Residents of the city of SeaTac and surrounding areas this week filed a class action lawsuit against the Port of Seattle, Alaska Air Group Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc., alleging that airport operations contaminate neighborhoods near Sea-Tac Airport with a combination of pollutants including carbon monoxide, lead and particulate matter, according to attorneys at Hagens Berman.
The lawsuit, which was filed in King County Superior Court on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, claims the Port of Seattle, which owns Sea-Tac Airport, along with the named airline companies, have known about the pollutants and their associated health risks for years and have done nothing to mitigate them, despite the pollutants’ possible link to hundreds of excess deaths in the area every year, according to researchers.
This class-action lawsuit represents those living within a five-mile radius of Sea-Tac Airport, where more than 300,000 people live, at least 60,000 of whom are children, and have likely been exposed to unhealthy levels of toxic substances including lead and carbon monoxide from nearby airport operations. Attorneys call this the Contamination Zone, which includes but is not limited to Burien, Des Moines, SeaTac and Tukwila, “where levels of cancer, heart disease and chronic lower respiratory disease are significantly higher.”
“Our local communities deserve to breathe clean air and to know that their homes and schools are free from dangerous pollutants. At this juncture, given the refusal to deal with the issue by the Port and the airlines, we believe this lawsuit is the only way to secure that future,” said Steve Berman, partner at Seattle-based Hagens Berman and the attorney leading the suit. “We are bringing claims of public nuisance, trespass and negligence against the Port of Seattle, Alaska and Delta, which is the same legal strategy our firm deployed in an historic win against Big Tobacco in the 90s.”
More than 300,000 people, including over 60,000 children, live within what attorneys are calling the “Contamination Zone” around Sea-Tac Airport.
“Within the Contamination Zone, which includes but is not limited to Burien, Des Moines, SeaTac and Tukwila, rates of cancer, heart disease and chronic lower respiratory disease are significantly higher than in surrounding areas, researchers have concluded,” attorneys said.
The law firm says that those living within a five-mile radius of Sea-Tac Airport may be impacted, including:
- Des Moines
- Normandy Park
Airport Pollutants Leave Unique “Chemical Fingerprints” on Schools and Homes
According to the complaint, planes taking off and landing at Sea-Tac Airport spew pollutants like formaldehyde and acrolein into the atmosphere. Particulate matter containing toxic chemicals can flake off airplanes during flight, raining heavy metals like lead, barium and cadmium onto the area below, where it can settle on homes, schools and the surrounding environment.
The lawsuit references a public health report and several studies by the University of Washington and Public Health – Seattle/King County – including one pertaining specifically to schools, which concluded that communities within the Contamination Zone are contaminated with a unique blend of particulate matter, dangerous gases and hazardous air pollutants. Studies of other international airports have yielded evidence of high concentrations of lead and other heavy metals in the surrounding soil, and attorneys say it is likely that the soil around Sea-Tac Airport is similarly tainted. Other researchers have concluded that airport emissions may have unique “chemical fingerprints,” leading attorneys to believe that airport operations are the only plausible source of the pollutants observed in the area.
“The research is very clear,” Berman said. “The unique chemical fingerprints left behind from airport pollutants are a smoking gun in this scenario, leading researchers to exactly which parties are responsible for the increased levels of pollution in the Contamination Zone south of Seattle. We are demanding long-overdue accountability from the Port and the airline companies.”
Vulnerable Populations Pay Steepest Price
According to the lawsuit, residents of the Contamination Zone suffer from shorter life expectancies and higher risk of cancer and other serious illnesses.
Residents of the Contamination Zone are more likely to be immigrants than residents of surrounding areas, and the majority are Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, in a county where only a third of the overall population belongs to these groups. More than 30% of Zone residents have total household incomes under 200% of the federal poverty level. The complaint alleges that it is unlikely the defendants would have allowed pollution to continue unchecked if the neighborhoods surrounding the airport were more affluent.
“This is an issue of environmental justice, and we’re going to bat for our friends and neighbors on this one,” Berman said. “Our firm has been based in Seattle since its founding in 1993, and we have deep roots in our local community.”<
One of the named plaintiffs in the case, Michelle Geer, lived within the Contamination Zone for many years, in a home that she and her husband could feel shake every time a plane passed overhead. Geer was living in this home when she became pregnant with her first child, the lawsuit states. On Thanksgiving morning in 1994, Geer’s four-year-old daughter, who had been born with a hearing impairment, began walking at a strange angle. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away a few weeks after her fifth birthday. Geer believes that exposure to airport pollution during her pregnancy may have contributed to her daughter’s hearing impairment and the cancer which ultimately took her life, according to the complaint.
In addition to public nuisance, the lawsuit brings claims of negligence, continuing intentional trespass and violation of inverse condemnation laws against the Port. The suit seeks to hold defendants accountable for funding a cleanup of the area, compensating residents for the loss of use and enjoyment of their property and establishing a medical monitoring fund.
Comments on Lawsuit
We reached out for comment from the defendants, and so far the only response we’ve received is from the Port of Seattle:
“We are reviewing the litigation and have no comment on the specific claims today.
“However, it is important to note that the airport and its tenants follow strict federal, state, and local requirements as they relate to how operations impact environmental issues such as air quality and noise.
“In addition, the airport and its tenants routinely go above and beyond regulatory requirements to voluntarily further eliminate emissions, reduce noise, and protect habitat.”
We will update this story if and when we receive comments from Alaska and Delta.
Steve Edmiston, a Des Moines resident who has served on a number of city and statewide airport study committees (most recently an appointee by Gov. Inslee to represent citizen interests on the Commercial Aviation Advisory Commission), stated:
“The Port of Seattle has long-known of the harms caused by noise and pollution from airplane overflights, and continues to plan to expand for even more flights. Even today, the Port refuses to publicly comment on, or release records relating to, the harms to humans outlined in the 2020 Public Health Seattle King County airport study – the same study featured in the lawsuit. This class action is a big deal. The Hagens Berman firm is world-class when it comes to class actions. And it does exactly what class actions are intended to do – levels the playing field.”
Sheila Brush, founder of Quiet Skies Puget Sound, said:
“Our airport communities have been suffering disproportionately for decades, and no amount of science or community outcry has slowed any of the Port of Seattle’s airport growth plans. Instead, the Port seems satisfied to try to convince communities that someone else, like the FAA, is responsible. The Port actively seeks to avoid even speaking about its own accountability. It’s sad that a class action lawsuit is needed. But we’re grateful for the commitment of the Plaintiffs and the Hagens Berman firm to stand up for public health.”