Forum To Address Air and Noise Pollution in Beacon Hill, South King County

by Chetanya Robinson

Community advocates are fighting on multiple fronts to diminish the harms caused by air and noise pollution in Beacon Hill and South King County.

An upcoming online forum from 1:30 – 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 10, Earth Day Aviation & Health Zoom Rally, will give those interested a chance to learn about how local politicians are addressing the problem.

During the forum, State Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, King County Councilmembers Joe McDermott and Girmay Zahilay, and staff from the office of U.S. Rep. Adam Smith will present brief overviews of their work on air and noise pollution, each followed by five minutes for questions and comments from community members, who will be able to type them into a chat box in real time during the event.

Beacon Hill lies directly under flight paths going to and from SeaTac Airport. In 2018, 72% of flights arriving at SeaTac flew over Beacon Hill, Crosscut reported. Because of its location and elevation, the growl of airplane engines in Beacon Hill is inescapable.

The airplanes also contribute to air pollution in the neighborhood — in addition to impacts from two neighboring freeways and the King County International Airport. This combined with noise pollution from auto and air traffic has a serious impact on one of the city’s more diverse neighborhoods.

According to the Crosscut article, community advocates and citizen scientists who have been gathering data on the airplane noise estimate that in north Beacon Hill, an airplane comes through every 90 to 180 seconds, with noise intensity that can range from 50 to 80 decibels.

The World Health Organization’s environmental noise guidelines for Europe say aircraft sounds should stay below 45 decibels.

Such noise can make stress-related health conditions worse.

“Regardless of if you’re used to it or not, the noise spikes trigger stress, stress triggers cortisol, [and] it results in the hardening of the arteries and heart conditions,” said Maria Batayola, who works as environmental justice coordinator for policy and advocacy at El Centro de la Raza. She is also chair of the Beacon Hill Council, which has an environmental justice task force.

Research shows a correlation between airplane noise and lower test scores at schools that are located near airports.

Batayola worries that with more regional demand, a massive increase in flights at SeaTac in the future will only make the problem worse.

The Port of Seattle, which owns and operates SeaTac International Airport, will produce an environmental assessment for its Sustainable Airport Master Plan later this year, which includes analysis of future construction projects. Batayola hopes the airport can organize roundtable discussions with the communities around SeaTac to hear what is important to them.

According to data in the Sustainable Airport Master Plan provided to the Emerald by Batayola,  the Puget Sound region’s airports will double the number of air passengers flying by 2050. “It’s frightening to me,” she said. Batayola said there should be a study of the health costs of such an increase in flights. “Families, individuals, and government are bearing the cost of this,” she said.

The problem affects many parts of south King County beyond Beacon Hill, Batayola points out. “You’re actually talking about a quarter of a million people, because you’ve got Burien, Des Moines, Federal Way — and it is an equity issue.”

About half the residents in these communities are People of Color, Batayola said, with a sizable percentage immigrants and refugees. Beacon Hill has an even higher proportion of People of Color, she noted. Batayola pointed out that King County declared racism a public health crisis in summer 2020. “If you’re going to do anti-racism, you’ve got to take a look at this issue, because it’s sitting in our neighborhoods.”

For communities near SeaTac, noise mitigation funding is available through a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and airport revenue. Mitigation can look like insulation and triple-paned windows, often with fist priority provided at childcare facilities, hospitals or clinics, Batayola said.

But Beacon Hill is not eligible for this mitigation funding, as it lies beyond the boundary experiencing 65 decibels of noise. Community advocates believe the FAA’s data is flawed, as it takes an average decibel measurement over the course of the year. This “totally misses the human experience of noise spikes,” Batayola said. And the data ignores the cumulative impacts of other noise sources in Beacon Hill.

Beacon Hill community advocates need to find a new pathway for the FAA to recognize that the neighborhood is impacted, Batayola said. The National Quiet Skies Coalition is helping with this.

Rep. Smith, who serves on Congress’ Quieter Skies Caucus, supports changes to how the FAA measures noise levels. On April 5, Smith sent a letter to the FAA Administrator asking the agency to implement an environmental mitigation pilot grant program.

Smith also plans to introduce legislation asking for further study of aircraft-related ultra-fine particles and their impact on communities. A recent study in Los Angeles correlated exposure to these particles with premature births, among other health impacts.

Batayola and other advocates also want King County to fund a study on this issue, and to work with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to measure and regulate the emission of ultrafine particles. The King County Airport, while smaller than SeaTac, also borders Beacon Hill. Batayola wants to see the County Council clarify its goals for reducing emissions at the King County Airport, and better measure aircraft emissions.

Batayola noted that while scientific studies of air and noise pollution are important, they aren’t the only considerations for environmentally just policies. “Science is always looking for statistically significant health impacts,” Batayola said. “Well, environmental justice is a precautionary measure. Do we have to be so sick and so bad to get attention or intervention?”

On the state level, El Centro de la Raza is a member of the Front and Centered environmental justice coalition, which is pushing to pass the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act in the legislature. This legislation would establish the definition of environmental justice in state law, create an environmental justice council, and require environmental justice priorities be incorporated into the strategic plans of state agencies. “That is a piece of hope for us,” Batayola said.

The HEAL Act has passed the House, but many of its measures were weakened in the Senate before it was thrown back to the House for further consideration.

For Batayola, recovery from COVID-19 should include making communities resilient against climate change and environmental justice issues. “We just have to address all three at the same time,” she said, “otherwise it’s going to be so disparate again.”

Chetanya Robinson is a freelance journalist and interim editor-in-chief at the International Examiner. He enjoys reporting on the rich variety of life in Seattle, including the hyper-local stories of individual communities and neighborhoods. His work has also appeared in Real Change News, Crosscut, Seattle Weekly, and more. Find him on Twitter at @chetanyarobins.

📸 Featured image: Flight landing at SeaTac International Airport by Pablo Fernicola via Flickr under a Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.

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