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Thursday, June 8, 2023

Seatac Airport A Better Neighbor Now In Spite Of Embattled Past, Former Adversaries Say

Blue skies hang over the commercial terminal at Paine Field in Everett. In 2019, decades after the Airport Communities Coalition and multiple community groups called for the expansion of Paine Field instead of a new runway at SeaTac, commercial passenger services to Paine were inaugurated. (Photo by Matthew Hipolito)

By Matthew Hipolito, The Seattle Medium

In the 1970s, residents near the flight paths headed into and out of SeaTac Airport and its two runways complained to the Port of Seattle that the constant movement of jets overhead posed a serious disruption to life and a hazard to health. 

Now, almost 50 years on, with a larger airport, newer planes and more demand for air travel, residents of many of those same neighborhoods have very similar complaints.

A class-action lawsuit filed last month in King County alleges that the Port of Seattle and two large airlines negligently turned a blind eye to “dangerously high levels of pollutants” near the airport as a result of passing jet traffic. This is the most recent in a series of battles, many of them highly pitched, between the airport and nearby residents going back decades. The Port has denied the allegations.

“We are reviewing the litigation and have no comment on the specific claims today,” Port of Seattle spokesperson Perry Cooper wrote in a statement. “However, it is important to note that the airport and its tenants follow strict federal, state, and local requirements as they relate to how operations impact environmental issues such as air quality and noise. In addition, the airport and its tenants routinely go above and beyond regulatory requirements to voluntarily further eliminate emissions, reduce noise, and protect habitat.”

Some people affiliated with the Port’s adversaries from previous contentious years say that the Port today has a different temperament than before. 

Some of the earliest and most heated fights came during the 1970s when, partially spurred by the success of Boeing just a few dozen miles north of SeaTac, jet travel aboard planes with more numerous, more polluting, and noisier engines exploded in popularity. 

At the time, the noisiest area was a long and slender kite reel-shaped area near the airport, named Zone 3 by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with one headline describing the experience of living there as “ear-shattering;” classes in the nearby Highline School District were interrupted daily by to the noise. The FAA’s nomenclature lent its name to the Zone 3 Committee, one of the more prominent of a number of community organizations who thronged public meetings by the hundreds, demanding the Port either fix the noise or buy out their homes. 

“Community noise ordinances for residential areas generally recommend 50 dBA for a daytime limit and 45 dBA for a nighttime limit,” reads a 1972 report commissioned by the Zone 3 committee and conducted by the Washington state Department of Social and Health services. “The median peak noise level measured within Zone 3 exceeds these limits with a relative intensity of over 10,000 times.” 

dBA, or decibels A, is a unit which measures approximate loudness as perceived by humans, factoring in pitch.

Relenting to the intense pressure from both community groups and local municipalities, the Port of Seattle in 1976 commenced a nearly $650,000 study of the airport’s impact on the community and the ways in which adverse effects could be mitigated, known as the “SeaTac Communities Plan.”

Acting on the plan’s recommendations, the Port of Seattle not long after earmarked tens of millions of dollars for purchasing more than 1,000 homes in the areas most affected by noise. By 2006, reporting from the Post-Intelligencer indicates, nearly 10,000 homes and several Highline schools had also been soundproofed on the Port’s dime.

However, even during this period, the Port of Seattle anticipated a continued rise in air traffic, and explored expanding or supplementing SeaTac underway as far back as the early 80s. On December 4, 1991, first approval was given to a draft proposal that would see the new runway open before 2000 – a prospect that alarmed several neighboring municipalities.

“We used to meet as mayors once a month or once in two months,” said Arun Jhaveri, who was elected the first mayor of Burien when that city incorporated in 1992.  “After we found out that the third runway was proposed by the Port of Seattle, the frequency of meetings went really quickly because we were all concerned about the impacts – noise, pollution, and land use were all of a very critical nature to our integrity as new cities or existing cities.” 

That informal collaboration between officials soon took on a formal name – the Airport Communities Coalition, or ACC – and members began urging the Port of Seattle to reconsider the need for a third runway. Citizens, organized as part of a group called Citizens’ Alternatives to Sea-Tac Expansion, also showed up in the hundreds to public hearings to voice opposition.

Instead of expanding SeaTac, the ACC supported an earlier idea considered by the Port – expanding existing airports around the region, including King County International-Boeing Field in Seattle, Paine Field in Everett, Moses Lake International in Grant County, and McChord Field in Tacoma, Jhaveri said. (Paine Field began operating commercial flights in 2019, and is currently exploring options to expand to offset space limitations at SeaTac. 

When the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), an intergovernmental board consisting of officials from dozens of communities, endorsed the expansion of SeaTac instead of expanding regional airports, ACC communities withdrew from the group.

“We realized that the Port of Seattle had made a pre-decision or decision without going through the full impact assessment study or meetings and getting comments from communities across the board,” Jhaveri said. “And when they did do a few ones, as required by FAA and federal legislation, they were not very comprehensive.”

In 2004, six years after Jhaveri had left the mayorship and chairship of the ACC, opponents of the third runway dropped their final legal attempt to block the project. That last effort was an appeal against a ruling allowing the port to relocate newly discovered wetlands at the site. 

Although The Seattle Times at the time characterized the ACC’s decade of resistance as “futile,” those communities had managed to indefinitely stall the third runway,  which didn’t open until 2008. In the end, the port agreed to pay more than $150 million to help mitigate the project’s impacts in the immediate communities, similar to what they had done after the Zone 3 Committee’s efforts.

After Jhaveri left ACC, “Port of Seattle decided that for the long term, it was a good idea for them to come up with some kind of compromise,” he  said. “They never had shown any kind of interest in helping ACC out on the communities and the people impacted by that during the course of the litigation, four or five years. I think finally they realized that so many people who work at Port of Seattle, at SeaTac Airport, they live in our communities and have their own families and children.”

Some of that Port of Seattle money went to the Highline School District, which built new schools and upgraded existing ones.

“In general, the port has made a great effort to be a good partner and a good neighbor to the school district,” said Catherine Carbone Rogers, chief of communications for the Highline School District. “That’s not to say that the people who live in this community aren’t impacted by the airport. They are, but I do see the port working toward trying to mitigate that in ways that they are able to.” 

Rogers added that the Port contributes significantly to the Highline Schools Foundation nonprofit and helps fund scholarships and special programs – a means of giving back to the community.  Jhaveri, whose doctoral thesis was on effective leadership for sustainable development in the public sectors, approves.

“What I want to see in my retirement is a three-legged approach, which is balanced equally,” Jhaveri said. “One-third environmental stewardship, one-third economic prosperity, and one-third social justice. We need to make sure that the decision makers, whether out of Seattle or cities or counties or PSRC or whoever, they focus on these three entities equally.” 

Jhaveri thinks SeaTac’s imperfect past – from Zone 3 to the ACC – might help inform a better present. 

“I think after 30 years, I can tell that the Port Commissioners have become much more sympathetic or at least sensitive to a project like that third runway, which would have created a monster for the communities around it,” Jhaveri said. 

“And now they realize that whenever they have a large project of that kind, whether it’s an airport or seaport or whatever Port of Seattle does there, make sure that the communities are involved in the discussion upfront and get all the issues lined up and come up with a solution before so they avoid any kind of litigation on their side as well as on the side of the communities.”

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