by Nicholas Wolfe

About 100 Highline residents and local public officials, angry and frustrated with flight operations involving the third runway at Sea-Tac International Airport, voiced their complaints to Port of Seattle representatives at a special meeting of the Highline Forum on Thursday.

While noise and pollution from low-flying commercial jets using the new runway – and the negative impact these have on property values – are significant concerns, their primary grievance is that the port either reneged on assurances to the community that it would have limited use as a backup landing strip in inclement weather or misrepresented the actual intent for its operation.

The disagreement between the airport’s residential neighbors and the port over use of the third runway was highlighted in an exchange between State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, and Sea-Tac Managing Director Mark Reis.

A pre-construction supplemental Environmental Impact Statement said the third runway would be operated “in bad and good weather conditions” along with the other two runways to maintain air traffic flow, Reis noted.

“During poor and good weather, this is increasing the efficient operating capability of the airport during peak hours,” he added. “We never said it would be used in bad weather only.

But, countered Keiser, “The community was led (by the port) to believe that the third runway would be used in cases of bad weather when safe landings created a need (for its operation). That was the premise that the Environmental Impact Statement. Now here we are with the third runway in operation.

“The premise seems to have changed from being used as a foul-weather type of facility. It’s been shifted, and I am very concerned about what that does to the process on the EIS,” she said.”

Des Moines Mayor Bob Sheckler, co-chairman of the Highline Forum, told Reis, “The senator and I are on the same page here.” During the decade-long debate over the third runway, he recalled, port representatives “brought to the ACC (Airport Communities Coalition) over and over that it would be used for arrivals only in bad weather…. That’s what the port has been saying.”

The Highline Forum, comprised of the cities of Des Moines, Normandy Park, Burien, Tukwila, SeaTac and Federal Way, the Highline School District, and the port, was organized after construction of the third runway got underway to promote cooperative relationships between Sea-Tac and neighboring cities. It replaced the Airport Communities Coalition that for a decade tried to block the third runway and secured environmental regulations for airport operations.

Earlier, Sheckler asked Reis, “Is it fair to say that the third runway is going to be used as a fully functioning runway?” “Yes,” Reis replied. Since it became operational on Nov. 20, Sea-Tac has used two runways in bad conditions and all three in good weather.

But Federal Aviation Administration, not the airport, directs air traffic – including the use of runways, Reis and Stan Shepherd, manager of airport noise programs, both said. The port manages general operations at Sea-Tac, including noise control and mitigation in impacted neighborhoods.

Three FAA representatives were in attendance as observers.

Sheckler also quizzed Reis about how long it will take for the impacts of third runway operations to be fully mitigated by the port. Although it could take between three and five years, Reis said, “The public process does not need to be drawn out too long.”

The supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, which was prepared in 1997, estimated that by 2010 almost 28 percent of all flights arriving at Sea-Tac would use the third runway. But according to data from the port, 44 percent of inbound planes landed on it through Dec. 17. This, port officials said, reflects the low visibility that generally occurs in November and December, and that this figure is expected to go down in the spring and summer months.

Reis said the port “did the best we could to project what was going to be the noise associated with operation of the runway,” and that the FAA now is looking for ways to reduce its impact, including not using the runway between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and not landing older, noisier jets on it.

Dr. Dagmar Cronn, president of the South Park Neighborhood Association, said residents in her community “are unhappy or shocked about the increase in noise. Suddenly they noticed more planes and more noise overhead.” She asked that mitigation be provided by the port to offset the decline in home values and the disruption of sleep patterns and the quality of life.

“The noise is unacceptable,” said Benjamin Stark of Des Moines. Asking where the money for mitigation will come from with mounting deficits in both the federal and state governments, he suggested, “It seems to me that the thing to do is just shut it down.”

Several residents described how third runway flight operations have destroyed their ability to live normal lives in their homes and deflated the value of their property.

Reis said the port will continue to study its impacts on the surrounding area. In the meantime, he cautioned residents, the third runway will be in full operation from April through late October while Sea-Tac’s first runway is completely rebuilt.

Since 2007, The B-Town Blog is Burien’s multiple award-winning hyperlocal news/events website dedicated to independent journalism.

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