Each winter, airports around the country use more than 30 million
gallons of deicing fluid. The gooey substance prevents ice and snow from
building on a plane’s wings. However, the fluid can also seep into the
ground and pollute groundwater. It’s a costly problem for airports. But
now, one has found a unique solution. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:
Each winter, airports around the country use more than 30 million gallons of deicing fluid. The
gooey substance prevents ice and snow from building up on a plane’s wings. However, the fluid can
also seep into the ground and pollute groundwater. It’s a costly problem for airports. But now, one
has found a unique solution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:
(sound of plane)
It’s a cold, overcast day in Albany, New York as a passenger plane lifts off the runway. It’s one
of the hundred or so planes that take off from here every day. At this time of year, they’ll all
have to be deiced. Steve Lachetta is the Albany airport’s planner and environmental manager.
“We’re in the Hudson River basin and our winter season extends for over 214 days, from early
October through late April or early May. Albany, being a typical small hub, uses 100 thousand
gallons of PG per year.”
PG is propylene glycol, the main ingredient in deicing fluid that makes it gooey. Any time the
temperature dips below 40 degrees, airports are required by the FCC to use PG. The problem is,
propylene glycol also seeps into the ground.
And in Albany’s case, it started showing up in the nearby Mohawk River – a local source for
drinking water. So, Albany became the first airport in the country to receive a state mandate to
clean up its deicing fluid.
“We were spending one million dollars to dispose of our winter storm water after collection. So we
tried every form of recycling the fluid, trucking it off airport. And we took a common sense
approach to cost control and became very interested in establishing biological treatment.”
In other words, Lachetta turned to microorganisms for help. He added bacteria to the dirty storm
water. And found they started digesting the propylene glycol. The bacteria broke it down into
acidic acid and then carbon dioxide and methane. The process gives the microorganisms fuel to grow.
“The manufacturers refer to propylene glycol as the filling of the Oreo cookie of the microbe world
and very readily digested so we did much experimentation and found total removal. Byproducts are 85
percent pure methane and 15 percent carbon dioxide.”
(sound inside treatment plant)
That pure methane is put to use here – providing heat for the airport’s storm water treatment
plant. It looks like something out of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The room is filled
with a jumble of brightly colored pipes. There’s deep purple, vibrant green and canary yellow. Each
one has a special purpose.
“The large blue pipes are cycling 22 gallons per minute through the large vessels outside standing
35 feet high, 14 feet wide, and the brown pipes are the dirty storm water directly off the aircraft
aprons and the light blue pipes are for the clean water.”
Those pipes run to and from a pair of giant mixing vats. They stir up a brew of dirty storm water,
microorganisms, and some extra nutrients. It’s all cooked at a temperature of 85 degrees. And the
result is clean water.
Shelly Zuskin-Barish is the project manager for the EPA’s Airport Deicing Operations Study. She
says Albany has the most stringent treatment program in the country.
“I was very impressed when reviewing their treatment system. We found they were getting very good
removal in terms of not only propylene glycol but also an additive called tolyltriazole.”
Zuskin-Barish says there’s growing concern about tolytriazole because of its impact on aquatic
life. This is the first system she’s seen that removes it. As for propylene glycol, most airports
use a combination of recycling it and trucking it off site. Albany’s system removes more of the
pollutants, and it’s cheaper. Zuskin-Barish says Albany is on the cutting edge because it had to
Albany airport has a local limit through their own state of 1 part per million propylene glycol.
For the different airports we’ve seen, that’s a very tight limit and I think in large part, pushed
them to go to this technology, which is helping them achieve those levels on a daily basis.
But now, other states – and countries – are starting to crack down as well. And Albany’s Steve
Iachetta is getting lots of visitors.
“We’ve been visited by Tokyo International, some European airports, the Department of Defense, much
larger airports, Denver, Nashville, other hubs that have come to see our early pioneering efforts.
It’s great to be on the leading edge. It’s nice to know we can contribute to improving the
Right now, airport pollution controls differ from state to state. But next winter, the EPA will
consider national regulations to govern the disposal of deicing fluid. That may bring even more
visitors to Albany – to find out how a small airport ended up with the country’s most innovative
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly in Albany, New York.