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Water Sentinels Stop Toxic Antifreeze Runoff
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The Planet

Water Sentinels Stop Toxic Antifreeze Runoff

by Tom Valtin

Antifreeze in your car: good.

Antifreeze in the babbling brook next door: not good.

But years of de-icing fluid runoff from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport have poisoned long stretches of Gunpowder and Elijah Creeks, both tributaries of the Ohio River. The pollution got so bad that in recent years snow along the creek banks turned black and the creeks wouldn't freeze.

Antifrozen Creek?
Frozen Creek a Harbinger of Health: Before a water treatment facility was installed on Gunpowder Creek last year, antifreeze runoff from the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport kept the creek from freezing over and turned the snow black on the creek banks. This photo, taken in January 2005, shows that the pollution controls are working.

To the rescue, the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels Program, which over the course of a three-year campaign successfully pressured the airport to agree to install more than $50 million in pollution controls, and the state of Kentucky to issue a new, stronger discharge permit.

"I was blown away," says Northern Kentucky Water Sentinels staffer Tim Guilfoile after the new permit was issued on February 7. "The permit isn't perfect, but the state obviously listened to our concerns."

Water Sentinels activists did ongoing water quality monitoring of the two creeks. Working with local residents, fly fishers, and the local watchdog group Licking River Watershed Watch, Club staff and volunteers lobbied the airport and the Kentucky Division of Water to address the problem, testifying at public hearings and keeping the issue in the media spotlight.

"This was a classic organizing effort," says Water Sentinels Director Scott Dye. "There's no doubt the Sentinels' concerted pressure on public officials is what finally forced the airport's hand."

Tim Guilfoile
Tim Guilfoile
The culprit is ethylene glycol, better known as antifreeze, which harms the brain, heart, lungs, and other organs. In water, it gobbles oxygen, leaving none for fish or other aquatic life.

"These creeks flow into the drinking water source for millions and millions of people," former Northern Kentucky Water Sentinel Heather Mayfield told the local ABC-TV News affiliate last May. "Citizens have been complaining for years, but the pollution problems persist and people are getting upset. They're getting sick of it!"

One person who got sick of it and spoke out was Deloris Burke, 76, who has lived alongside Gunpowder Creek for more than 50 years. Burke used to water her garden and fill her swimming pool with water from the creek, but that was long ago. At a September public hearing organized by the Sierra Club, she told state officials the chemical smell from the creek was so strong she has to keep her windows closed during the summer.

In advance of the hearing, the Water Sentinels printed flyers alerting residents of the Oakbrook subdivision, through which Gunpowder Creek flows, that the pollution jeopardized their health - particularly children, who are most apt to play in the creek. The flyer pointed out that antifreeze in the creek didn't do much for property values either.

"The hearing was packed," says Guilfoile, who replaced Mayfield last fall. "And it wasn't just environmental groups or sporting groups speaking out; it was John Q. Citizen from the Oakbrook subdivision."

"The Sierra Club was absolutely critical in making the public aware of this issue," says Ann Gunkel, an environmental engineering professor and Oakbrook resident who also testified at the September hearing. "The Club did literature drops, recruited volunteers, got people out to meetings, and did the water-quality sampling that served as the science behind the activism."

With her background in environmental science - and as a mother afraid to let her kids go anywhere near the creek - Gunkel became a community spokesperson, going door-to-door to talk with neighbors. She also had her students draft a letter to the state urging that the situation be addressed ASAP.

Heather Mayfield
Heather Mayfield
The Kentucky Division of Water has monitored airport runoff for years, and in 1997 it issued a discharge permit to the airport, along with a $150,000 fine and a cleanup order stating that the two creeks were "severely impacted" by de-icing fluid in violation of state clean-water laws. Yet the airport was allowed to continue polluting with no further fines even after the permit expired in 2002.

Mayfield, who still volunteers with the Sentinels, says even when the 1997 permit was in force, it allowed too much antifreeze to be discharged. "Other airports, Chicago, for instance, allowed barely one-eighth as much runoff pollution as was permitted here."

The permit was further flawed in that it moved the monitoring points, failed to spell out penalties for violations, and required the airport to monitor the streams only once a week. "We've found huge swings in water quality within 12-hour periods," Mayfield points out. "Continuous monitoring is critical." In a major victory for the Water Sentinels, the new discharge permit, issued on February 7, states that both Gunpowder and Elijah creeks will now be monitored continuously.

Throughout its campaign, the Sierra Club emphasized that it is not opposed to the use of de-icing fluid, which is necessary for planes to take off in cold weather. "Our beef was with the state, not the airport," Mayfield says.

The airport has spent $38 million to date on water-treatment facilities and a recycling system to keep de-icing fluids out of the local creeks. A new treatment plant was installed January 2004 at the headwaters of Gunpowder Creek, which rises on airport property. In September, a series of pipes was installed to collect the glycol from runway de-icing pads and funnel it to storage tanks where the water is boiled off and the glycol separated out. A second treatment plant to clean the water headed for Elijah Creek is scheduled for completion in 2006.

The facility on Gunpowder Creek was put to the test over the holidays when a huge snowstorm hit Cincinnati. The storm was so severe that the airport ran out of de-icer and had to have more trucked in.

"For the first time, we found no evidence of de-icers in Gunpowder after the storm," exults Scott Dye. "It looks like we've finally turned the corner."

"We demonstrated that the Water Sentinels can muster public support for water quality," Guilfoile says. To learn more about the Water Sentinels Program, see

Smokestack photo: Corbis/Royalty-Free; used with permission.
Creek photo: Tim Guilfoile; used with permission

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