Eilís O'Neill is a Seattle-based journalist and a reporter for KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station, and EarthFix, a regional environment journalism collaboration
As Congress debates the FAA’s future, neighborhoods in the flight path say they need relief from all the noise.
Every time a plane flies over Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, María Batayola pauses what she’s saying and lifts a finger as she waits for it to pass. This happens every few minutes, and the noise doesn’t just interrupt conversations, she says: It distracts people at work and school, and disturbs their sleep.
“I remember waking up in the middle of the night and saying, ‘Is there a war?’” she recalls.
For about three years, Batayola has been organizing Beacon Hill residents to combat noise pollution from the nearby Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The constant buzz overhead is a stressor on the community, she says—and there’s plenty of research to back her up. Studies show that airplane noise harms people’s physical and mental health, and makes it harder for adults to work and kids to learn. In the U.S., the effects are disproportionately felt in low-income and minority communities, which experience more airplane noise than wealthier communities.
“Beacon Hill is diverse. About eight out of 10 are people of color,” Batayola says. “One out of five meets poverty level, … and we have about 36 percent who don’t speak English well.” And, she says, “no other neighborhood in the city of Seattle is experiencing this difficulty.”
The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is one of the fastest growing airports in the U.S., which is heating up the region’s fight over how to deal with airplane noise. But the issue is hardly unique to this one city. Residents elsewhere, including San Diego, Phoenix, New York, and Charlotte, have also organized against—and, in some cases, even sued over—airplane noise.
This spring, however, some see an opportunity for change. The Federal Aviation Administration is up for reauthorization in Congress, and a group of lawmakers who are concerned about airplane noise hope this can be a tool to rewrite noise regulations. (Congress faces a March 30 deadline to fully reauthorize the agency or pass a short-term extension, as it did in September.)
Democratic Congressman Adam Smith, whose district includes many of the Seattle-area neighborhoods closest to the airport and underneath its flight paths, including Beacon Hill, helped found the House Quiet Skies Caucus in 2015 to prepare to rewrite the rules on noise during the reauthorization process. The last rewrite of the FAA’s noise rules happened in 1998.
Planes are quieter than they used to be, but that doesn’t mean airplane noise is less of an issue.
“The problem is the volume of airplanes has increased dramatically,” Smith says. “So a broader array of communities are impacted.”
The FAA has rules about how much noise is too much. When a community passes the threshold, it’s eligible for funding to soundproof schools, apartment buildings, and houses with sound-insulated windows, better-insulated doors, and insulation for ventilation systems, walls, and roofs.
Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood isn’t eligible for that money, though—and activists say the central issue is how “too much noise” is calculated.
The FAA doesn’t require on-the-ground noise measurements to make its determinations. In fact, it doesn’t even take them into account when they are conducted.
Instead, airports model noise pollution based on what kinds of planes fly in and out of airports at what times of day, and they come up with an average noise level that communities might experience. But people don’t experience noise as an average; they experience it in spikes, as planes fly overhead.
Beacon Hill organizers currently don’t have data showing how much noise pollution their neighborhood experiences, but they hope to collect it eventually to help make their case.
The FAA’s current standard for noise pollution, set in the 1970s, is 65 decibels. If the agency’s models indicate a home or school experiences above that level on average, it’s eligible for aid with noise abatement efforts. But in a 2015 letter to leaders of the House Transportation Committee, Quiet Skies Caucus members said that standard is “arbitrary and does not align with current health research and the lived experience of families in our congressional districts.”
Sixty-five decibels is a full 10 decibels above what many cities’ noise codes, including Seattle’s, allow in residential zones during the day, and 20 decibels above what those cities allow at night.
The cost of all that noise is high.
“When I think achievement/opportunity gaps,” Batayola says, “just imagine the impact of being in a classroom, trying to listen to your teacher, trying to learn, when you have intermittent interruptions that basically distract you, stop the listening, disrupt the classroom.”
And airplane noise can also disrupt sleep and increase stress, which “is a risk factor for a lot of things, and certainly for having hypertension or high blood pressure, and that is a risk for heart attacks and other cardiovascular events,” says Jon Levy, a public health researcher at Boston University who has studied the links between airplane noise and cardiovascular health.
The FAA itself has spent the past three years working on a study measuring people’s responses to airplane noise. An agency spokesperson says that when the study results are made public this spring, they could potentially prompt a review of the agency’s noise policies.
Members of the Quiet Skies Caucus say there’s no need for more research; the data on noise pollution is clear. The changes they’re seeking during the FAA reauthorization process include lowering the allowed threshold for noise mitigation funding, making the FAA consult with communities before making changes to flight paths, and consider factors like the frequency of flights when making decisions about which communities experience “too much” noise. Since caucus members are almost all Democrats, though, it’s likely they’ll have difficulty making this a priority for a Republican-controlled Congress.
Batayola says getting funding to soundproof Beacon Hill’s buildings would be a good first step, but she’s also hoping for more dramatic measures that would reduce outdoor noise pollution as well. She wants to plant more trees to insulate the neighborhood’s parks, and she wants the airport to reroute some planes so they aren’t all concentrated over one area.
She says she and her neighbors are tired of waiting for solutions. “How can we expedite getting measurements of this air and noise?” she asks. “How can we expedite getting some mitigation? How can we get some solutions going?”