Wading in

The FBI looks into DFW's pollution woes

The FBI is conducting an investigation into possible criminal violations of environmental laws committed at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, according to five people with firsthand knowledge of the agency's inquiries, who spoke on the condition that their names not be published.

On the record, neither the FBI nor airport board officials would offer any information about the investigation. "We can neither confirm nor deny any investigation," says FBI special agent John P. Skillestad, "but you can go ahead and run your story with the sources you have."

"We are unaware of any investigation," says Kevin Cox, a lawyer who serves as first executive deputy director at the airport board, "but your sources may be better than mine." Cox notes that at a large airport, the FBI's focus could be on any number of tenants as well as the airport board itself. "On 18,000 acres, there are a lot of users out there," he says.

The airport has been troubled recently by questions over inadequacies in its system for containing and cleaning water pollution ("Troubled waters," September 16). Airport officials also have been criticized for being less than forthcoming with state and federal regulators about the problems.

In its September story, the Dallas Observer cited a half-dozen internal airport documents, corroborated by one former and one current airport employee, that suggest airport drainage pipes are too small to carry the volume of water that flows at DFW during a sizeable rainstorm. Consequently, the system overflows and polluted water spreads over the ground and into storm sewers. From there, the water, some of it contaminated with de-icing chemicals and fuel, travels to lakes and streams on and near the airport grounds.

An airport employee says news of the FBI investigation will inject terror onto the tarmacs at DFW, one of the busiest airports in the world with 2,000 daily flights and more than 798 million gallons of fuel consumed annually. "People are going to flip out when they find out about this," the employee says.

The DFW board has in recent months taken steps to correct the pollution problems, including funding a $4.8 million capital improvement program. The airport plans to spend the money on a number of items, amonth them $390,000 to study wastewater master-planning issues; $132,000 to upgrade the containment equipment and infrastructure for fuel holding tanks; $474,000 for automated storm-water sampling stations; $708,000 to prevent storm-water flows into the sanitary sewer lines; $2.3 million to upgrade 15 locations where industrial wastewater may be going into the storm-water system; $118,000 to create a system for collecting foam relased when emergency vehicles are tested; and $706,000 to create an aircraft wash rack.

DFW officials downplay any link between the complaints outlined in the Observer story and the projects. They say that many of the measures were initially proposed in March 1999.

Moreover, Cox says that airport board officials should not take the rap for the sins of their predecessors. "I cannot defend whatever happened five or 10 years ago," Cox says, "but we are putting our money where our mouth is now."

The FBI nevertheless seems interested in the past. According to two sources, the agents conducting the investigation have met with an airport board employee and state and federal regulators. The FBI agents were already conversant, the sources say, with the intricate sewer systems at the airport and with much of the minutiae of environmental regulations. Built in 1974, the industrial wastewater system at DFW is similar to one that may be found at a truck stop. Buried beneath 17 inches of concrete, it consists of a series of drainage pipes that capture rain rolling off the runways and aprons. The pipes have boxes that are supposed to divert the various industrial wastes. But that system often overflowed and failed, sending contaminated storm water into the streams, lakes, and fields surrounding the airport.

The FBI review is far from complete. "At this point there is a lot more to be done," says one person with first-hand knowledge of the investigation.

Federal laws bar individuals from giving government officials false statements on any material matter. The question of whether anyone at the airport board faces criminal liabilities may ultimately hinge on what the FBI agents uncover about how and when DFW officials responded to previous requests by federal and state regulators about their water-pollution controls.

In September, the Observer reported that state investigators have not always been allowed to see drains where the flows of industrial wastewater are heaviest. When a state agency inspector toured the airport last winter, for instance, he was told that the Federal Aviation Administration rules require that he undergo a background check to have access to certain areas where pipes discharge. In his agency report, the inspector wrote that a drain "cannot be reached without an escort and was not observed..." But an airport employee told the Observer that no such FAA rules applied -- airport officials had concocted the scheme to prevent the inspector from seeing problematic drains.

At the time of the September story, Cox said, "It is a mischaracterization to say that anyone at the airport has been anything but up-front."

 
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