The Southwest Washington Regional Airport is redesigning its fuel storage system as a precaution against any possible leak of toxic chemicals into the nearby Cowlitz River or residents’ drinking water.
The state awarded the Kelso airport a $500,000 loan to fund the replacement of three underground fuel tanks with two above-ground fuel tanks.
The move is not required by the state, according to Airport Manager Christopher Paolini, but is a proactive decision to protect the environment and residents, as well as reduce liability for the airport and meet what could be future state regulations.
Tanks below ground have the ability to easily leak into groundwater, which can be used for irrigation and drinking and eventually disperse into rivers and oceans.
“These underground tanks are older and there’s always that risk that something might happen to them,” said Paolini. “The new above-ground tanks … they are much safer and they have containment above ground, so you don’t have the risk of it going into the groundwater.”
Paolini expects construction to begin in summer 2022, if each of the airport’s four controlling parties agrees to the loan, and finish within 90 days.
The four parties — the Port of Longview, City of Kelso, City of Longview, and Cowlitz County — hold equal ownership in the airport thanks to a roughly decade-long agreement.
The Longview City Council agreed to the loan on Thursday, Feb. 11. Paolini said he expects the Cowlitz County Council and Port of Longview commissioners to review the loan by March.
The Kelso City Council has the final say on whether to finalize the deal, said Paolini. The City of Kelso is the federally recognized airport operator because it owns the facility’s land.
If everyone agrees, Paolini said each party with be responsible for 25% of the loan, which has a 2% annual interest rate and a 20-year term, with the ability to defer both the interest and principal for up to three years.
The funds come from the Washington state Community Aviation Revitalization Board, which provides low-interest lending to create self-sufficient public airports and capital airport projects that produce revenue, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Paolini said the project has been “a top priority” since he joined the airport four years ago.
According to the airport’s master plan — a long-term planning document for the facility — “there are no provisions for fuel spill containment” for the current underground storage tanks.
The tanks, stated the plan, hold 12,000 gallons of Jet A fuel and 24,000 gallons of 100LL fuel, and fuel tax is one of the airport’s revenue sources.
The federal government regulates these underground storage tanks when at least 10% of its volume is underground, including piping, and they hold hazardous materials like petroleum. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, until the mid-1980s, most of these tanks were made of bare steel, which can corrode over time and cause leaks.
The Washington Department of Ecology reported that the airport is one of 23 sites in Kelso that has active underground storage tanks. The department monitors more than 8,500 tanks at more than 3,400 facilities, like gas stations and commercial and government properties, for the federal government, according to the state.
In addition to replacing the storage tanks, crews will also repave asphalt on the aircraft apron, where aircrafts park, board and load. A Federal Aviation Administration grant will cover about $295,912.85 for the repavement.
The state loan can fund up to $500,000 to replace the underground tanks, but Paolini said the full amount might not be needed. He said there are no prepayment penalties and he expects to pay off the loan before the term ends.
“I plan to be as fiscally responsible as possible so we can use any excess revenue each year to pay down that loan much faster, which will, in turn, make the overall cost of the project cheaper if we can avoid paying any additional interest,” said Paolini.
The airport plans to contribute an estimated $179,330.62 to the projects. The total estimated cost of the storage tanks and asphalt replacement is $975,243.47.
Despite the pandemic, Paolini said “airport activity” is steady. He estimates “slightly” more business aircraft have visited the facility during the pandemic, which grounded many commercial flights. Paolini said crews don’t keep exact numbers on aircraft activity because the facility doesn’t have a tower, but try to keep records of tail numbers “to gauge the activity level.”