Panama City airport builder faces environmental fine
By Craig Pittman, Times staff writer
Published Monday, April 27, 2009
A contractor building the new Panama City airport has repeatedly violated water pollution rules and now is likely to face a fine from the state Department of Environmental Protection, a top DEP official said recently.
"We really want this fixed," said Dick Fancher, who oversees the DEP in the Panhandle.
But the contractor, James Finch of Phoenix Construction, denies causing any pollution problems.
"We've not had any violations," said Finch, a sponsor of NASCAR driver Mike Wallace's team. Finch's construction company has been penalized before for violating water pollution laws.
Told that Fancher had mentioned fining his company, Finch blurted out, "A fine?!"
He blamed "birdwatchers" for reporting problems that didn't exist, noting that environmental groups had sued in a vain attempt to stop construction of the controversial new airport.
In November 2007 Gov. Charlie Crist led the groundbreaking for the airport, the first to be built in the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The airport, being built on a 4,000-acre site donated by the St. Joe Co., will eventually be larger than Tampa International Airport, although it serves a far less populated area.
At the time, Crist hailed it as "a national model for economic transformation and environmental preservation." To secure the state and federal permits to build the airport, St. Joe agreed to preserve thousands of acres of land nearby — although it also expects to develop and sell 70,000 acres around the airport itself.
The $330-million airport project has drawn strong support from elected officials ranging from the Republican Crist to Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. They view it as using taxpayer dollars to stimulate the Panhandle's economy.
St. Joe's former CEO, Peter Rummell, told the St. Petersburg Times in 2002 that unless the airport is built, much of his company's development plans for the region would be stillborn.
However, the new airport is not popular locally. In a 2004 nonbinding referendum, Bay County residents voted 54 percent to 46 percent to oppose it, even if it wouldn't cost them a dime. They were satisfied with the current airport, which is located in the city and draws very little air traffic.
The airport is being built on what Finch called "a virgin site" amid a former wildlife management area adjacent to Florida's oldest state forest, Pine Log State Forest. Linda Young of the Clean Water Network, one of the groups that tried to stop the airport, said the site had "crystal clear streams which slowly fed two sandy-bottomed creeks that eventually opened into West Bay."
Phoenix won the $112.5-million contract for site preparation and runway paving, which included moving some 9 million cubic yards of earth, much of it used to fill in the swampy property, and building an 8,400-foot concrete runway.
Since work began last year, though, on four occasions, rainstorms led to cloudy, mud-laden runoff washing into nearby waterways, the DEP has found. Construction contractors are not supposed to allow that to happen.
The DEP has not fully assessed the damage yet, Fancher said, but sediment washed off the site may have covered up important wildlife habitat, including shellfish beds in West Bay.
"It can suffocate smaller animals in the system," he said. "It can absolutely have biological impacts."
Young said the water cascading into the creeks and bay would have been absorbed by the cypress swamps on the site if they hadn't been filled in. In a news release, she contended DEP has been slow to react to the problem and added, "This situation demands more than a slap on the wrist."
Florida nature writer Jack Rudloe, author of such books as The Wilderness Coast, sent Crist an e-mail that said, "You bear a good part of the responsibility for this ecological disaster with your approval of the St. Joe-Panama City Airport."
Finch has been active in politics as well as motor sports, donating more than $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in the past five years and $40,000 to a John McCain presidential campaign committee last year, records show. He also donated $2,000 to Nelson's 2006 re-election campaign.
This is not the first time Finch and Phoenix Construction have been accused of violating environmental regulations. Court records show he has been cited for building illegal bulkheads in the bay to create extra waterfront property for his home. And his company was fined $23,000 for illegally filling in more than 3 acres of wetlands without a permit even after DEP officials told him to stop.
In that 2002 case, a hearing officer ruled that Finch's record showed "if not a complete disregard for regulatory controls, certainly a trivializing of the importance of such controls."
— Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.