Despite Reports, New Airport has Little Environmental Damage

by May 25, 2009 • 20 comments

Despite other reports in the media, the construction of the new Panama City airport in West Bay has caused little disturbance in the natural environmental habitat of the pristine areas of West Bay, Burnt Mill Creek and the adjoining waterways.  Linda Young of the Clean Water Network, a whistle blower since the beginning of the project going underway, cried red flags citing that serious, irreparable damage was being caused by water run-off at the construction site.  Young claimed that the natural pristine areas would be forever damaged and that the marine habitats’ destruction would ruin the tourism industry only to correct herself by citing that it would ruin the charter fishing industry.

In a phone interview with Young, she claimed to have photographs documenting the excess run-off and the damage it has created to the surrounding environmental areas but failed to produce them after two requests were made.  Young also claimed that a dark powdery residue could be found on surrounding vegetation in the run-off areas, yet I observed non-such-matter.  It could be possible, however, that I was looking in the wrong areas, as we were limited by where we could go without some serious off-terrain gear. I was taken up Burnt Mill Creek until we couldn’t go anymore without running aground and took note that all of the vegetation looked the same as the vegetation all along the West Bay waterway, again, noting no muddy residue.

I visited the airport construction site on Thursday to talk with officials and was told that there were run-off issues that were being dealt with and that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was and had been made aware of the issues.  The issues were noted during a period of heavy rain-fall during the months of March and April during regular weekly tests and were reported to the FDEP  .I was told that in collaboration with the FDEP, measures were being taken to correct the issues that had caused the excess and improper run-off.  I was told that the issues were not serious and that no permanent damage had occurred, but there were definitely issues to be resolved.

Phone calls to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were not returned.

Upon noting above average levels of turbidity in the surrounding waterways at the new Panama City airport site, the airport authority hired a private independent environmental consulting group.  Ecological Resource Consultants (ERC) conducted a study of the environmental areas in and around Bear Bay Branch, Kelly Branch, Morrell Branch, Crooked Creek, Burnt Mill Creek and West Bay.  Over a period of 10 days, ERC studied data from the DEP, data from the Airport Authority and their own independent findings at the sites in question and found:

  • During construction, with the exception of March/April 2009, turbidity levels remains the same just off site as they were before construction began.
  • No sediment was found in Bear Bay Branch
  • Kelly Branch/Morrell Branch had sediment accumulation, which means the wetlands performed correctly, catching the sediment before it went into the creeks.
  • There was no sediment found in Burnt Mill Creek, Crooked Creek or West Bay.
  • ERC took 8 core samples from Burnt Mill Creek and Crooked Creek, from the branch outfall locations all the way down to the mouth of each creek at West Bay and found no sediment accumulation.
  • They also had a snorkeler check and found no visible impact to sea grasses and no sediment in West Bay.
  • Found finer textured sediment which causes some minor concern because it could possibly reactivate with a heavy rainfall, but they are working with DEP to develop an approved approach to limiting remobilization.
  • There was no measurable impact on either Creek or West Bay.
  • Almost all of the sediment was contained on the airport property and within the permit boundaries.

After talking with Roy Willett, KBR Construction Manager at the new Panama City Airport site, I was told that through on-going communication with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection approved resolutions were being made to improve the  existing run-off systems to provide minimal impact on the surrounding areas.  To help, more than 600 acres of land has been seeded and mulched in the last 2 weeks.

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1 Diane May 26, 2009 at 8:47 am

If there was no damage, why did DEP slap the Airport Authority with a $400,000 fine?
Surely, the AA could have found an independent consultant to investigate. ERC works for St Joe.


2 Jason Koertge May 26, 2009 at 9:27 am

ERC DOES work for St. Joe, they don’t work FOR St. Joe, big difference, Diane. I’m sorry about the confusion, I did say in the article that damage was done, but that it was “little”. There was a fine, and the AA is working with the FDEP on resolutions to fix the problems.


3 Don Hodges May 26, 2009 at 11:29 am

You can see my take on it in comments on today’s News Herald article on passenger traffic in the region. From Jason’s perspective, the Joeport has everything it needs to succeed: solid political pork support, 10,000 foot runway, powerful corporate partner, an environmental “story” (tho tarnished by the wash-out of the “preservation forever” meme in April’s 12 inches, not 20 inches, of rain).


Talk is really NOT cheap, and the real test will be when the Joeport runs out of easy PR money to shout down its critics, and must actually deliver on $300+ million in cost. Its free cash flow must double by 2012 or the Florida treasury will have to bail it out. Florida has already loaned $45 Million that ordinarily would be private debt, but the bond market is smarter than the legislature.

The Joeport would do well to start re-setting expectations and working harder on executing SOME business plan – “Aerotropolis” is not it. Right now it is pure pork aka “stimulus”, a serial environmental violator already under a 2006 Consent Order and facing another one, and struggling to even build the second runway that has always been in the plan (it only became optional when money got low). Without this runway the Joeport cripples its busiest users and diminishes its prospects for airlines. Instead of the vital runway and environmental structures, the Joeport is squandering $$ONE HUNDRED MILLION on consulting and legal fees.

Jason, tell me and your audience, in terms we can understand AND MEASURE, how this project succeeds and justifies its cost in $$ and damage. Let’s see YOUR forecast for passengers, revenues, and industries in 2010, 2012, 2015, even 2030. Then we can keep score instead of just cheerleading or arguing.


4 Emma May 26, 2009 at 11:33 am

I think your article is not objective. It is misleading your audience and sounds like it was written by ERC or the Airport Authority PR gang.

Untreated, uncontrolled stormwater runoff was discharged into surface waters of the State including Burnt Mill Creek, Crooked Creek, and West Bay. It is not true that the sedimentation was contained on site. And wetlands are NOT designed to hold construction sediments. A simple goole on wetland functions might give you some insight on that topic and why wetlands are so important to the ecology of our watershed.

Here are the photos you are seeking that show the sedimentation:

Instead of sweeping this under the rug, the entire community should be adamant about getting these issues corrected. Our economy depends on maintaining the health of our natural resources. We shouldn’t have to settle for less. Randy Curtis said West Bay would remain pristine forever.


5 Jerry May 26, 2009 at 3:14 pm

You pull the “not being objective” card out and you then cite That is a watchdog group who involves themselves in lawsuits against development. Do you live in a glass house?

Emma, sounds like you are playing politics and making a mountain out of a molehill.


6 Emma May 26, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Jerry, I’m not trying to play politics, just very concerned about the bay and want people to know what really happened. I posted the link to the photos in hopes that more people could see what the creeks looked like after it rained. Then they can decide if it looks like a “little environmental damage”. is a community bulletin board website used to share information among property owners. If you are referring to the group West Beaches Neighborhood Defense Fund (WBNDF), you are right, this group will fight for responsible development that is compatible with surrounding neighborhoods. It will challenge development if and only if it is NOT consistent with the Bay County Comprehensive Plan or Bay County Land Development Regulations.

It is a shame that citizens have to use such an extreme measure in order to get the local government to enforce its own development laws. Kind of like citizens having to show aerial photos to DEP to get them to enforce a permit? 🙂


7 Diane May 26, 2009 at 8:57 pm


Science doesn’t play politics. These photos don’t lie. I don’t know when Jason was on the creeks, but when these photos were taken, three days after the rain, mud was still flowing through the creeks and into West Bay. is a neighborhood bulletin board to provide west beaches homeowners info about what is happening in our community, including incompatible development. We are not opposed to development, just bad development; development that generates thousands of cars through our neighborhoods and 23-story buildings towering over our homes. Not all development is good development. Judge Hess agreed with us that the high-rises are not compatible with current development in the west beaches area, which is a requirement of the state mandated comprehensive plan.


8 Jason Koertge May 26, 2009 at 9:03 pm

diane, do you guys have pictures of this area before the development started for comparison? I don’t know what this area looked like before.


9 Jerry May 27, 2009 at 7:38 am


GOOD Science doesn’t play politics. Taking a select photo and attributing “mud” in the water to an environmental “disaster” while the area just recieved a monumental amount of rain is not good science. YOU are muddying the water, literally. Within days of that rainfall, while fishing, I ran from PCB to Destin pass, to the ICW to PCB. Every creek system was inundated with muddy water. That’s what happens when you get that much rain in a short period of time.

All due respect M’am, but the floodwaters will recede…good science would recognize an “environmental disaster” from a molehill.


10 Don Hodges May 27, 2009 at 11:57 am

The complete DEP Consent Order file is at
As I said in the post that was apparently deleted by Jason, the Consent Order is self-explanatory.


11 Diane May 27, 2009 at 11:52 pm

Jerry, people concerned about the recent airport runoff are not judging on one “select photo.” In addition to numerous photos, there is a large body of scientific data from DEP, the contractor, and other sources that shows the contractor failed to prevent massive mud/sediment runoff from the site. This includes the contractor’s reports of 72 incidents (and this is just what was actually reported) between March ’08 and April ’09 of “water quality standard exceedances for turbidity in Kelly Branch and Morell Branch.” [tributaries of Crooked and Burnt Mill Creeks] (quoted from DEP Consent Order issued against the Airport Authority).

“Mud” is not just wet dirt. Dirt contains sediment that causes turbidity in water. Lots of dirt/sediment causes high levels of turbidity. High levels of turbidity, like that photographed and confirmed with water testing, destroy habitat and food sources in the food chain of fish — no safe place to grow, no food — no fish. Further, continued or repeated high turbidity levels kill the creatures and vegetation that keep the water fresh enough to swim in.

There is post-runoff video of large amounts of destructive mud/sediment attached to vegetation where Kelly Branch enters into Crooked Creek and where Morell Branch enters Burnt Mill Creek (apparently unseen by the airport/St Joe consultant). Any legitimate scientist would acknowledge this was not a natural occurrence from a heavy rain storm, and that it, indeed, caused considerable damage to these resources, including unmeasured damage beyond that visible, and will continue to do so because of the topography of the airport site and the surrounding acres of water-saturated swamp land.

There are at least 23 photos on that show a huge amount of mud/sediment throughout Crooked and Burnt Mill Creeks below the airport site. See the photo showing the plume of sediment at the mouth of Morell Branch as it enters Burnt Mill. DEP documentation/photos show that stormwater in the water bodies north of the airport site moved massive amounts of the fill dirt as it washed across the site, seeking its natural path toward the creeks through Morell and Kelly branches (you can’t fool Mother Nature, not even with 3 million cubic yards of fill dirt). DEP report: “The inspector walked approximately 50 yards into Morell Branch and the sediment was approximately two feet deep.” The contractor’s tests show this dirt caused high levels of turbidity in Morell Branch. The photo of the plume documents the sediment in Morell Branch running into Burnt Mill Creek.

Fishermen and property owners on Burnt Mill say that before airport construction began, they would see muddy runoff in the creek after a rain storm, but that it would be gone within a few hours. They also say the muddy water/turbidity has significantly increased since construction began.

You cannot live or fish on these creeks and not be saddened in your heart and soul by the damage, that will only get worse. These creeks will be putrefied decades before this area is developed to the point an airport of this size (larger than Tampa International) would be necessary.


12 Diane May 27, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Jason, for pre-construction conditions of the site, check Google Earth, which is year 2005 images. Also, PBS&J prepared an analysis of the natural resources on the site, including threatened species, that the airport submitted to the county with the Detailed Specific Area Plan. Ground surveys report the site was covered with vegetation, wetlands, streams, springs. An environmental assessment submitted to the court by Natural Resources Defense Council predicted the stormwater runoff problem.


13 jobeibi May 28, 2009 at 7:27 am

But are there any pre-construction photos of the area after a heavy rain? There is always some level of runoff after a storm, and Google Earth photos are as likely to be taken during a dry season as a wet one.


14 Troy May 28, 2009 at 8:25 am

No offense to anyone, but, if there’s one thing I know, Jason doesn’t lie. He’s been reporting on various topics around Panama City Beach for quite some time. Not only that, but he’s actually researches his topics before ever writing about them. Hell, look at this post. He’s the only one I know who actually WENT to the creeks to see what others were talking about. I don’t know any other contributor (to any site for that matter) that’s actually gone out before they write something about it.


15 Diane May 28, 2009 at 10:19 am

jobeibi, I wish there were pre-construction photos to compare to the latest event, but I guess the testimonials of those who live on and use the creek regularly affirming the April event was by far the worst that has ever occurred, will have to do, along with the volumes of scientific data analysis that provides the real proof.

Keep in mind that tidal action in the creeks dilutes the water. But it does not remove the stormwater sediment that settles on the bottom, smothering organisims.


16 Diane May 28, 2009 at 10:48 am

Troy, why do you jump to the conclusion that Jason is the only person who actually went to the creeks? I’ve been on the creeks and branches twice since the stormwater event. I’ve seen first hand the impacts that I’ve posted about, and I’ve personally talked to fisherman and residents. There are close up photos and video of the damage. There are water testing results of the damage, including those taken by the contractor. You won’t find the documents on “The New PFN” site, but you can get them from the airport or DEP. A website for the consent order is posted above.

People without a scientific background may not understand the gravity of the huge amount of mud in the aerial photos flowing down the creeks and into West Bay, but I am not sure why anyone cannot correlate DEP’s issuance of a consent order and imposition of nearly half a million dollar fine with significant damage. As lax as DEP is, we can assume even this large amount doesn’t begin to match the full impact of this event, nor especially any cleanup attempt.


17 Diane May 28, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Jason, I take issue with your use of inflection/semantics to imply ERC would not be biased in their assessment of damage caused by a project that is specifically for the benefit of the St Joe Company for whom ERC performs work/takes money. ERC has an inherent conflict of interest.

Because ERC has a conflict of interest does not in itself mean they acted inappropriately. However, on May 19th, ERC employee Joe Schuster told the airport authority that there was no sediment accumulation in Burnt Mill and Crooked Creek – that is a flat out lie and we have the documentation to prove it.

On May 18th, I went up Morell Branch (via Burnt Mill) to about 10 feet from the tree line. A log blocked further access. The water was about 1.5 feet deep. Lots of sedimentation was visible on the bottom and vegetation, same as a week after the rain. There was still a high level of turbidity. This was shortly after it was reported the contractor was discharging standing water from the runway.

You have to ask yourself – was ERC the only environmental consultant the AA could find for this job? With all the “whistle blowing” environmentalists watching this so closely, you would think the AA would want to avoid even an appearance of conflict of interest. It’s arrogance. They know no local media, or bloggers, are going to expose the uncomfortable facts.


18 Jim H May 29, 2009 at 10:13 pm

LOL, let me guess…Diane stayed at a Holiday Inn last night?


19 Diane May 30, 2009 at 3:25 pm

Well, Jim, if you can’t add anything intelligent to the conversation, try to be a comedian. If you dispute anything I’ve said, let’s hear your point of view.