Blast from the Past
Repeat air and water quality violator NAS Jax lands on a watch list of national polluters and repeat offender
Published January 3, 2012
Jacksonville isn’t covered in a smelly fog like Tonnawanda, N.Y. or coated with a black mist like Ponca City, Okla. But like those cities, Jacksonville is home to a polluter that’s on a list of chronic or serious violators of the U.S. Clean Air Act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers 464 facilities so problematic that they were placed on an internal “Watch List” created under the Bush Administration in 2004.
The Watch List was a secret document until the EPA published it on its website in the fall of 2011, in response to a Freedom of Information request from National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity. EPA has used the Watch List since 2004 to identify what it describes as “recidivist and chronically non-complying facilities.” A site is added to the Watch List if nine months pass after a Clean Air Act violation occurs without any enforcement action.
Naval Air Station Jacksonville is not only on the Watch List, it’s one of 1,600 sites that EPA says has committed “High Priority Violations” of the Clean Air Act, or violations that demand urgent action. NAS Jax is the only site in Northeast Florida on both lists, and one of just four sites in the entire state.
EPA cautions that landing on the list doesn’t mean that a facility has poisoned the air around it, or even necessarily resisted enforcement action. Some Watch List violators are the worst polluters in the country, to be sure, but others are breaking rules in ways that don’t endanger human lives. Indeed, the existence of the EPA’s list of chronic polluters may be as much evidence of the weakness of the Clean Air Act as it is an indictment of the facilities on the list.
Twenty-one years after the act was supposedly strengthened, industries in the U.S. still expose the people who live near them to dangerous concentrations of hazardous chemicals. The Watch List shows how little is done to curtail or punish those who violate the terms of their permits. Some facilities identified as committing High Priority Violations have been on the list for more than 10 years. And since the EPA relies almost exclusively on industry self-reporting of violations, most incidents have literally gone up in smoke before regulators respond.
In the case of NAS Jacksonville, the violation that landed the facility on the Watch List was a failure to secure needed permits, not one in which it was emitting pollution far beyond what existing permits allowed. In May 2009, one of the commands at the base sandblasted paint off the rivets of an airplane wing in a blasting booth not permitted for wing work.
Base environmental director Kevin Gartland says there were no hazardous emissions, but he acknowledges NAS Jax didn’t seek or receive the required permits. The command center also failed to keep a record of when the sandblasting booth was fired up and for how long, the metrics that EPA uses to estimate emissions. According to correspondence from the enforcement file, a supervising officer first raised questions with EPA when he saw the blasting facility was being used for airplane wings. When he discovered that additional permits were needed in May 2009, Gartland says, the operation was immediately halted and additional permits were sought and secured.
Gartland had no explanation for why EPA hasn’t issued fines or punishments in the case over the past two-and-a-half years, other than to suggest that it wasn’t a priority.
“I believe because it was such a minor issue, it went to the bottom of the stack,” Gartland offers. “We immediately stopped it and self-reported.”
But the fact that the 2009 violation landed NAS Jax on the Watch List is due at least in part because it came on the heels of a more serious 2004 Clean Air Act violation. In that case, the Navy was firing up a blasting booth for the first time. During its test run, the booth is required to report actual versus permitted emissions. The NAS Jax booth was permitted to release three pounds of particulate matter per hour, but released twice as much — six pounds per hour. While awaiting test results from that initial run, the Navy fired up the blaster five more times — emitting more than 42 pounds of particulate matter into the atmosphere. NAS Jacksonville paid a civil penalty of $20,800 and was to complete an environmental project, at a cost of $93,100, to install a finer filtration system.
The size and intensity of that violation was the reason state regulators turned enforcement on the 2009 case over to EPA and recommended that NAS Jacksonville continue to be listed on the High Priority Violations List. NAS Jacksonville is the largest Naval base in the Southeast U.S. and the third largest in the nation — 25,000 acres that include aircraft maintenance and repair facilities, a master station for marine work, a Naval hospital, dormitories, a fleet readiness center and pilot training facilities. The site is also on the EPA’s National Priority List — a list of contaminated sites scheduled for cleanup, often subsidized by the so-called “Superfund” — and the Navy is overseeing eight related cleanups just at NAS Jax. The sites contain at least 55 hazardous contaminants that have polluted the groundwater, soil and river sediments.
NAS Jacksonville has run into the most trouble from its repeated violations of the Clean Water Act. This past October alone, the Navy had three spills that required cleanup — two rather small (8 ounces of diesel fuel and 50 gallons of sea dye marker) and one fairly large (200 gallons of diesel fuel spilled at a loading dock). Between October and December ’08, the facility’s wastewater discharge exceeded federal chlorine limits 60 percent of the time. The Navy did sediment borings in the St. Johns River to determine the extent of chlorine contamination from its wastewater treatment plant. A web of trenches was also discovered under one of the older buildings, where runoff from airplane painting operations and wastewater overflows washed before seeping into the groundwater and making its way into the storm drains and into the river.
The combined violations resulted in more than $300,000 in fines from EPA, and an order to reduce the levels of copper and chlorine in the facility’s wastewater discharge. In lieu of paying the fines, NAS Jax will invest in a large-scale water recycling system to handle the 800,000 gallons of wastewater the base produces daily. The sewage will be treated to a slightly higher standard than is currently used, then pumped to the Timuquana Country Club and the Naval Air Station Jacksonville Golf Club, as well as to the grounds of NAS Jacksonville, for irrigation. Gartland says that the base will have zero wastewater discharge by 2014.
While wastewater violations aren’t a cause to celebrate, the result will be a net good for the environment, according to St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. NAS Jacksonville is the first large facility to commit to zero wastewater discharge in Duval County. “That kind of thinking is what we’ve all got to have to move forward,” he says. “Fixing what’s wrong with the river will not be quick or cheap, but if you start and continue to make progress, eventually we will see some benefits.”
Susan Cooper Eastman
NPR and the Center for Public Integrity recently ran a four-part series, based on the Watch List and the list of High Priority Violations, “Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities.” The Center for Public Integrity posted additional coverage on its website iWatchnews.org.