Can Beacon Hill win the fight for quieter skies and a healthier neighborhood?

Sick of roaring airplane traffic and other neighborhood noise, a group of citizen scientists are gathering data in hopes someone will listen.

A time-lapse of planes flying over Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill over the course of nearly 18 minutes.

While talking on her porch steps, Lynda Wong interrupts the conversation to ask a question: “Are we shouting?” Her raised voice goes silent, and a plane’s roar climaxes overhead to fill the aural space before receding into the distance.

At first it’s easy to ignore the constant thrum of aircraft engines blending in with every other sound on Wong's block in Beacon Hill, from cars to dogs to the clangs of construction. She says sometimes it’s irritating, but most people get used to it. The noise seems so entrenched that she and her neighbors think of it as immutable.

Watch: After years of increasing aircraft noise on Beacon Hill, residents of the neighborhood are gathering data. 

“They're planes — what are you going to do?” Wong says. “It's very abstract, right? An abstract problem.”    

Wong says that once she became aware of her habit of talking louder to match her surroundings, she couldn’t stop noticing. She’s transformed her decades-old house into a soundproof fortress, fortifying it with double-paned windows and added insulation that cost thousands of dollars. Just replacing the single-paned windows at the front of her house in 2016 cost $3,000. She did the other windows piecemeal, “as I had money.”

It made things better. When she closes the front door, her house feels hushed, like a library. But when she tries to sleep at night, she says it isn’t enough — aircraft noise can still keep her from sleeping. She wanted a bigger change.

Noise is a difficult environmental hazard for people to grasp. With air pollution comes smoke or smog clouding lungs, coughing, shortness of breath. People smell it, see it and notice the relief when away from it. But there’s no embodiment of noise, no boogeyman to fight or run from. It’s hard to point fingers at something invisible.   

But recent research and attention have given this invisible beast some weight. High levels of urban noise are a known stressor, but aside from interrupting talk and sleep, some research now blames aircraft noise near schools for decreasing test scores (one study included schools in Beacon Hill). Other studies link aircraft noise to cardiovascular disease. And many of the neighborhoods most affected are lower income, nonwhite neighborhoods like Beacon Hill, where almost 80% of the population identifies as nonwhite.  

“Annoyance in and of itself isn’t a disease or a risk factor,” says Michael Yost, chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Services. “But it’s your first indication that there’s something that’s annoying and, therefore, stressful, and that builds up over time.”

Yost points to a study of a community near the Athens International Airport in Greece, which found that stress-related health issues like hypertension and cardiac arrhythmia were “significantly associated with higher aircraft noise exposure.”

Hearing loss can occur when a person is near noises of 85 decibels or louder for prolonged periods. But stress symptoms from noise have less to do with decibel levels than the type of noise a community hears. Yost says the reason some loud noises cause these particular stress-related health issues is the sound’s irregularity. Constant volume and frequency changes — like cars in traffic or aircraft overhead — can be the worst for stress. And when that source of stress hovers over a community for years, the health impacts build up.

Airports have tried to concoct their own remedies. Some offer relief programs for airport-adjacent communities, where the sound of aircraft overhead is the most obviously intense. The noise mitigation program for communities near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport finances soundproofing measures like those double-paned windows Wong paid for herself. Eighty percent of funding is paid for by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant, and the rest comes from airport revenues. But this mitigation funding only helps communities looped within a 65-decibel boundary calculated and established by the FAA. This often includes places near Sea-Tac airport. Based on the Port of Seattle’s monitoring, Beacon Hill doesn’t qualify.

But Sea-Tac’s aircraft traffic is only part of why Beacon Hill is cursed by noise. Flanked on its east and west by interstates 5 and 90, it’s also half a mile from King County International Airport, familiarly known as Boeing Field. And for Beacon Hill, in particular, that concoction of sounds is worsened by airplane flight paths and altitude: In 2018, 72% of all aircraft arrivals to SeaTac flew over Beacon Hill. The community’s hilltop location means arriving aircraft often buzz over at 2,500 feet or under — less than half a mile from jet engine to street level, sometimes overpowering outdoor conversation.

City, state and national lawmakers have been paying closer attention to noise issues in recent years: A national caucus dedicated to combating aircraft noise formed in 2014, and Washington state has attempted to pass noise-related legislation. But so far little has been done to mitigate the effects of noise pollution for neighborhoods like Beacon Hill that are far from airports.

In 2018, 72% of Sea-Tac’s arrivals flew over Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. 

Some Beacon Hill residents are hoping for mitigation funding; others want the plane routes to change altogether. Wong and others think the first step is getting proof. Documenting their own experience with noise on Beacon Hill could change hearts and minds — and that’s where the Beacon Hill Noise Team comes in.

Formed in 2018 and led by Roseanne Lorenzana, former Beacon Hill neighborhood councilmember and retired toxicologist with the Environmental Protection Agency, the coalition of neighbors has learned to measure the sound themselves in an effort to prove to the FAA that they should be included in that 65 decibel loop, too.

Crash course in citizen science

It’s the first Wednesday in May, and a group of Beacon Hill citizen scientists have hauled three noise monitors into their neighborhood library’s conference room. The devices each look a little like a handheld GPS or a TV remote with a screen and have a thick metal tube sticking out of the top. They cost $358 apiece. Each just returned from a round of 72-hour monitoring at volunteer houses, and now the team is downloading data and planning where they’ll go next.

“If we can get about 100 [houses], that’s a really nice dataset and that’s enough to show government and other interested entities the impact that noise is having on Beacon Hill,” says Deirdre Curle, one of the volunteers. So far, they’ve recovered data from a little more than half of that.

The seven volunteers in attendance take seats around the table. Among them are the group’s research leaders, Lorenzana and Edmund Seto, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at UW. Seto joined noise efforts in the area in 2016, after researching noise pollution for an EPA grant project spearheaded by Lorenzana and El Centro de La Raza. The other five are volunteers from the neighborhood: Bridget Ferris, Monique Cherrier, Angelo DePaolo, Curle and Wong.

It’s DePaolo’s first meeting. He had been trained to work the monitors the week before and just finished a round of measurements in the front yard of his own home.

“My ears perk up when I hear about groups like the noise team that are interacting with legislators, more than talking over the fence with your neighbor,” he says. “Other than just shake my fist at the sky, I thought, hey, maybe this is a way we can enact some change.”

The Port of Seattle has its own noise-monitoring program, which owns and operates 24 permanent Larson Davis LD831 noise monitors around the Seattle area. These include one sensor in Beacon Hill and another two blocks outside the neighborhood’s borders. Based on this data, the Port contends that noise isn’t increasing a significant amount. Curle believes that most residents think “it’s getting progressively worse.”

Each member has been trained to use the noise monitors, setting them up beside or in a backyard of a volunteer's house, away from disturbances. The monitor records one decibel reading per second for 72 hours until volunteers return to pick them up and recalibrate them. Some members work on the group’s website to map out the results in a series of points that corresponds to the 52 sites monitored so far.

It’s time-consuming: Most of the work done last summer was completed with the help of UW interns paid through the initial EPA grant, which has since ended. Now the group continually seeks funding to keep operations going (although last year Seto and others at UW received funding from the city of Seattle to conduct a noise pollution study for Beacon Hill).

In Beacon Hill, the noise team estimates that a plane flies overhead every 90 to 180 seconds. Bridget Ferris says she remembers going to Jefferson Park to see an outdoor performance of The Lion,The Witch, and The Wardrobe for her son’s summer camp last year. So many planes went by that at one point, they paused the performance to wait them out. “It’s kind of everywhere, you know?”

A plane flies overhead as people skate at the Jefferson Park Skatepark on Beacon Hill. 

Lorenzana, the architect of much of the noise team’s plan, first heard complaints about noise during her stint on Beacon Hill’s neighborhood council from 2012 to 2017.

“I wanted to understand what the human health [and] public environmental health impact of the noise was,” Lorenzana says. “We had a lot of naysayers saying, ‘There's no health impact.’ But, again, I have these anecdotal stories of people saying, ‘No … we're upset by it.’"

As Lorenzana first learned of these complaints, the FAA launched the Greener Skies over Seattle Initiative  — a plan to concentrate flight paths in order to save fuel and cut aircraft emissions. The plan outlined a landing method that would move away from ground radar-based systems and instead use satellite-based navigation to make “Seattle’s skies quieter and greener,” according to a press release.

The environmental assessment for the initiative stated that the plan would “not result in a significant noise impact over noise sensitive areas.” It claimed that noise levels would decrease in many neighborhoods, and found no issues with Beacon Hill. But residents concerned about the present noise say the report didn’t take a key change into consideration: In the concentrated flight path dictated by Greener Skies alongside the rollout of the FAA’s NextGen program, arriving planes would fly over Beacon Hill at closer intervals. In the past five years, the airport has also seen 46% more passengers than before and expects an annual increase of 4%.

Lorenzana and the noise group add that in addition to seeing planes fly above at closer intervals, they’ve noticed when observing flight data on that planes are also flying lower over Beacon Hill. The Port disagrees with this analysis, pointing to an internal study that says the planes’ altitudes haven’t changed. Lorenzana is skeptical of the report; she points out that data she’s seen in it relies on estimates or averages of information, which can eliminate the outlying highs and lows in information — which goes back to the problem of models vs. experiences.  

In response to the Greener Skies initiative, Lorenzana helped create the neighborhood’s Quieter Skies Task Force (which she later left to focus on the noise team). Similar groups exist in distant-from-airport neighborhoods, like Vashon Island and Burien, but Lorenzana says Beacon Hill’s case is more severe versus places like Vashon, where planes fly a mile high overhead.

“The focus of our group is unique, even in our nation I’d say, because the focus is on public health and not just complaining about noise,” Lorenzana says. “We’re emphasizing that. What’s the effect on children’s learning, cardiovascular effects, diabetes, pregnancy?”

Matching data with reality

While Lorenzana claims that a plane flies over the hill every minute or two, it seems more frequent in person. As you stand in Beacon Hill’s Jefferson Park, just as one plane passes overhead, another creeps up on the horizon, creating a constant loop. There’s practically no break in the scream of jet engines on busy days.

Wong said the first time she heard the plane-a-minute statistic, she didn’t believe it, so she sat outside her house and counted. That changed her mind. Being there in person, she says, makes for a different experience than the port’s data would suggest.

Some local institutions have taken action where they can: At least one school in Beacon Hill, Cleveland STEM High School, made noise pollution part of the curriculum.

The Cleveland High School tennis team stretches at Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. 

The aircrafts can’t be blamed for all the noise alone. The cumulative effect of airplane noise stacked on top of all the other disruptive neighborhood sounds is an important distinction to Lorenzana, who says that looking at noise in the context of a neighborhood differentiates her group’s research from the port’s monitoring, which is primarily used to identify aircraft noise. Any noise detected by port monitors not associated with aircraft flyover is categorized separately as “community noise.” It’s also an average, which lessens the apparent impact of instances of high-volume noise in the neighborhood.

“The fact is that people don't really experience noise as an average,” says Lorenzana. “We experience noise when it occurs. So an annual average of noise is not really representative of the human experience.”

Seto contends that many official noise maps don’t seem accurate to him: They show models instead of actual noise measurements, creating assumptions that exclude important context. For example, a 2017 map created by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics states that the neighborhood’s noise levels fluctuate between 40 and 75 decibels. The noise group's monitors, however, have never recorded a reading below 50 decibels.  

“Our readings are all in the 50s and the 70s,” Seto says. “There are some that reach 80. When you measure noise levels that are much higher than you see in the model, you have to question the model.”

The FAA’s boundary establishing whether or not a community is awarded noise mitigation is based on modeling as well. Their noise model leans on information regarding air traffic and types of planes flying overhead. 

When establishing their boundary, the FAA took this information and subsequently averaged out decibel readings for a year, labeling that measurement “day-night sound levels” (DNL), which resulted in the 65-DNL boundary that exists today. 

While Lorenzana says the noise team’s readings aren’t directly comparable to the FAA’s DNL measurements, she adds that it’s “it’s very important to point out that our data is based on actual measurements. The [FAA’s] is made on modeling… it’s all assumptions.” These models, Lorenzana says, don’t account for variance in the same way that measuring real experiences does, which is the largest incongruence they have with official noise estimates. 

Wong has lived in Beacon Hill since she immigrated from Hong Kong as a young child with her parents in 1975. She has owned her current house for over 15 years. She’s thought of moving, but her reasons to stay go beyond herself. Her elderly parents live just a mile away in the house she grew up in.

“My parents don’t speak any English, so I find myself translating for them a lot,” she says. “It’s not something I can just drop.”

Moving together isn’t an option. The cost of moving is prohibitive, and her parents’ support network — their friends, their familiar routes and buses, their paid-for house — it’s all in Beacon Hill.

“How would you start fresh [or] build new framework to live in without language, limited mobility and frail health?” Wong says.

Lynda Wong, a member of the Beacon Hill Noise Team, speaks about her experience with noise pollution at her home on Beacon Hill. 

Over 70% of Beacon Hill residents don’t speak English at home, the highest rate in King County. Asian American residents make up over half its population: Curle, who’s lived in neighborhood for 18 years, says her husband, who is Asian American, “specifically wanted to live on Beacon Hill because he didn’t want to be the only Asian guy on the block.”

“We enjoy being part of a diverse community [and] people are friendly here,” Curle says. “We love this neighborhood.”

Wong still has weekly dinners with her parents, visits often and helps them around the house. They notice the noise, too: She says she was trying to talk to her father in her backyard the first time they noticed how disruptive the noise was.

“I had to yell for him to hear me,” she says. “After that, I really started noticing it.”

When community assessments for Greener Skies were scheduled in 2012, no meeting was scheduled in Beacon Hill. An FAA spokesperson explained in a Crosscut piece at the time that a consultant arranged the meetings where space was available. But residents like Lorenzana say it seemed to be a deliberate choice to avoid complaints from Beacon Hill residents. Beacon Hill has an established reputation as a community willing to stand up for quiet: A group called Citizens for Airplane Noise Equity formed in 2000 before eventually dissolving without making much legislative progress.

Wong says Beacon Hill’s status as a largely low-income area also makes it harder for residents to find time outside of work for advocacy. Her parents exemplify this: “They don't speak the language, they have two or three jobs. Where are they going to find (1) the time, (2) the energy and (3) the wherewithal to actually say anything effectively?”  

“It's a community that doesn't feel empowered,” Lorenzana says. “There's a lot of people here that don't have a choice — this is where they live. They don't have the funds to move somewhere else.”

But Wong says the noise team under Lorenzana’s leadership has brought hope that the neighborhood’s situation could change this time. “The whole thing felt real,” Wong says.

The long and winding road to quiet

Even with data in hand, the Beacon Hill Noise Team has many hoops left to jump through to make a change in aircraft noise policy, even if the data proves that neighborhood noise is worse than the Port of Seattle’s monitoring system indicates. Expanding the decibel boundary so Beacon Hill can qualify for relief programs will require FAA approval.

“Changes to their requirements would have to be made through congressional action,” Perry Cooper, the port's senior media relations manager, says in an email. “Per FAA policy, in order for airports to use FAA AIP grant funding for sound insulation projects, the projects must first be approved by the FAA and be located within the 65 [day-night average sound level] boundary area.”   

State Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, has twice sponsored bills to broaden areas eligible for noise mitigation funding, but his latest attempt this year didn’t pass. Had it passed, even Pellicciotti says it would have been the first step of many.  

Movement could come at the national level. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, a member of Congress’ Quieter Skies caucus, is in favor of the FAA reforming how it monitors noise. He recently submitted written testimony to the national House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, highlighting the effects of aircraft noise and emissions at Sea-Tac in particular, and has introduced the Aviation Impacted Communities Act, which would strengthen communication between the FAA and noise-impacted communities.

“As [...] the representative for one of the busiest and fastest-growing hub airports in the country, Sea-Tac International Airport, I see every day the effects aviation has on residents living nearby airports,” Smith said in a press release. “Congress must act to reduce the impacts felt by surrounding areas while ensuring that our airports remain vital economic engines.”

Lorenzana says the noise team has at least accomplished its first goal of validating local noise concerns and getting data to back them up. Empowered by information, the team can offer a foundation for all their future work.

“That gives them a stronger voice,” Lorenzana says. And beyond using the data to back up public comments to the airport with facts, she hopes that the research will help in “talking to public health agencies and getting them involved.”

At the end of 2018, El Centro de La Raza received $158,611 in funding from the city of Seattle to conduct a quantitative air and noise study with UW, with Seto as one of the lead researchers. While most of the noise team’s efforts have focused on residential areas, the new study could focus on institutions like schools or homes for the elderly, which could help establish the harmful effects noise has on the neighborhood’s vulnerable populations.

But for now, Sea-Tac Airport’s arrivals have increased 30 percent, and new arrivals to the neighborhood with young families are beginning to notice. Jason Hultman and Jacky Hoang moved to Wong’s block in August with their baby, Ada. They had heard about the noise before making the move, but now they plan to install double-paned windows as soon as possible.

 Ada Hultman, 8 months, plays with toys at her Beacon Hill home with parents Jason Hultman and Jacky Hoang. 

“At night and in the evenings [when] we're putting Ada to sleep and stuff, it's pretty noisy,” Hultman says. “It seems like it's kind of constant noise from the aircraft.”

Wong knows that more families like theirs are on the way — density, she says, is good for everybody. But she also hopes that with the new developments and their inevitable noise will come residents who will join their neighbors in advocating for peace and quiet.

This story has been updated to clarify the competing measurement methodologies employed by the Beacon Hill Noise Team and the Port of Seattle/FAA. It has also been corrected to establish that the FAA, not the Port of Seattle, launched the Greener Skies over Seattle Initiative. Additionally, it has been corrected to say that the airport will see an annual increase in passenger traffic of 4%, not 8% to 12%.

The view of the Beacon Hill neighborhood and downtown Seattle from Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira

Manola Secaira is formerly a reporter for Crosscut, where she covered Native communities, the changing region and environmental justice.