EPA Rule Targets Aircraft Deicing Runoff

September 2, 2009

The deicing fluids that are used at airports all over the country for many months of the year can pose a substantial threat to the environment, affecting drinking water, surface water, air quality, wildlife, plants, and soils at both the airport itself and for some distance beyond the boundaries.

In order to help reduce the potential damage, EPA is proposing a new rule that would provide guidelines for control of deicing fluid-contaminated runoff at primary commercial airports. There is a 120-day public comment period, ending Dec. 28, 2009.

The rule generally targets what chemicals can be used and how the runoff is collected and treated. Some airports already comply with the proposed guidelines, indicating that little or no new ground needs to be broken to provide safe, appropriate deicing procedures.

EPA estimates that about 200 of the larger airports (out of 504 commercial service airports) will be affected. It will take some time before it's clear exactly which airports will have to comply with the new rule, but a first cut is that the rule could apply to colder-weather airports that have a minimum of 1,000 annual jet departures or 10,000 annual total departures (which essentially translates to all commercial airports with a control tower serving even the smallest metropolitan areas). Many types of departure data, by various subcategories, are available from the Federal Aviation Administration, with whom EPA says it is coordinating on the rule. However, even FAA can't tell you exactly how to use its database to mesh with the EPA language. It may be best to directly contact the local airport(s) you are covering. If you would like an FAA contact who is at least familiar with the deicing rule, start with George Legarreta, 202-267-8766, or contact the nearest FAA office to see if it can help:

If you want to check FAA numbers, go to:

The closest rough approximation to the EPA guideline may be total itinerant operations tracked by FAA and contract control towers (arrivals and departures), minus military and general aviation flights, divided by two (for departures).

A second facet of the rule is that there are separate requirements for airports that use more or less than 460,000 gallons of deicing fluid. Data on the quantity of deicing fluid used is relatively hard to come by, a fact that surprised EPA as it developed the rule. FAA generally knows which airports are using deicing fluids, but it doesn't routinely track the type and quantity of deicing chemicals being used. Instead, the agency bases its approval of an airport's deicing plans on a case-by-case basis. If the EPA rule is adopted, uniform data on deicing fluids likely would become more readily available. Meanwhile, to find out the quantities used, you'll need to call any airport that meets the minimum departure data threshold.

The deicing issue is complicated by the fact that deicing fluids are both an airline issue and an airport issue. Airlines are responsible for applying the fluids, but airports bear the burden of cleaning up the mess on the ground. The Federal Register notice for the proposed rule, which is included on the EPA Web site noted above, includes considerable background information on deicing requirements and practices.

If the new rule is adopted, each state would then work with its airports to develop and approve the appropriate permits.