Airport Advisory commissioners question jet-fuel storage monitoring plan

Photo by city of Austin

Thursday, March 16, 2023 by Nina Hernandez

Members of the city’s Airport Advisory Commission questioned the independent monitoring plan for a new fuel storage facility being built at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

During a staff update on the project at its March 8 meeting, the commission heard a briefing on the third-party monitoring component included in the plan. Kane Carpenter, who is the Department of Aviation’s environmental affairs division manager, detailed the measures staff has developed for monitoring the new facility for complaints and potential environmental releases.

“We’ve been improving over the years,” Carpenter said of the environmental laws and regulations in place. “And so I really feel like today a lot of the laws do a really good job. We have a lot of regulations and this facility is heavily regulated.”

ABIA will hire a third-party consulting firm to audit the facility’s compliance records and permits, conduct a comprehensive inspection, and return with a final report including conclusions and recommendations. This is the same process the city uses to oversee operations of the existing airport facility. Carpenter said staff is recommending this audit be conducted annually.

If a potential release is identified, a remedial investigation is triggered. That includes soil sampling, identifying the source of the contaminant, groundwater sampling, stormwater sampling and air sampling. The city is able to step in if the tenant is not taking appropriate action.

But Chair Eugene Sepulveda and Commissioner Wendy Price Todd raised questions about the arrangement. Todd questioned if the regulations have been properly updated since some of them took effect in the 1970s.

“I’m confident that you are compliant with whatever rules and regulations that are in existence. I think you pretty much said some of them are 50 years old,” Todd said. “And maybe some of them are not keeping up with the kind of proprietary equipment that’s going to be placed on the site. We’re meeting the standards, for sure, because you are required to, but I’m more interested to know where we’re exceeding the standards of regulation and reporting.”

Sepulveda noted the timing of those laws being passed with regard to environmental racism. He referenced the chemicals released after the recent train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as well as the 2013 fertilizer plant explosion that devastated West, Texas.

“Instead of addressing it, we allowed people to cover up what chemicals they’re storing on-site,” Sepulveda said. “This community has experience of plant operators living within the ‘letter of the law’ and within the detection systems that are required, and then finding out that there have been gross environmental contaminations.”

Sepulveda said that he was in the position when City Council members had considered the directives that laid out the framework for the independent monitoring plan. “I think what Council asked for was trying to respond to the increased concerns of the neighbors and asking us to do a lot more than what is required and what is standard practice,” Sepulveda said.

Carpenter responded that staff would be willing to negotiate that, but that the presentation covered what staff currently interpreted as Council direction.

“We probably need to make some recommendations to Council and have them come back with greater clarification of their intentions – with involvement of the neighbors,” Sepulveda said.

In response, ABIA chief development officer Somer Shindler said she would take the issue back for discussion among the airport’s leadership team regarding potential next steps.

“I hear you,” she told the commission. “I hear the concerns and the expectation to do more, so we will bring it back. We’ll definitely discuss with our leadership team in determining those next steps about how we can exceed those expectations and what makes sense for operations as well.”

In February, an ABIA project manager reported to the commission a non-toxic mud leak into protected wetlands adjacent to the site. At the time, Sepulveda questioned why the commission and the public had not been notified of the leak, which occurred in September, more promptly.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to correct Kane Carpenter’s title. 

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