Unhappy Landings

How Sea-Tac pollution and jet roar have shaken South King County residents out of their suburban dream and into action

By Doug Collins
The Free Press

photos by P. Kylen-Mitchell (unless noted)

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport may soon be undergoing an ambitious expansion to build a third runway, but why? Any frequent flyer can tell you it's not an especially crowded airport, and the airport has recently ranked best in the country in on-time departures and sixth in on-time arrivals.

Perhaps this question is more meaningful: who would a third runway benefit, and who would it hurt?

Many South King County residents have an easy time answering that question. For them, the airport has grown into an miasma of toxins leaching downward into aquifers, upward into the atmosphere, and sideways into the natural stream system of southern King County, with little official monitoring or accountability. By the airport's own admission, 32,000 people are living in neighborhoods where the day/night average of jet noise is above 65 decibels, which is the level of "significant adverse effects" according to EPA guidelines. Above 55 decibels, state law does not even allow private industry to operate near a cow farm, although the buzz of airports is commonly exempted.

Airplane parts have twice fallen on nearby schools next to playing youngsters. A tail section fell on Rainier High's tennis courts in April 1995, and a cargo door at Hilltop Elementary a few years previous. Des Moines Creek, lined by a community park for some two miles, was stricken by a two large jet fuel spills in the 1980s, rendering it fishless. Pollution continues, and the effects are many (see related article).

Airport neighbors have organized against it, most notably into the Regional Commission on Airport Affairs, an affiliation of citizen activists, and the Airport Communities Coalition, which represents city governments opposed to the third runway.

Most of us ride airliners occasionally, but jet travel is more often a pursuit of the wealthy. According to the Lifestyle Market Analyst, about one-third of Americans making $75,000 per year are regular foreign travelers, probably a fair indication of airliner use. Only about ten percent of those earning under $30,000 are regular foreign travelers. Business trips by plane are likewise more likely to be made by execs than wageworkers.

Putting up with jet noise and pollution is, however, not a pursuit of the wealthy. Cities bearing the brunt of the flightpath, such as Burien, the city of SeaTac, Des Moines, Federal Way, Tukwila, and Seattle (especially south Seattle) tend to have annual per capita incomes of less than $20,000. Less sonically-boomed eastside cities average above $20,000, according to 1990 census figures.

On the average, the wealthy stand to make more use of an expanded Sea-Tac, and suffer less from its unpleasant consequences.

"Kind Of Grandiose"
A talk with airport officials leaves no doubt that they are itching to upsize. "The area is growing, the employers are growing, there will be a higher demand on air travel....We're planning for the future," says Rachel Garson, spokesperson at the Aviation Communications division.

Here's a glimpse of Garson's future: a third runway, 8,500 feet long, located 2,500 feet to the west of the current runways. To make room for it, the airport would acquire a four-block-wide stretch of residential property spanning about two miles along the west side of the airport. Because the land slopes downward on the airport's west, about 23 million cubic yards, perhaps a million truckloads, of fill would be needed to make a level area big enough.

Funding for the $500 million project, according to the Port, will come from federal sources, local revenue bonds, passenger facility charges, and the airport's own capital improvement fund. Opponents expect cost overruns of up to $1 billion.

Plans for the expansion face a few pockets of turbulence in the coming months. The most critical is noise reduction. In 1990 the Port of Seattle, the quasi-governmental agency in charge of King County's maritime and airport facilities, promised to reduce Sea-Tac's noise impact on surrounding communities by 50 percent by the year 2001. In January 1995, an expert panel appointed by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) found that the Port had not adequately demonstrated that noise was decreasing. If the panel finds again this year that the Port is not keeping promises, the PSRC will be less inclined to approve the third runway in its decision scheduled for April.

The expansion must also be approved by the Port Commission in a vote this spring, The vote seems headed for a shoo-in.

The Port Commission is a five-member body elected at large by King Countians. The president of the commission, Paul Schell, is a hotel developer. Schell and fellow commissioners, Paige Miller, Gary Grant, Patricia Davis, and Jack Block receive campaign contributions from aviation, development, trade, tourism, and the usual downtown Seattle interests. Only one commissioner, Jack Block, is expected to vote against the third runway. Not surprisingly, Block lives the closest to the proposed expansion. Patricia Davis was a great disappointment to many third runway opponents. Years ago, she was involved in the citizen group Port Watch. Since then she has performed the classic flip-flop, and become president of the Washington Council on International Trade. Davis did not return a call to her office requesting an interview.

In the view of Minnie Brasher, third runway foe and member of the Southwest King County Group, Port Commissioners such as Davis become star-struck with their office: "It's kind of grandiose for them to be working with top commerce, and they forget about working with real people again....You need commerce, but you shouldn't sacrifice the quality of life for commerce."

Angry Neighbors
As part of the expansion for the second runway in the 1970s, Brasher recounts that the Port promised residents insulation for their houses and a North Sea-Tac Park. "Nothing ever came of it but deteriorated neighborhoods. Homes were boarded up for years and became drug houses." Airport spokesperson Garson admits that the insulation program has been "slow to get started," and points out that the promised park is still in the development.

Lawsuits are flying like 747s in these parts. Currently, 120 households are charging the Port with property value hit-and-run. "There will be many more," warns citizen activist Al Furney. "We will fight this tooth and nail."

The homeowners are asking compensation for an average loss of $37,000 in property value because of airport noise. Takeoffs and landings currently total about 1,000 per day at the airport. The case is snailing its way to a Federal District Court trial in 1997. It's been a heavyweight battle for the Port, whose legal costs have already mounted to more than $1 million. Attorney Steve Berman, representing the homeowners, characterizes the struggle as "kind of like dealing with the big bully on the block."

An environmental group, the Waste Action Project, filed suit against the Port last August, charging airport officials with something the Wright Brothers never considered: violations of the Clean Water Act, including two airport waste pipes that dump contaminated water into surrounding creeks. Officials at the state Department of Ecology (DOE) agreed that the Port was dumping illegally, but issued no fine.

Shawn McEvoy, a member of a citizens' monitoring team working to improve water quality, points out that "the DOE has given fines to other polluters, but has taken a hands-off approach to the Port." According to Kevin Fitzpatrick, of the water oversight division at DOE, "We recently issued a $64,000 notice of penalty to Wal-Mart for its construction site in Bremerton." Wal-Mart's crime was stormwater erosion, with no toxins even involved.

McEvoy's most personal concern is Miller Creek, which begins on the north side of the airport and winds through wooded recreational areas of his home city of Normandy Park. There is no treatment of airport runoff water on the north side of the airport. "If there was a jet crash on the north end of the airport, you'd have thousands of gallons of fuel going straight into Miller Creek." Such a jet spill would also undeniably kill Miller Creek's fragile salmon run, which has been hammered in recent decades but has made a small comeback due to a community restoration project.

Stormwater runoff from runways are often laden with de-icing agents, such as glycols, which are similar to car antifreeze. "If you drained antifreeze from your car straight into the stormwater system, you could be fined or put in jail," notes McEvoy. The airport has been doing essentially the same, but goes unpunished. Although most glycols find their way to the airport's wastewater treatment facility on the south end, the facility is unable to treat glycols, according to the DOE. These glycols are dispensed via pipeline directly into Puget Sound. The primary danger with glycols is that they pull oxygen out of water, which can disrupt habitats and kill fish.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) undertaken by the Port of Seattle and the Federal Aviation Administration in 1995 states that de-icing is only used a few times each year, but a report at the DOE shows use of glycols for de-icing on 209 days in a nine month period during 1994-95. Roughly 110,000 gallons of glycols were used during this period. The DOE's Fitzpatrick calls for understanding: "Glycols are a problem at nearly every airport."

One reason that the airport gets away with glycols and other nastiness is that it exists in a regulatory black hole. Because airports are largely federally administered, local governments have assumed they were not able or responsible to oversee them. That assumption is being challenged by the city of Sea-Tac, which has filed a "friendly lawsuit" which asks for a judge to decide how much jurisdiction the city of Sea-Tac can have over airport activities. The pending decision might lessen the Port's ability to pollute without punishment. A takeover of the Port of Seattle by King County is also being discussed in some circles, and could have a similar effect.

Just Don't Breathe
On January 18, Normandy Park resident Sophie Frause was walking near her home and came upon a pocket of noxious air. "I could hardly breathe. It smelled like jet fuel fumes." Neighbors noticed the same. She lodged a complaint with the Puget Sound Air Pollution Control Agency. PSAPCA told her that they had no jurisdiction over complaints originating from airport operations, and that she should call the Federal Aviation Administration. Because the FAA claims responsibility only for noise complaints, and not for air pollution, neighborhood complaints go nowhere. Similarly, no other agency, not even the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department Of Energy, accepts responsibility for either monitoring air pollution or enforcing air standards at the airport. The atmosphere around the airport is an unregulated wilderness of fumes and particulates. Margaret Corbin, an engineer and spokesperson at PSAPCA calls this a "real frustration for the citizens."

Activist Minnie Brasher, who has looked into the legalities involved, says, "Eventually the responsibility for monitoring comes down to the EPA, but they don't step in until you can prove to them that the local agencies aren't doing their jobs. That's what we're trying to prove."

Although there are a number of permanent air pollution monitoring stations in the region, none have been located for measuring airport fallout. Air pollution measurements in the draft EIS are based on only 32 hours of testing for pollutants, performed by a private contractor for the Port. Not included were risk analyses for carcinogenic toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and certain types of hydrocarbons and butadienes, which have shown up as health concerns in an extensive airport pollution research project in Chicago.

Downwind from the airport, on the north side, a cluster of rare cancers has been uncovered (see accompanying article). Although no broad disease studies have been done of the neighborhoods surrounding Sea-Tac, airport spokesperson Rachel Garson says that the findings in the Port's draft EIS justify an acceptable health risk for a third runway: "In general, adverse environmental impacts are expected to decrease in the future as technology results in lower air, noise, and water pollutant emissions." Sounds comforting?

Garson's faith in technology is worthy of some exploration. If much air travel were replaced by advanced technology such as video teleconferencing or high-speed rail, a large chunk of air pollution would be eliminated, but so would an argument for a third runway.

Not In My Back Stratosphere
Another collision with airport authorities involves the shifting of a flightpath over Seattle. Pilot maps obtained by third-runway opponents suggest that airplanes are now flying three radial degrees eastward in comparison to a year ago. This translates into roughly a mile difference over central Seattle. Rainier Valley residents confirm a shift, and complain about air traffic that formerly was closer to the industrial Duwamish.

Officials contend that the change is not technically a flightpath change, but rather an adjustment for the ongoing shift in the direction of magnetic north, by which pilots navigate. This would be a logical explanation, but the flightpath to the south of the airport was not changed at the same time. Normally, both north and south radials are adjusted together, according to pilots. When questioned recently, the FAA promised that a southward shift will come.

Third runway opponent Al Furney believes the curious shift may be related to the placement of noise monitors north of the airport, which began operation shortly after the flightpath change. A three degree eastward change would place airplanes farther away from a monitor in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood, where the planes are generally under 3,000 feet altitude and relatively loud. The change conversely would put the flightpath closer to a monitor in the Leschi neighborhood, but planes there are always higher and quieter anyway. The average noise recorded would thus probably decrease somewhat.

Airport officials deny playing curveball with noise measurements, but the outcome of the measurements may be crucial for approval of a third runway by the Puget Sound Regional Council in the spring of this year.

Randy Tate, Environmentalist?
In response to the flightpath change, Randy Tate, Republican US representative from the district including the airport, has called for a congressional inquiry. He has been an ace for third-runway foes since his election in 1994. Tate beat his Democrat rival Mike Kreidler, who was wishy-washy on the issue.

Kreidler may have been catering to his usual Democratic ally, the King County Labor Council, which is in favor of the third runway, as it is of almost any large public works. Organized labor often seems to have no regard for the effects of large projects on workers who live near them. But one laborite, Karen Keiser, longtime communications director of the Washington State Labor Council and now a state representative for the district just south of the airport, has listened to her constituents. "The third runway is a mistake....I'm afraid I have to respectfully disagree with my labor colleagues on this one, although I can see it makes sense from their point of view in terms of jobs."

Of Randy Tate, Keiser remarks, "He knows which way the wind is blowing on this, so he's against the third runway. But on other stuff, like the Clean Water initiatives and initiatives to hogtie the EPA, he's in league with Newt Gingrich."

Tate's vote in 1995 to revise the Clean Water Act was widely regarded by environmental organizations as a "Dirty Water Act" which would have weakened enforcement of regulations. The vote was ironic, since the lawsuit over illegal wastewater dumping at Sea-Tac (mentioned above) is based on alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. Phil Watkins, Tate's district director, counters, "The congressman's vote was only to change the method of compliance for environmental regulations, to allow local government to enforce, rather than the federal government."

In Growth We Trust
Instead of building a third runway, Karen Keiser recommends a second regional airport, which she says would provide for more growth and jobs in the long run. Given her labor background, it's understandable that she favors public works.

But other third-runway opponents also favor development. Rose Clark, Burien health activist, favors a "green grass" airport away from urban areas. A suggested site is Moses Lake, across the Cascade mountains, which already has an international airport and could be expanded with less impact on urban residents. Clark and others envision a high-speed maglev (magnetic levitation) rail system connecting the Eastern Washington airport with the Seattle-Tacoma area.

The "CNN Airport Network" at Sea-Tac
treats waiting travelers to pro-third runway
infomercials packaged as news.

(photo by Doug Collins)

Another common proposal is to use Paine Field at Everett. The Vancouver BC airport is currently undergoing expansion on an undeveloped island, and will suck at least 600,000 passengers a year from Sea-Tac, reports Washington CEO.

Making more efficient use of runways is a slightly different idea. The Regional Commission on Airport Affairs, an expansion foe, commissioned a study by the former chief of the FAA's air traffic control center in Los Angeles, Gerald Bogan. Bogan proposes that Sea-Tac should replace its Instrument Landing System, or ILS, with more modern technology: the Localizer Directional Aid, or LDA. Both are means of guiding landing aircraft safely onto the runway. But the LDA, which is in use in San Francisco and St. Louis, permits a great deal more landings during bad-weather conditions, which exist about 40 percent of the time at Sea-Tac. Indeed, Tim Pile of the Northwest headquarters for the FAA calls the ILS system used at Sea-Tac "World War II vintage technology." Adamant on a third runway, Sea-Tac's Rachel Garson maintains that every possible mehanical alternative has been explored and not found adequate.

Few critics of the third runway actually question the basic ideology of the growth of air travel. One is Ken Reid, president of the Airport Communities Coalition, an organization funded by cities opposed to the expansion. Reid writes that the third-runway plans are the "stereotypical chamber of commerce manifesto that, when it comes to concrete and steel, asphalt and mortar, more is always better. But in this case it isn't"

Other countries appear less afraid to question growth. Heathrow airport in London has a noise "curfew." There are no flights at night, in order not to disturb the sleep of airport neighbors. Sea-Tac's Garson notes, "We don't have the right to close at night." In Garson's understanding, closing the airport would be an interference with interstate trade, and therefore against US law.

But beyond sleep loss, there is disturbing evidence that aircraft are more responsible for global warming than previously thought. Nitrogen oxides (NOx), are produced by fuel combustion in vehicles and industry. Even though aircraft produce only three percent of total NOx, a 1992 British study reported in Science News concluded that aircraft NOx are resp