Local and State Legislation Hope to Address Environmental Impacts From Airports | South Seattle Emerald

A County ordinance and a Washington State House bill could help alleviate the impact of local airports on South End communities. 

In the King County Council, Councilmember Joe McDermott has sponsored an ordinance that would add a flurry of requirements to further hold the King County International Airport (KCIA) accountable to Beacon Hill, South Park, Georgetown, and Tukwila. And in the Washington State Legislature, House Bill 1791, sponsored by Rep. Jake Fey (a Democrat from Tacoma), sets a new timeline for an advisory group to assess the need for an additional airport in light of the growing region and mounting pressure on the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac Airport).

Since 2019, the KCIA has faced pushback from surrounding cities and neighborhoods for not taking these communities into account when moving ahead with its master plan, a formal planning document it updated in 2020 that stated it expected to increase the number of flights over the next 20 years. That’s when the King County International Airport Community Coalition (KCIACC) took matters into its own hands. 

“You have to sit down with the community to develop the plan,” said KCIACC Chair Velma Veloria. “You can’t just come to us and say this is it.”

Veloria lives in Beacon Hill and deals with the realities of living next to an airport every day. When airplanes land at the King County International Airport, her house shakes, and the sound of planes screeching as they turn reverberates through her neighborhood. 

“So those are the things you can see and hear, but some of the things that we don’t see and hear is the whole issue,” she said. 

Residents who live near airports are often overexposed to pollutants known as ultrafine particulate (UFP) matter. An analysis of studies by the University of Washington and the Washington State Department of Health have found that evidence to confirm a relationship between health and UFP exposure is limited. Still, studies suggest that prolonged exposure to UFP can lead to a decline in lung function and can exacerbate asthma. A University of Washington air quality study found that the percentage of UFP matter is higher in communities near the flight paths of airplanes around Sea-Tac Airport.

In 2013, a report found that the area code of 98108, which includes Beacon Hill, South Park, and Georgetown, faces the highest levels of air pollution compared with any other neighborhood in Seattle. That study also found South Park residents to have a 13-year shorter life span than their neighbors to the north.

“One of the things we want is for the airport to help us make these communities safe, a more healthy environment,” Veloria said.

The King County ordinance would add two additional seats to the KCIA roundtable, filled by members of the South Park and Beacon Hill communities. The roundtable would also add a subcommittee that would create a “community benefits agreement” between community members and KCIA. That’s a sticking point for the KCIACC. The community benefits agreement would ensure any future changes the airport proposes would have to be run past the community.

Ali Lee, a local health and equity specialist and a member of the King County International Airport Roundtable, says the community benefits agreement ensures that for generations to come, the airport will take into account the opinions and needs of the people who live around the airport.

The ordinance would also require KCIA to conduct an environmental impact assessment every 10 years. 

For now, the ordinance has yet to make it out of the Government Accountability and Oversight Committee, but Veloria says she has a good feeling about its future after meeting with Councilmember McDermott and representatives from the airport on Thursday, March 23. 

State legislation also took aim at the Sea-Tac Airport, 6 miles south of the KCIA: HB 1791 is related to studying the need for increased commercial aviation services at the airport. The bill will give legislators more time to find a more agreeable location for the new airport after a previous attempt prompted pushback from residents in Pierce County. 

More than 1,000 flight operations occur at the Sea-Tac Airport daily, which is among the busiest airports in the country, so legislators are looking ahead at aviation needs that will surely not slow down, as the state’s population trajectory is also expected to increase. Sea-Tac Airport is expected to reach capacity by 2050. 

“Opposition to the state’s proposed airport sites had been loud, fierce, and featured prominently in many regional and statewide news outlets. It was clear that the process that we established in 2019 was severely flawed,” said sponsor Rep. Fey. “But it is also true that we need to plan for all of our future transportation needs, including potential increases in commercial air traffic.”

HB 1791, which has passed the House chamber and now must make its way through Senate committees, will direct a work group — consisting of a mix of citizen, commercial, and legislative representatives — to determine the future aviation needs of the region and where a new airport could be located. The work group will provide a progress report to Gov. Jay Inslee by January 2024. 

This article is funded in part by an Environmental Justice Fund (EJ Fund) grant through the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE).

Agueda Pacheco Flores is a journalist focusing on Latinx culture and Mexican American identity. Originally from Querétaro, Mexico, Pacheco Flores is inspired by her own bicultural upbringing as an undocumented immigrant and proud Washingtonian.

Featured Image: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, SeaTac, Washington, as seen from the air. Photo is attributed to Joe Mabel (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

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