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. "We've not had any violations," said Finch, a NASCAR team owner whose driver won Sunday's race at Talladega. 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.
In November 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist led the groundbreaking for the airport, the first to be built in the United States after the Sept. 11 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.
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.
The airport is being built on what Finch called "a virgin site" amid a former wildlife management area adjacent to the oldest state forest, Pine Log State Forest.
Phoenix won the $112.5 million contract for site preparation and runway paving, which included moving 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."
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.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.