CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) - The dispute over how to treat de-icer at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport has focused on Trout Creek, which leads to the Thornapple River. But little has been said about de-icer allowed to leave the other side of the airport through a tributary that leads to Plaster Creek and, eventually, to the Grand River.
While the airport says its $20 million de-icer treatment proposal will help clean up both Trout Creek and the tributary to Plaster, Target 8 has found nobody really knows just how dirty that tributary is. No one tested that water -- not the airport and not the state -- until Target 8 had it tested this week.
Tests of the Plaster Creek tributary conducted for Target 8 found low levels of propylene glycol, the organic compound used by airlines to de-ice jets. It was still in the water even though it has been about a month since the last time de-icer was used.
Prein & Newhof, the laboratory also used by the airport, conducted the tests for Target 8, looking only for glycols. It found 14,000 parts per billion of propylene glycol across Patterson Avenue SE from the airport.
It also found trace amounts of the organic compound on the tributary just a short distance downstream, and lesser amounts more than a mile away at 52nd Street and East Paris Avenue SE.
None of the levels made the water unsafe to drink -- not even close. That level is 150,000 parts per billion.
But at the first two sites, the water is murky and has a strong odor, especially right across Patterson from the airport.
"It's noxious, it's what we call anarobic," said James Dixon, an environmental consultant hired by Thornapple River neighbors. "It's without oxygen, so it smells almost the equivalent of a degraded outhouse from the 1970s."
He said Target 8's findings show a need for testing on Plaster Creek and stronger enforcement by the state. He wondered why the state allowed the situation to get this bad.
"This is a very big surprise that there hasn't been more work done to assess the issue and clean it up," Dixon said.
He said the state Department of Environmental Quality would have issued violations, fines and orders to stop dumping and to clean up if this involved a private company.
DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said that assessment was "unfair."
"The DEQ takes its regulatory role very seriously," he wrote in an email to Target 8. "The airport was cited for permit violation earlier this year. We've been working to rewrite this permit for nearly two years and we are making steady progress.
"However, the department uses some discretion when it is necessary and appropriate. We will get this situation addressed, make no mistake. This is a priority for the DEQ and the airport. We are taking this seriously and so are they."
Propylene glycol is bad for streams because it depletes oxygen in the water. The DEQ says it poses no health threat to humans.
"The aquatic community relies on oxygen being in the water just to survive," Dixon said.
Dixon said it's also a carrier for other nasty stuff like oil and gas.
On Wednesday, Target 8 found sheens on the water surface near Patterson, though it's not clear where it came from or what it was.
The state for years has allowed the airport to release its de-icer, along with millions of gallons of stormwater, into waterways. Much was dumped into Trout Creek to the east and some into the Plaster Creek tributary to the west. The Plaster Creek tributary that Target 8 had tested originates within airport property.
"Some might argue that the discharge permit issued to the airport more than a decade ago was not sufficiently restrictive," the DEQ's spokesman said. "The DEQ is aware of the problems associated with the discharge of deicing fluid to the tributaries and the department is working to modify the airport's current discharge permit to be more restrictive.
"Again, not because it poses an eminent threat to public health but because it does degrade water quality and it is worth correcting," Wurfel wrote.
He said the agency has paid more attention to Trout Creek because "historically it has seen more impact." He said the DEQ didn't document any "negative impacts" on the Plaster Creek tributary until this part March.
The DEQ in 2010 ordered the airport to stop sending glycol down Trout Creek because it was creating a biofilm and leaving a stream without fish.
The state has conducted tests of aquatic life in Trout Creek. In 2011, tests showed "poor" conditions in three of four sites. However, it hasn't conducted the same tests on Plaster Creek.
The state has given the airport until October 2015 to clean up Trout Creek. Airport Executive Director Brian Ryks said he is working with closely with the state and wants to work with neighbors.
"I'm committed to doing our part in doing whatever we can to ensure that those creeks are maintained in an environmentally sensitive and in a quality way," Ryks said.
The plan is to pipe the diluted glycol through a natural filtration system, then to the Thornapple River
"I feel strongly that it will definitely meet DEQ standards and most likely exceed those standards," Ryks said.
Airport officials said it would eliminate all but 7% of the glycol, with about 6,500 gallons still reaching the Thornapple every winter. They said their proposal would stop it from flowing down both Trout Creek and the Plaster Creek tributary.
"I have no doubt at all that this project will improve any potential of glycol going into Plaster Creek as well," Ryks said. "I think it's a win-win for both tributaries."
At least one environmental group says it supports the airport's plan, though there is not yet a proposal to clean up the creeks once the glycol stops flowing.
"We are very supportive of what the airport has done to date," said Elaine Isely, of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. "What those next steps may be, I can't speak to those."
Wurfel, the DEQ spokesman, said remediation of the creeks won't be necessary because they will clean themselves once the glycol stops flowing.
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