D/FW Whistleblower to (Finally) Get Day in Court
Almost seven years ago, former Dallas Observer writer Miriam Rozen chronicled how Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was polluting Trigg Lake, the lake at the airport's southeast corner that was full of dead fish. D/FW officials blamed it on a busted sewage line; environmental groups and ultimately the government didn't think so, and the Environmental Protection Agency threatened to investigate the airport for polluting nearby watersheds, including the Trinity River. According to Miriam's story, the airport had inadequate draining systems to handle everything from the jet fuel to de-icing fluids running off the runways, and "within an hour of a storm at D/FW, industrial waste could easily be on its way to lakes and streams," she wrote. That was in September 1999. Eight months earlier, Susan Heath, a former environmental affairs analyst at D/FW, which is owned and operated by Dallas and Fort Worth, filed a federal suit against the airport alleging the same thing and worse: Heath claimed not only did D/FW officials knowingly taint the water supply and do nothing about it, but they also covered up the dumping in order to secure more than $200 million in Federal Aviation Agency grants. Airport officials have always denied the allegations.
That suit's been sitting at the federal courthouse downtown ever since, and only now is its resolution sort of in sight: On July 5 in U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn's courtroom, a jury will begin hearing Susan Heath v. Dallas/Fort Worth International, in which Heath alleges that DFW covered up information that the airport's industrial waste water and storm water system "grossly violated the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code" as far back as 1992, when the airport began an expansion involving two new runways, two terminals, more than 400 acres of parking and other necessary additions. In its October 2005 motion for summary judgment, which the judge tossed out (for the most part) about two weeks ago, airport officials claimed the whistleblower's full of hot air:
"This is not a case about whether DFW expended these grant funds for the exact purposes that the FAA provided them to the Airport...This is not an environmental case. [Heath] cannot determine whether DFW should be fined because of environmental allegations...This is not a case about environmental issues unique to DFW. Every airport in the country faces the same problems with industrial waste water and deicing fluids...What this case is about is a [plaintiff] who believes that she knows, better than anyone else, what the FAA should do, what the environmental laws should say, and how DFW should act."
It's doubtful Susan Heath would disagree with that last part: Attorney Kevin Voth, of the Dallas firm Mills & Williams, says for the last seven years Heath has acted as the small firm's "resident expert in terms of what goes on at D/FW and the environmental issues there." She was the one charged with sorting through the some 400,000 documents the airport produced during discovery. "She's the main worker in terms of figuring out what's useful," Voth says, "and it's been tough dealing with this for such a long period. It's fairly grueling. That's not an unreasonable term to use."
In 2000, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the EPA and the FBI formed a joint investigative force to collect and review thousands of documents concerning the airport's waste-disposal system, but in May 2001 the Department of Justice told airport attorneys they were off the hook and that no criminal charges would be filed. But only six months later, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a two-part series in which the paper affirmed what others had been saying for years: that "pollutants from D/FW Airport have flowed into waters where people fish, that the airport sometimes misrepresented waste problems to investigators and that antifreeze can still escape into creeks despite recent improvements." Fives years after that, the civil suit Heath brought against the airport will at last go to trial, and D/FW could face anywhere from $10 million to $420 million in penalties if the jury agrees with the whistleblower.
"If nothing else, we hope that people will realize the degree to which D/FW has been involved in polluting the environment and the degree to which they have decided to ignore those facts or willfully blind themselves to those facts and recklessly disregard the fact these environmental violations are going on," Voth says. "Pollutants have entered the Dallas-Fort Worth watershed, yet they've made no effort to come clean about it, and that demonstrates the fact they don't care about this problem as long as they get their money. People should be concerned, regardless of the outcome of the trial." --Robert Wilonsky