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The Impact of Deicing Airplanes in the South

Many industries in the South are left unprepared for ice and snow as the climate changes. Almost all of these industries have infrastructures that are impossible to update and change without massive financial losses, and airports are a major culprit. In the February ice storm, which impacted primarily Texas and Missouri, airports in the area were forced to use an unprecedented amount of deicing agents on their planes. Southern airports’ inexperience with these agents raise concerns about the safety of wildlife near airports due to the chemical components within the substances. Northern airports, who are used to the annual usage of these fluids, have large designated runoff areas to collect the deicing agent in order to properly dispose of it. Southern states have much smaller runoff areas, usually only accounting for the amount that would be necessary to eliminate a thin layer of frost from a plane. In the February storm, Texas was using the chemicals to rid of several inches of snow and ice.

The safety of deicing fluids has been debated for decades. This is especially true for states that traditionally do not see cold weather, and therefore have less experience in accounting for these chemicals. In 1999, a reservoir near the Dallas Ft. Worth Airport named Trigg Lake was exposed to chemical runoff containing mostly deicing fluids. Subsequently, most of the fish species in the lake died, and the ones that survived were “swimming on their sides and flopping intermittently” according to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission inspectors who were investigating the disaster. The deicing fluids had depleted the dissolved oxygen in the water, practically suffocating the fish. The lake itself was also reported to smell like a “sewer,” and eventually there was a shift in the local food chain and bird migration patterns due to the fish dying off. Local drinking water had also turned a red color. While not dangerous for humans to consume, it was a terrifying ordeal for locals whose water source was the Trigg Lake. Dallas recognized the issue, and changed their chemical collection system to prevent deicing materials from further seeping into local wildlife.

After making the changes, the Dallas airport claimed that they were successful in preventing all runoff from reaching neighboring ecosystems. In 2003-2004, the airport hired a team of researchers to prove this claim. However, the research uncovered some troubling details about the airport’s improved measures in disposing of chemicals. The research found, by measuring dissolved oxygen concentrations in local waters, that “contrary to the DFW claim of complete capture of deicing fluids by its deicing fluid collection systems set up at various deicing pad locations,” much of the deicing runoff was still making it past the airport and into habitats. Even more worrying, they specifically found high traces of anti-icing particles, which is the type of fluid used to keep planes from creating ice build up during their ascent, something that was used more prominently during the North American snowstorm in February. Further changes have not been implemented following the 2004 study, meaning deicing runoff from Dallas Ft. Worth can still reach local lakes and rivers.

Northern airports across the United States and Canada have a different layout than their southern counterparts, largely because the local restrictions are tougher due to years of environmental damage caused by deicing and anti-icing fluids—damages that the south has not seen until very recently. Northern hubs like Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Toronto are home to heavier restrictions. Minneapolis, for instance, has stricter runoff requirements due to the plethora of lakes that surround the airport. Stronger regulations in Minneapolis and other northern airports came during the eighties when new airlines and routes were being flown more frequently. The increase in fluid caused major issues to the aquatic environments surrounding the airports. Meanwhile, cold temperatures and winter weather conditions in the southern region of the United States were extremely rare at the time, which meant no changes had to be made to the airports. In the North, deicing pads had to be strategically located on the airport property based on contour maps and underground waterbeds to minimize the possible leakage of fluids. For now, environmental damage to southern ecosystems compared to the north is expected to continue as stakeholders wait for the lengthy process of environmental studies, states’ acknowledgement of the issue, and funding for the necessary changes. 

As colder temperatures in the South become more frequent, the biggest ecosystem disturbances will happen not in the big cities like Dallas, but the smaller city’s airports. There are two forms of deicing fluid: deicing which gets rid of snow and ice, and anti-icing fluid which prevents ice build up. Flights into smaller airports are usually the last flight of the day for the aircraft, letting it sit in colder temperatures for many hours overnight, creating an ice build up. This means that in the morning, these small airports will have to use both anti-icing and deicing fluids on the aircraft because they will need to both prevent ice build up and get rid of the already present ice. Therefore, smaller cities will see a greater impact to their aquatic environments from the high use of chemicals.

While pilots are trained to operate in snowy conditions, local Texans employed at airports are not. In the February storm, Southern states used an unprecedented amount of deicing fluids to keep airports running throughout the cold weather, ice, and snowfall. These never-before-seen amounts of deicing fluid came with a massive amount of flights being cancelled at all major airports throughout the region. The possibility of a plane being improperly de-iced could have catastrophic results, along with the mishandling of chemicals that could leak into the local environment. Airports in the South could better prepare for the changing weather by training their employees for storm conditions, using larger deicing pads, and committing to collecting their deicing fluids before they escape airport property. A favorable method is to collect used fluid and reuse it on more planes. The airport in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has committed to collecting and reusing all their deicing fluids, thus allowing less seepage into the surrounding environment. Widespread use of this tactic could help to better sustain water resources and aquatic ecosystems.

 

Sources

Ariyajunya, B., Tarun, P. K., Chen, V. C. P., & Bum Kim, S. (2004). Modeling the Impact of Airport Deicing and Anti-icing Activities on Dissolved Oxygen Levels in the Receiving Waterways. Dallas Ft. Worth. Retrieved from https://www.chijournal.org/Content/Files/C441.pdf

Boe, D. (2009, September 29). EPA: Limit plane deicing chemical runoff. NBCNews.com. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna33071411. 

Delasanta, D. (2010, July 23). Treatment Of Deicing Fluids. AviationPros. Retrieved from https://www.aviationpros.com/airports/airports-municipalities/article/10371066/treatment-of-deicing-fluids  

Neistein, M. (2020, January 27). Where Does All That Deicing Fluid Go? At PIT, It’s Recycled. Blue Sky PIT News Site. Retrieved from https://blueskypit.com/2019/11/18/where-does-all-that-deicing-fluid-go-at-pit-its-recycled/  

Rozen, M. (1999, September 16). Troubled waters. Dallas Observer. Retrieved from https://www.dallasobserver.com/news/troubled-waters-6397309  

 

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