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.)