Plucky 'Batman and Robin' make an airport their case

  • Aerial photo of a runway under repair at DIA

    Jim Buck
  • Paul Earle and Jim Buck

    Ray Ring

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, The West sings the Denver airport blues.

Excerpts from a free-ranging interview with two of the most effective critics of Denver International Airport.

PAUL EARLE: We have to keep buying new file drawers, shifting them around to make room for more. We've got more than 40 drawers full of airport files now. (They're in) file cabinets, and we keep them out on tables, desks, in this (home) office and around the corner in the hallway ...

My credentials? I've got a Ph.D. in engineering, chemical and mechanical. Did lots of heavy construction in my early days, 30 years of concrete and quality control with Johns Manville. I took early retirement at 62 and have done consulting for 17 years - clients like Bechtel, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Belgian Cartel, plants in Thailand. I've testified as an expert witness in lawsuits about product failures and substandard materials ...

I got involved in DIA opposition - I attended a hearing in February of "89 and found it had been rigged by the city. It was in city hall, 6 to 12 p.m., the mayor and some members of the city council were there. It was a real put-up job. They permitted everybody the mayor wanted to sign up in advance and speak first. So many people came to speak against it that they had to schedule a second night, and I went to that too, and I saw them cut off an engineer who had been with GE when they developed the fluorescent tube, and he'd been in on the first experiment done on the moon ...

JIM BUCK: Just say I'm in my 70s. I was raised in Denver, trained in chemical engineering, did 311/2 years with GE, senior engineer, then director of planning for Honeywell, the photo and instrument division, developing the zoom lens and instruments to see in low light conditions. I worked with Polaroid, too. I helped develop the first experiment on the moon for NASA, an array of reflectors, they're still up there, bouncing back laser signals to measure the background quiver on the moon. Armstrong made his speech, stepped down onto the moon, and asked Aldrin to hand him that experiment. That was the biggest thrill of my life. I've got a model of that experiment in my basement ...

My wife had cancer, and before she died, sitting around hospitals I started reading news about the airport. That's why I went to the hearing ...

I got up and started to talk about the declining market for air travel, and the increase in air pollution the new airport would mean, and the greater fuel use from such a big facility - they're going to have an electric train running constantly, they're going to heat and cool the terminal under a tent roof; it's pretty obvious these things will be consuming energy - and the chairman said, "Your time is up." Several people protested, but that was the end of that, they went on to other speakers ...

When it was over, Paul came up to me and introduced himself and said, "I want to get into this." We exchanged cards. It turned out we lived just across the (Wellshire) golf course from each other. We started digging.

EARLE: With five or six other people, like Mike Boyd at Aviation Systems Research and Gordon Yale who used to be at Boettcher as a bond underwriter, we formed a technical group, doing research and white papers about the airport. Jim and I have used every library in Denver, looking at reference works and federal reports. We found this study by the Rand Corporation, saying that a megaproject like this would go double or triple the original cost estimate ...

BUCK: We made 22 copies of the Rand report (50 pages each) and distributed them to members of the City Council.

EARLE: We've spent a lot of our own money. I've been to Salt Lake City's library to do historical research. I've made three trips to San Diego, about the tent roof that ripped off the convention center there. I went to Tampa to talk to people who have a tent on a corporate aviation terminal there. I made a number of trips to Miami, where the airport has a runway it was never allowed to use because it was going to pollute the Everglades - the same designers that did it did the preliminary design on DIA. I fly a lot for my consulting business, I have stopped at 40 major airports and gotten their annual reports, in some cases their expansion plans, Vancounver, San Jose, Atlanta, Dallas. I've talked to airport managers.

BUCK: We've spent a lot of time with United pilots and they've given us a lot of data ... I have more than 100 hours of videotape of hearings and meetings ... We can't count the number of times we've been on talk radio in Denver and Colorado Springs.

EARLE: That Batman cowl (worn by a mannequin head on his desk; there is also a Batman painting propped on a table) - it's because one of the talk show programs started promoting us as Batman and Robin, to protect us from the city; however, our identities became known. The city said we were flakes, that we didn't know what we were talking about. They tried to tar us ...

The FAA tried to make it difficult for us to learn what was going on. The FAA withheld over 10,000 pages of documents that we had to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get.

BUCK: The FAA is an agency with an agenda: growth.

EARLE: We're two characters who've been staying in the background. We've got the files to back up what we say ... I just spent five hours with a reporter from the Baltimore Sun. We've been feeding the Associated Press. We've talked to lawyers wanting to file class actions suits over the bonds, and reporters from The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the San Diego Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, Time magazine, the LA Times, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report. We've talked to 60 Minutes twice, and Connie Chung's people at Eye to Eye. Only occasionally are we mentioned. Of course all our predictions are turning out to be right.

BUCK: I'm a pilot, I've flown over DIA many times, or I've been a copilot, taking pictures of the runways already being torn up for repairs. They have to dig out concrete that's 17 inches thick, then down six or eight more feet to remove the expansive soil that's the problem (the city denies it's a problem). Then they replace the expansive soil with nonexpansive soil - or make that, less expansive soil, because there is no nonexpansive soil out there. Then they have to pour a concrete patch tied in with rebar. They're into enormous maintenance costs, because this is going to go on forever.

They've had problems with runways, taxiways, aprons, buildings, tunnels, underground utility pipes. We've seen it personally, we've got pictures, we were out there during open houses taking pictures. You don't solve these problems (the cracks) by jamming them with a little Elmer's glue ...

EARLE: I called the company that makes the tent roof, BirdAir; they're in Buffalo (N.Y.). I asked the project manager for some details on the warranty, saying there had been this problem in San Diego, and he hung up. I flew to Buffalo a few weeks later, went to the public library, copied all the material they had on BirdAir. I went out to the company, I was there when they opened, I said, "No, I don't have an appointment."

Their general manager received me. I started my list of questions, "How did you test for hail?" He couldn't say. Then I asked, "Why isn't there any fire protection (for the tent in Denver)?" He said, "That's up to the customer." I asked about the product safety data sheets, which are required by the feds, and he wouldn't give me those. Finally I told him, "I'll get this information somewhere else." I proceeded to get ahold of DuPont, the retired chemical engineer who developed the uses of Teflon.

BUCK: The thing we were concerned about there was, Teflon is a fluorine compound, very active - that means if there's any kind of fire, the breakdown compound includes fluorine, which reacts with water vapor and creates hydrofluoric acid. Much worse than sulfuric or hydrochloric acids, it even reacts with glass, you can't even keep it in a glass container. I worked with it at GE ...

EARLE: And I worked with it at Manville.

BUCK: ... Absolutely disastrous to lungs if inhaled, and it forms blisters on the skin, like blister gas.

EARLE: I interviewed Ginger Evans, the chief city engineer building the airport (who has since resigned), and asked her, "Why no sprinklers (in case of fire under the tent roof)?"

She said they didn't need sprinklers; the water would evaporate before it reached flaming surfaces anyway. They have heavy currents, electricity concentrated at light sources, at each peak of the tent, and any arc from a broken cable ... I said, "To fight a fire of that nature you need water cannons," as described in a sprinkler industry newsletter I had. Water cannons were required in San Diego. In Tampa they used sprinklers.

BUCK: Conceptually, the airport is fatally flawed, and then the execution is the worst I've ever seen ... People in the public sector take enormous risks, because if anything goes wrong, they just tax the public.

EARLE: That's what happened with the nuclear plants, the Washington Public Power Supply Service - their forecasts of the costs and the demand for electricity were phony. The cost escalated so much that they couldn't sell any more bonds to cover it, so they declared bankruptcy on two of five nuclear plants. I testified in the lawsuit. The judge said in his conclusion, it was just too big a project for the board of directors to cope with; they were small-town bankers and lawyers. And here we have a similar problem, with the Denver City Council trying to do a $10 billion airport ...

I don't look for work.

BUCK: He just asks for trouble, that's all.

EARLE: He's Robin. I'm Batman.

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