincidental. The FDEP has since reduced the proposed fine to $251,323 after further consideration of the facts."

DonHodges said...

I have been concerned about storm water damage to the airport site during the planning process, and furnished the consultants with pointed warning comments at least twice, years before construction or final design.

Out of personal curiosity and concern during heavy rains, I asked FDEP on April 8 and April 13 what their monitoring results were. The aerial photos of the storm water were taken by a private pilot on April 13 and circulated widely. FDEP responded on April 21 that they had visited the site, found violations, and would be meeting with Mr. Curtis and the contractors on April 23 about enforcement actions. Although no press or public people attended that meeting, Mr. Curtis stated in the press that he discussed the proposed Consent Order in that meeting. The on-site consultants self-reported violations to FDEP on April 6, and also issued a "stop discharge" order to the contractors on April 19, an action probably reported to Mr. Curtis. The airport submitted a corrective action plan to FDEP on April 29 anticipating the Consent Order.

I don't see any sinister motive for issuing the $400,000 change order on April 21, but it was not done before the airport knew it was facing serious storm water violations.

Mr. Curtis is just "spinning" if he hopes to place the ditching order and the storm water violations a month apart.

Incidentally, the airport is no stranger to environmental consent orders - it entered a C.O. with the Corps of Engineers in 2007 to settle violations of the dredge/fill permit 5 months BEFORE IT WAS ISSUED.

I assure the moderator that I can document the facts in this comment.