By Brenna R. Kelly and Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
BURLINGTON - Delores Burke has a simple rule when her grandchildren visit her home: Stay out of Gunpowder Creek.
There is danger in the creek's silence, she said.
"There isn't a cricket, there's not a frog," said Burke, who lives on Limaburg Creek Road. "When we moved (here) 50 years ago, you could walk down there, and 50 frogs would jump in.
"There isn't one living thing in that creek now."
That's because Gunpowder Creek has been polluted for decades with de-icing fluid from the nearby Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. The effort to restore the creek's health is costing tens of millions of dollars, and taking more than a decade. The airport has built a system to catch and recycle the de-icing fluid, and to treat dirty water before it can reach the creek. Just last week, environmentalists reported soaring pollution levels and the government promised stricter standards.
But all of it points to a need to push the limits of cleanup technology and more closely monitor progress, say environmentalists with the Sierra Club.
The de-icing fluid, made of ethylene glycol, is sprayed on airliners to prevent ice from forming on, and weighing down, jets during takeoff. Glycol is a toxic chemical. When it runs into the creeks, it depletes oxygen, leaving none for aquatic life.
The Kentucky Division of Water declared Gunpowder and nearby Elijah Creek "impaired" by pollution in 1997. That meant the state, along with the airport, had to devise a plan to clean up the streams.
Seven years later, the pollution is still there.
In January, the creeks showed more pollution than they have in the last two years, according to the Northern Kentucky Water Sentinels, a Sierra Club program that regularly tests the streams.
$50 million fix
The pollution persists despite the best efforts of the airport, which has spent more than $50 million on complex systems to capture and store the glycol so it can be recycled. It was paid for with surcharges built into the cost of airline tickets.
Don Chapman, environmental/safety coordinator for the airport, said about a million gallons of glycol was used during the winter of 2002-'03.
"Our engineers think this system will get those creeks to where people want them," said Dale Keith, director of operations at the airport. "Why has it taken 10 years? Because there has been years of study and testing of the system before we built it.
"We're right on the cutting edge with this technology, and we're not going down this road blindly."
A complex series of pipes collects the glycol off runway de-icing pads, funnels it to huge storage tanks, then uses steam to boil off the water and separate the glycol. The system just became operational in September.
A water treatment plant, which began operating in January, cleans only water headed to Gunpowder Creek. The airport plans to build a second, $8 million plant to clean Elijah Creek water.
The Gunpowder Creek water is pumped from retention ponds in the dammed creek headwaters and held in 2-million-gallon tanks where bacteria clean the water by eating the glycol. Airport officials say the water treatment plant isn't fully operational yet because it takes time to establish enough bacteria to clean the water.
After the creeks were declared polluted, the state's cleanup plan set limits on the amount of dirty water the airport could discharge into the streams.
Pollution got worse
But that plan was flawed, said Heather Mayfield, director of the Northern Kentucky Water Sentinels program. The amount of pollution allowed into the stream per day was too high, the airport doesn't have to monitor downstream, and there were no timelines for cleaning up the water, she said.
The proof, she says, is that pollution in Gunpowder Creek was 31/2 times higher than the state allows in the airport's discharge permit when it was tested in January. Elijah Creek was more than two times higher.
"These are the highest numbers we've seen since we started monitoring the streams," Mayfield said.
In the two years of testing the initial quarter-mile stretch of Gunpowder Creek, the only living thing found in the water has been gnat larvae, Mayfield said.
"This section of Gunpowder is a dead stream," Mayfield said. "And in Oakbrook, it's pretty bad there, too."
Oakbrook is a community of 7,000 residents where the creek flows along walking trails, and residents often complain about chemical smells and milky white water.
The Division of Water is working on a new permit for the airport. Bruce Scott, manager of the Division of Water's permitting program, said it will take into account data collected since 1997.
"We believe we will have a more protective type of document," than the airport's current permit, which expired two years ago, he said. Scott said it's "not unusual" for businesses to continue operating under expired permits because of a backlog at the state level.
The airport can expect fines for future violations, he said.
But Mayfield said fines aren't the answer.
"You can fine the airport all you want but you're still not getting to the root of the problem," she said. "And I personally would rather see ... a way for the airport to gauge how well they are progressing than to see them being fined over and over for violations."
Mayfield said her group will continue monitoring the creeks. But she doesn't expect the water quality to improve anytime soon.
"There is a pollution problem that's going to be there for a long time," she said, "even if no more de-icing fluid ever touches that stream."
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