Gasps emanated from the crowd gathered at the Quiet Skies Puget Sound community forum when lawyer Steve Edmiston projected one of the first slides of his presentation.
He showed a map published by the Environmental Projection Agency, followed by an alarming statistic, placing Des Moines’ Mount Rainier High School in the highest percentile area of risk of cancer in the nation.
The campus’ location ranked in the same 95 to 100 percent risk range for respiratory hazard.
The data hit home for Edmiston’s audience, because Mt. Rainier is not only where a number of local students attend high school, but also exactly where they were sitting during the forum.
The school’s gym was full of concerned community members, who gathered on the evening of Wednesday, April 26, to learn more about health and environmental impacts of the expanding airport just 4 miles away.
To help his audience understand the severity of the problem, Edmiston shared his personal story of being diagnosed with both Leukemia and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
After taking a year off for treatment, he returned home to Des Moines. The absence from routine made him notice something he had previously taken for granted – the noise inside his own home from aircraft flying closely overhead.
“These planes are frequent, frequent, frequent,” he said. “They’re lower and louder.”
Edmiston said expansion of the airport is threatening the quality of life for residents in each of the neighborhoods located under the flight paths.
He is convinced things are only going to get worse.
Edmiston said that the airport’s five-year plan calls for increased cargo and passenger flights.
He also said technological changes planned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will be detrimental.
The package is called the Next Generation Air Transportation System or “NextGen” – and the FAA presented an explanation of the program on Tuesday, April 25 during a Port of Seattle meeting at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
David Suomi, deputy regional administrator of the Northwest Mountain Region for the FAA, described NextGen as a conglomeration of programs designed to modernize air transportation.
“Our mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world,” he said. “Safety is the foundation of everything we do.”
Suomi said NextGen will help improve the travel experience, make flights safer and reduce fuel consumption and exhaust emissions, as well as save money for aircraft operators and the public.
“Basically, it delivers a better travel experience,” he said.
NextGen is not one single system, Suomi explained. Rather, it incorporates a number of new technologies for communication, navigation, surveillance and automation.
“Think of it this way – we’ve bought a multi-million dollar iPad, and now we’re installing a lot of apps,” he said.
Suomi said NextGen will have a lengthy roll-out. “We’re being very deliberate to make sure we’re doing it safely,” he said. It’s more of a crawl-walk-run approach.”
Earlier in the meeting, the Port Commissioners also heard a presentation on aircraft noise, flight paths and the operations level at Sea-Tac.
Stan Shepherd, manager of airport noise programs, said the noise hotline has received a higher volume of calls lately – and he tied that to the growth of the airport.
In 2016, the airport had 412,170 operations, up from 381,408 the year before.
The increase from 2013 to 2016 was 94,986 operations – or 260 more aircraft flying over homes each day.
Shepherd said the airport has spent $400 million since 1985 on noise mitigation, insulating 9,400 homes, eight schools, 14 college buildings and 246 condominium units, as well as acquiring 359 mobile homes and relocating the residents.
“We’re not done yet,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to go.”
A plan created in 2014 calls for insulating more homes, condos and schools. There’s also a pilot program for the insulation of apartments and places of worship.
Commissioner Stephanie Bowman wanted to know more about what changes could be made to help area residents with the noise.
“As we continue to grow, it’s just going to get worse,” she said.
A number of concerned citizens were present at the Commissioners meeting – and also attended the Quiet Skies Puget Sound community forum.
At both meetings, speakers expressed concerns that NextGen would result in narrower flight paths, resulting in a higher volume of planes traveling over affected homes.
While some areas would be eliminated from the flight path, others that remained would have even more noise and pollution to handle.
Burien City Councilmember Debi Wagner, author of the book “Over My Head,” a book about her fight against local airport expansion, attended both meetings.
“There are lawsuits across the county for NextGen,” she said. “Communities are outraged about it. It’s an absolute disaster.”
Wagner described how ultrafine particle pollution coming from planes’ exhaust affects communities miles away from the airport.
She added that studies show that, in the flight paths, higher occurrences of brain, lung and breast cancer have been recorded – as well as higher rates of hospitalization for children with lung-related illnesses.
Wagner said that, while there are methods to reduce noise, she does not know how to reverse the threat of these particles, which can seep through walls, roofs, skin and eyes.
“We’re guinea pigs, sitting ducks, to see how long it will take to kill people,” she said. “It’s wrong. It’s unjust.”
State Representative Tina Orwall (D-33rd Dist.), also present at both meetings, said her son attended Mt. Rainier High and suffered from asthma the entire time.
“As a parent, I’m worried about all of our kids and what this means to them,” she said.
She asked audience members to help fund and support research about ultrafine particle pollution.
Orwall also discussed options like planes switching to biodiesel and finding a site for a second airport as possible improvements.
Larry Cripe, a retired pilot for Alaska Airlines and president of the Burien Quiet Skies Coalition, also attended both meetings.
He encouraged residents to get involved. “From the beginning, it was about informing, educating and empowering the citizens of my community,” he said. “This information is invaluable.”
Burien’s Quiet Skies Coalition is filing a lawsuit against the FAA.
“We’ve got something big here, and it’s only going to grow,” he said. “We’re all going to have to work together.”
He also discussed how adding of a second regional airport could reduce the number of planes flying into Seattle in general.
“Puget Sound is going to get destroyed if we allow this unbridled growth to continue,” he said. “Someone is going to have to finally say enough is enough.”