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Ford Airport proposes new system to prevent bacterial slime in nearby creek

The main airport in Grand Rapids isproposing to build a new systemto prevent the buildup of a bacterial film in a nearby river. The system would be the first of its kind at airports in Michigan.

In the winter, airplanes across the state are sprayed down with a fluid to prevent the buildup of snow and ice.

At Gerald R. Ford International Airport, roughly a third of that de-icing fluid makes its way into a small creek nearby. Bacteria in the creek can easily break down the fluid but they create a smelly film in the process.

The state considers the bio-slime a nuisance, not a human health risk. But it does deplete the oxygen, choking out aquatic life.

The airport’s facilities director Tom Ecklund points out where they’d like to build a new treatment system to prevent the bio-slime.

Credit Gerald R. Ford International Airport
An overview of the proposed system.

“What we want to do is we want to take advantage of the contours of this particular piece of property,” he says.

Ecklund shows how the system would pipe the de-icing fluid from the airport down through twelve underground ponds. Inside, bacteria would eat up the majority of the de-icing fluid before it drained into the Thornapple River below.

Credit Gerald R. Ford International Airport
A close up look at the design of the "cells" or underground ponds where bacteria will break down the majority of deicing fluid before it would drain into the Thornapple River.

At a public hearing last week, Ecklund made the case for the treatment system to hundreds of residents. By diverting and treating the runoff, airport officials say the system will eliminate the bio-slime. Amy Dowling lives near the river.

“I think that we all know that money talks and we’re trying to do it as cheap as possible. And so we just want to make sure that we’re trying to do it not just as cheap as possible but as good as possible,” says Dowling.

The project is expected to cost $19 million. That is cheaper than what it would cost the airport to build a separate area for airplanes to get sprayed with deicing fluid before takeoff. The fluid is easier to vacuum up in one centralized place. That’s what Detroit Metro Airport does. That’s what Flint’s Bishop Airport decided to do a couple of years ago when bio-slime became a problem there. Ford airport officials say they'd consider adding deicing pads if monitoring showed the proposed system wasn't taking care of the problem.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will requirenew airports to have deicing pads.

Dean Mericas is one of the national experts the Ford airport hired to develop the system. He kept trying to sway the skeptics in the crowd.

“Central de-icing pads we’re thoroughly analyzed as part of our alternatives. And what we found out was they would not solve the problem,” he says.

Mericas claims the bio-slime would still be a problem in the creek if the airport built deicing pads alone. He says the pads would increase flight delays, the cost of airport operations, even the exhaust emissions from planes waiting in line to get sprayed down.

John Kuiper is president of one of the nearby neighborhood associations.

“Part of the outcry here is when something goes on for 8, 9 years and the airport can literally sit here and say we’ve never received a violation does not sit well with us. And it does dramatically impact their credibility.”

The airport hasn’t received any violations from the state for the bio-slime. And that’s why many neighbors aren’t happy with how the Michigan Department of Environment Quality has handled the issue.

MDEQ’s Ryan Grant says he’s been aware of the bio-slime problems for years.

“I’m not going to deny that I did not see them. But we work through a process in the DEQ and unfortunately sometimes it’s not as quick as everyone would like it. But I think at this point that today I am confident that this problem is going to be solved,” says Grant.

The state can’t tell the airport how to solve the problem. But it will require something be done to stop the bio-slime by October 2015. The DEQ is taking public comments on the proposal through the end of this month.

The Thornapple River Watershed Council published this video about the ongoing issues.


Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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