Mar. 10—A wintery mix of rain and snow was predicted a few days ago for Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the kind of forecast airfield managers never hear in tropical places such as Miami or Tampa.
But in Buffalo, the snow and cold means crews spend much of their days de-icing an average of 110 daily flights to make them safe for takeoff. It also means that rivers of thick and hazardous de-icing liquids drip off planes emblazoned with names like JetBlue, United, and Southwest. And all that "stuff," unwelcome in sewers, needs someplace to go.
At Buffalo Airport, a new and expanded network of "engineered wetlands" appears to be satisfying Environmental Protection Agency mandates, and more. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority has just completed a new component of an overall $12 million project that sends all those fluids into giant, underground lagoons "staffed" by billions of bacteria ready to break it all down.
Not all airports handle the job on site. Indeed, only Edmonton uses the same system in all of North America. And some airports complain about the high costs involved. But the NFTA is enthused about a method that, for the most part, neutralizes the hazardous materials necessary to safely fly airplanes in this part of the world.
"We did not take that approach," said NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel about some airports' pushback against new federal regulations. "We said it was the right thing to do."
As a result, a new 5 million gallon underground lagoon has just come on line at the airport, off Cayuga Road near the air cargo facility. It expands an original system installed in 2008-2009, doubling the original four "cells" covering an area the size of a football field in a pit about 1.5 meters deep. Bacteria near the surface attack the thick glycol liquid pumped from specified de-icing areas on taxiways. Four 250hp motors power blowers that uniformly force air over the beds to promote biological degradation of the glycol and other contaminants.
"The challenge all airports face is how do you capture and treat all this glycol," Minkel said, adding that the Buffalo Airport faces the physical constraints of the Thruway, Genesee Street and Cayuga Road. "But it became clear to us we needed additional storage capacity."
The new system can handle about 10,000 pounds of glycol per day, which Minkel equates to the output of a "small city." But unlike a small city where the flow usually remains constant, the airport must deal with the fluctuations of precipitation and melting snow, though the authority acknowledges they are unable to construct anything large enough for the worst storm that could occur in 100 years.
"The beauty of the system is what you don't see — you don't see what is happening underground," Minkel said, adding the underground location allows the bacteria to function even in cold weather. "The other beauty is that it is all passive and requires few operators."
The beds breaking down the glycol are covered to prevent interaction with waterfowl and other animals.
"Airports and wildlife don't mix," Minkel said.
The new system marks a sharp departure from the old days of vacuum trucks inefficiently collecting the excess glycol, transporting it to a holding tank and sending it off to the Town of Cheektowaga for treatment — at a cost of $250,000-$350,000 per year.
The system now allows planes to be de-iced at their gate, without the need for movement to a special area. Airlines appreciate any move that makes their airport operations more efficient, Minkel said.
"It's important for airlines to get in and out as quickly as possible," she said, adding that success often translates into happy airlines and the possibility of increased service.
Airport officials say that the new method guards against contaminants entering local waterways 95% of the time, up from 85% under the old system. Minkel explained that the decontaminated runoff enters the U-Crest Ditch near the airport, and only occasionally exceeds government limits on discharged glycol. She compared it to the occasional sewage discharges from municipal wastewater plants when the system is overwhelmed by a cloudburst.
The direct discharges occur only to prevent flooding of the airport's southwest corner, she added.
Indeed, the authority has in the past been fined for such infractions, she acknowledged, though not in recent years. And state Department of Environmental Conservation officials say they continue to work with the airport to protect public health and the environment.
But Minkel also said the contaminants get naturally filtered in the ditch before entering Scajaquada Creek, now the focus of possible cleanup efforts. Still, the purposed of the expanded system is to address those situations, she said.
"It's not perfect," Minkel said, "but significantly better."
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