(Page 2 of 2)
Vain hope. Shepherd, the Port’s noise-control manager, says he has no idea why the monitors were deployed as they were, but it doesn't matter; they don't affect noise policies anyway. “Even though there might be more in some areas and fewer in others, noise monitors aren’t going to make any difference. Per FAA regulation [and despite what Port spokesman Cooper says], we cannot have a direct input of the noise monitoring data into the model used to gauge impacts."
So what are the monitors good for? “It’s a kind of balance and check,” says Shepherd. “The noise monitors’ data is just used to answer questions from the community about impacts." (The Port's website says they also help it monitor airlines' compliance.) In other words, they are a means of reassuring the public, not protecting it.
Beacon Hill doesn’t seem to be reassured.
In 1990, after heavy lobbying by the airline industry, Congress passed the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, which introduced noise standards around the nation’s airports and preempted more stringent local controls. According to those standards, the FAA will only fund mitigation — noise-proofing and, sometimes, property purchases — in a designated noise impact “contour” where the average aircraft noise level, as determined by a complex formula, is at least 65 decibels, with a 10 dB bonus added to late-night noise because of its extra impact. (Sixty-five dB is commonly described as the noise of a cash register 10 feet away.)
The air-noise activists note serious flaws in this metric: The “average” levels don’t seem to account for the frequency of flights, nor for exceptionally loud, low-flying jets. And the formula ignores the cumulative effects of multiple airports. Beacon Hill and several other Seattle neighborhoods lie in the flight paths of not just Sea-Tac but nearby Boeing Field (plus Renton’s smaller airport). Their combined impact may well be more than 65 dB, but again, says Shepherd, that doesn’t matter. “Boeing Field noise is not considered in our [noise impact] Part 150 calculations.”
The Port is currently redoing those calculations, for the first time in a decade, in a Part 150 Noise Compatibility Study prescribed under federal rules. Again, Federal Way has gotten more attention from the feds than Southeast Seattle: Part 150 public meetings have been held in the former but not the latter. Again, however, Shepherd vows that Southeast Seattle will get just as much help under the new noise mapping as Federal Way and nearly every other community in the region: zilch. Sea-Tac’s 65 dB contour, which currently runs in a narrow band from Tukwila to Des Moines, is projected to shrink by about half, thanks to quieter jets. Outside that band, FAA environmental specialist Kaylin Morgan told the restive Beacon Hill meeting in November, “there’s no remedy for it. There’s no money for it.”
Some other airport districts have nevertheless managed to break the 65 dB sound barrier. The Cleveland and Minneapolis airports secured federal approval for mitigation out to 60 decibels (which would include South Beacon Hill). One noise expert contends that other airports could do the same if neighboring cities cooperate in their zoning. But Shepherd insists these are one-off cases that don’t translate to Seattle: Cleveland’s just catching up on previously promised mitigation and Minneapolis International was forced to extend its boundary through a lawsuit by neighboring cities.
Minneapolis’s example might in fact be pertinent for Beacon Hill. “We’ve decided a lawsuit is the most effective way [to get action]," says Erik Stanford. His group doesn’t have any funds for a suit, but he hopes to enlist UW researchers and perhaps Seattle University law students.
Meanwhile, Ticiang Dianson, a recently retired director of Seattle Public Utilities’ environmental justice division, and a former EPA toxicologist, who now teaches at UW, are considering bringing their own action over the jet emissions released on neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and respiratory illness. The FAA’s response to such concerns has been “mammoth bureaucratic,” says Dianson. “They tried to placate us, but they wouldn’t do anything.”
Stanford relishes the prospect: “If we can go after the FAA and Port with the EPA behind us, we’re going to have a whole lot more leverage.” And they may be able to bring in even bigger guns without paying for lawyers. It has worked before, on Beacon Hill and in Magnolia.
Twice, in the late ’90s and in 2010, Columbia City realtor Ray Akers caught the FAA extending its northbound departure corridor to the east, past Beacon Hill and MLK Way and over the Rainier Valley (and Akers’ house), with no announcement or review. The first time, he says, the agency relented and restored the original routing. The second time it stonewalled, not even acknowledging the change. Akers got Congressman Jim McDermott’s office to demand an explanation. The FAA’s acting regional director replied that this “Plan Charlie” routing was necessary whenever “localized weather or clouds” impeded the ability of Boeing Field controllers to track Sea-Tac jets visually. Akers replied that this hadn’t been necessary for years previous, and that jets were being rerouted even when no adverse weather interfered.
Eventually the jets stopped crossing into the valley. FAA spokesman Kenitzer says the agency “corrected” the routing after “discovering” it had somehow strayed off course.
“It takes a lot to get the FAA to respond,” says Magnolia's Robert Bismuth, a longtime private pilot himself. “The FAA has two mandates, safety and commerce, and no mandate about anybody on the ground. It traditionally hasn’t responded to noise and pollution concerns. If you want it to, you have to involve the congressional delegation.”
That's what worked for Magnolia. In 2009 the FAA proposed lowering the Class Bravo “floor,” the minimum altitude for incoming jets, from 3,000 to 2,000 feet. In familiar fashion, it convened public meetings in Tacoma, Burien and Everett, but none in Seattle where the effects would be most severe.
Bismuth got McDermott and Sen. Patty Murray, both on committees overseeing the agency, to write letters. And he played the safety card: This would drop the floor for the Lake Union seaplanes and other “uncontrolled” aircraft that fly below the jets to just 500 feet. Besides consigning Magnolia and Queen Anne to noise hell, this would come too close to hilltop water and communication towers. The FAA conceded the safety issue and dropped its plans.
Beacon Hill doesn’t hold that trump card, but it may be able to play another: the National Environmental Policy Act, which bars environmental discrimination against poor and minority communities — the sort of neighborhoods that wind up under flight paths all across the nation.
That could be a much uglier fight. “To give the FAA credit, they turned around and worked with us,” says Bismuth, who’s shared his experience with the Southeast Seattleites. “I think they created a very antagonistic relationship with Beacon Hill, and they’ll pay for it."
Meanwhile, the Port, the good cop, is trying to better its relationship. On Wednesday Sea-Tac's managing director, Mark Ries, and Stan Shepherd will meet with the Quieter Skies Task Force — on Beacon Hill.
The author lives in Southeast Seattle, but blissfully outside the jet noise path.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!