New Bay Co. airport faces possible DEP fines

The Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority is facing possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for potential water quality violations caused by erosion at its new airport now under construction.

The proposed airport, being built on a portion of the 4,000 acres of land donated by The St. Joe Co., has been the focus of economic development hopes and environmental controversy for more than six years.

Critics said the airport isn’t needed and will threaten the region’s rich biological diversity. But Gov. Charlie Crist said in 2007 the airport will serve as a national model for “economic transformation and environmental preservation.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection last month proposed a legal agreement that would require the Airport Authority to admit to 72 violations and pay $393,849 in civil penalties and settlement costs. The Airport Authority also would have to take steps during construction that are intended to prevent dirty water from flowing from the site.

“They assured us they were taking necessary steps to control those issues,” said Shawn Hamilton, ombudsman in DEP’s Pensacola district office. “We concluded those steps were not effective and it was time to take enforcement action.”

Airport Authority Executive Director Randy Curtis could not be reached for comment today. The Airport Authority has provided two letters to DEP in response to the proposed fines and violations.

In a May 29 letter, Curtis wrote that the construction site received an unusual 21 inches of rainfall between March 17 and April 13, resulting in a presidential disaster declaration for the area for flooding. He also said the airport authority had hired an environmental consultant to assess damage and to work to avoid it in the future.

“As we discussed, the Airport Board takes very seriously its commitment to the environment and to making this airport a net environmental benefit to the state,” Curtis wrote.

This week, the Clean Water Network of Florida said it will sue the airport construction contractor, Phoenix Construction Co. of Lynn Haven, under the Clean Water Act for alleged violations.

The Clean Water Network also said polluted stormwater runoff from the construction site was “ecologically devastating” to streams and springs downstream from the construction site as well as shellfish beds and marshes in West Bay. The environmental damage couldn’t be verified with documents provided Thursday by DEP.

And the group blamed DEP for a “laid-back” approach to enforcement that had allowed problems to continue.

In response, Hamilton said the department took action when it received notice of the violations and now is proposing the consent order with fines.

James Finch, president of Phoenix Construction Co., said the Airport Authority hired a construction manager to supervise construction. “I don’t know what (legal) standing the Clean Water Network would have with me,” he said.

“Everybody has ruled against them (in previous legal challenges) and the airport is about 80 percent complete, so they have to do something,” Finch said.

Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not redistribute without permission.

2 thoughts on “New Bay Co. airport faces possible DEP fines”

  1. Yes, the area was inundated with near record levels of rainfall during the referenced time frame. The opposition to airport construction has been monumental. They will not go quietly into the night. They will utilize every "dirty" trick in the book to curtail and/or sidetrack this very worthy project.

  2. The environmental damage occurred because the protections specified in the construction permit had NOT been done. As soon as the proposed $393,000 fine against Phoenix Construction was announced, the Airport Authority said that he would have to pay it, not the Airport Authority. They then gave Finch another contract for $400,000 to do the work he was already obligated to do. (Could it be to offset the fine?) The relationship between Finch and the local government is a constant subject of controversy, but they've been in bed together so long that they have to continue to meet his demands or risk going to prison. Would someone from out of town please call the feds?

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