Northwest Florida Beaches Airport is situated 15 kilometres inland from famous white sand beaches, amidst dense pine forests and marshes. In 2009, as construction was underway, Journalist Hal Herring described the area as the ‘last undeveloped expanse of Florida’, the wetlands among the most biologically diverse habitats in the US, providing a haven for black bears, red-cockaded woodpeckers and the endangered gopher tortoise. Rivers, creeks and springs flowing into West Bay and among the cleanest in the country, are vital for inshore fisheries. When construction of the airport began in 2008 concrete was being produced on site at a rate sufficient to fill a mixing truck every two and a half minutes. By May 2009, two kilometres of slow-moving streams had been paved over. The porous wetlands were too fragile to support conventional building foundations, so earth was excavated and filled in with reinforced concrete supported by steel poles. The airport has one runway and the site covers 1,618 hectares, providing plenty of room for growth including two additional runways. Northwest Florida Beaches Airport was built in spite of six lawsuits from environmental groups and a non-binding referendum in which 56 per cent of citizens rejected the project. Opponents of the airport were outraged by the wording of the question posed by the referendum, as it stated there would no cost to taxpayers. The voters were misled. Construction of the airport cost about USD318 million, from a variety of federal, state and local government sources in approximately equal amounts. Linda Young, Director of Clean Water Network of Florida (CWN), a coalition of 155 groups committed to safeguarding water resources, said ‘decision-makers have been hoodwinked into spending vast sums of public money on an environmentally destructive fiasco’.
Water quality violations
Authorization of construction of the airport by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in September 2006, heightening concerns over destruction of 809 hectares of wetlands for the airport itself, triggering development on ‘thousands of surrounding acres’ of wetlands that provide wildlife habitat and are vital for buffering storms and controlling flooding. In November 2006 two conservationist groups, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Defenders of Wildlife, along with a pilots’ organization, Friends of PFN (Panama City Airport), filed a law suit against construction of the airport. Melanie Shepherdson of NRDC slammed FAA approval of the airport as illegal, saying: ‘The law is clear: The agency has to pick the alternative that is least damaging to the environment. And it failed to do that.’ Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority attempted to assuage concerns over building a major airport on wetlands by committing to storm and wastewater treatment systems exceeding the requirements of Florida law. But these standards were flouted during airport construction. CWN reported that even light rainfall resulted in uncontrolled mudflows. Water from above the airport site had previously been absorbed by sponge like wetlands and forest then released slowly into West Bay. Now it rushed over the impermeable concrete of the airport site. CWN reported that: ‘The torrents of mud from the site have clouded previously pristine waters flowing downstream from the airport site and accumulating in marshes, creeks, streams, fish beds and the estuary, causing a steady decline in habitat and water quality.’ CWN stated that the company building the airport, Phoenix Construction Services, was ‘in clear violation of its generic permit for stormwater discharge with turbidity levels in runoff draining into creeks and wetlands significantly higher than permitted by Florida’s water quality standards. Already, in May 2009, the state of Florida had imposed USD393,849 in fines for 72 water quality violations and filling in a small area of wetland without a permit.
Development on land around the airport
Part of the rationale for the airport project, enveloped by pine forests and far from population centres, was to facilitate development on the land surrounding it. Shepherdson explained that ‘the airport to nowhere’ will spur construction of industrial parks, hotels, shopping malls and condominiums. Northwest Florida Beaches Airport is the lynchpin of the West Sector Bay Plan for commercial and residential development, described by Hal Herring as ‘the largest land-planning effort ever undertaken in Florida’. Randy Curtis, Executive Director of Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority said: ‘The relocation of the airport is going to be the trigger to remake the entire Bay County area.’ The site for the airport was donated by St. Joe Company, one of the largest private landowners in Florida. St. Joe’s 2009 Annual Report explains that the company owns almost 290 square kilometers surrounding the new airport, and stands to profit from development of beach front residences and office, industrial, retail and hotel development around the airport itself. The Annual Report states: ‘We anticipate that the airport will provide a catalyst for value creation in the property we own surrounding the airport, as well as our other properties throughout Northwest Florida.’ Approval of the airport project was facilitated by St. Joe’s considerable political influence, evident from donations to more than 100 state candidates between 1997 and 2002, at the maximum legal amount.
Uncertainties over preservation area
Some environmental groups were placated by St. Joe’s promise to mitigate environmental damage of the airport by setting aside 162 square kilometers of woodlands and shoreline as a preservation area, to remain undeveloped in perpetuity. But almost half of this area is merely the legally required mitigation for loss of wetlands habitat to the airport and there were uncertainties regarding the status of the preservation area. St. Joe failed to respond to repeated requests to formalise the preservation area by confirming it in writing and protection of geographically isolated wetlands had been removed in 2001, leaving no recourse to federal law. Hal Herring pointed out that protection of a specific area of wetlands, in isolation from the wider ecosystem, is unworkable anyway; the entire watershed depends upon water flows that are now blocked by the concrete slab of the airport along with access roads. CWN’s Linda Young likened the preservation plan to saying ‘we’re going to preserve your arms and legs forever, but we're going to cut out your heart and liver’. Northwest Florida Beaches Airport opened on 23rd May May 2010. A veneer of native flora and foliage - goldenrods, purple muhly grass and yellow and pink Indian blanket flowers - adorned the entrances to the airport and terminal. But ecological damage to the wetlands surrounding the airport continued. There had been further incidences of stormwater runoff damage to wetlands; in September 2010 the Department of Environmental Protection ordered the Airport Authority to plant 600 trees to replace 86 that had been killed. Problems caused by stormwater runoff polluting creeks with dirt and sediment continued into 2012. Northwest Florida Beaches Airport sought USD1.25 million government funds, from the FAA or State Department of Transportation, to collect the excess water and use it to irrigate the plants around the airport entrance.