For more than a year now, East Haven’s Lorena Venegas has been on the front lines of a local controversy. Along with a small contingent of other residents, she’s been leveeing a full-throated fight against the operators of the Tweed-New Haven Airport, just a mile and a half from her home.
At issue: a proposed expansion to the regional airport that would increase the number of flights in and out of the facility, offering residents an alternative to New York City or Bradley International in Windsor Locks, about an hour’s drive north along Interstate 91.
“I think the group has grown because now we have a coalition of three, four different community groups,” Venegas says, nearly a year after CII first spoke to her. Where her group previously represented mostly residents of East Haven, they have grown, bringing in folks from New Haven, Fairhaven, and Branford to make their voices heard.
These local residents are worried that the expansion could have negative effects on the community. Their concerns range from loss of property values to increased noise, air pollution, and potential flooding.
In their pitch, the Tweed-New Haven Airport Authority says the expansion is necessary to keep up with regulations and increase flights from a more convenient location, but residents of East Haven say those services do not outweigh the personal and environmental burden the expansion would thrust upon them.
The Tweed expansion project was originally introduced to the public in a direct mail newsletter in Winter 2020, and an updated version of the complete Master Plan, prepared by engineering consulting firm McFarland Johnson on behalf of the Airport Authority, was posted online in the Fall of 2021.
Under the proposed expansion, Avports, part of Goldman Sachs, the current operator of the airport, would lease a portion of the airport for a $100 million project. The project would involve the addition of a new terminal and more runway space to expand the facility’s capacity.
The $100 million budget is spread out over 20 years of updates and expected changes to aviation technology and regulations.
Phase 1 of the project is expected to last about five years and operation is expected to begin in 2026, if the project remains on schedule. Phase 1 includes the acquisition of the necessary land, the development of the terminal and runway additions as well as the construction of those items and plans for noise mitigation to offset its growth due to increased air traffic.
Phase 1’s price tag is estimated at $74,364,000, with $27.4 million marked as Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) funds and $3 million marked Local. Avports has stated that its investment would eliminate the need for state and municipal subsidies.
Subsequent phases include additional land acquisitions and a long-term taxiway expansion project. The plan also includes budget items for additional hangars as needed at a potential cost of more than $7 million, though these projects would be privately funded with no federal or local dollars invested.
Tweed-New Haven Airport’s 437-acre footprint stretches over parts of both New Haven and East Haven, the New Haven side ending around three miles from the city’s business district. According to the Master Plan, however, the expansion to extend the airport solely into land on the East Haven side.
And this has East Haven residents worried.
Tweed-New Haven Airport already extends into a residential neighborhood in East Haven and residents of that part of town are worried about the effects this proposed expansion could have on their lives. And it isn’t just one concern or another but a host of potential issues they don’t believe either Avports or the Connecticut Airport Authority have taken seriously enough.
First, there is the matter of noise pollution. Residents are concerned about how increased noise from additional aircraft overhead could affect their daily lives and their property values if that noise makes the neighborhood unappealing to potential buyers.
The issue of airport noise pollution, though, is a tricky one. There is no doubt that increased air traffic creates additional noise. There is also evidence that increased noise causes psychological and health problems for locals living near busy airports. In a 2017 white paper, researchers in the U.S., London, and the Netherlands noted that aircraft noise has been linked to an increase in stress levels, sleep disruptions, and cardiovascular disease, as well as disruptions to children’s learning. Sleep disturbances alone are referred to as “the most deleterious non-auditory effect of environmental noise exposure.”
Even still, the paper says that efforts to mitigate noise pollution “constrains air traffic growth” and “politicians and legislators often struggle to define limit values that both protect the population against the adverse effects of aircraft noise but do not restrict the positive societal effects of air traffic.”
Increased noise level – specifically an increase in noise complaints – as well as proximity to an airport has been shown to reduce property values. A 2021 survey of noise complaints in Minneapolis found that a 10% increase in complaints correlated to a 0.05% decrease ($50 per $100,000) in the overall value of surrounding properties.
According to a noise projection study commissioned as part of the Tweed Expansion Master Plan, there will, predictably, be an increase in noise pollution as a result of the Tweed airport expansion. Most of that increase over the next 15 years will happen within land owned by the airport, but it will also extend a further 1.7 acres outside of the airport (noise pollution currently extends 1.3 acres outside the airport according to the current model). Further, it stands to reason that noise within the existing footprint will increase as well.
According to the study, a commercial jet flying at about 1,000 feet produces around 105 decibels (dB) of sound. This isn’t loud enough to cause pain in the human ear – that happens at around 120 dB – but it is loud enough to cause disruptions and stress.
The airport expansion Master Plan does identify funding for noise mitigation. The plan does not, however, include a specific explanation of the mitigation plans.
Noise isn’t the only type of pollution Veneers and her group is worried about, however. They have also become increasingly concerned about the potential environmental impacts the project could have on the surrounding land and the local community.
Much of that concern comes from the fact that the airport’s footprint includes wetlands which would be affected as part of the development. Residents have concerns for local wildlife whose habitat would be disrupted by development either within or nearby.
Those wetlands are unique in that they are tidal wetlands which, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) “are an indispensable part of the Long Island Sound ecosystem, serving such functions as waterfowl and wildlife habitat, pollution control, floodwater storage, and nurseries for fish and shellfish.”
It is also the wetlands’ ability to store floodwater that causes some additional concern for homeowners.
During extreme weather events, or even extended periods of wet weather like those Connecticut experienced in mid-July of this year, those wetlands serve an important function by absorbing much of that rainfall, lessening its impact on the surrounding communities. If those wetlands are reduced, especially by paving over them to add less permeable or impermeable concrete runways, aprons, and taxiways, that rainwater would have fewer places to go and would likely back up into the community and the airport itself.
“What they want to do for development is actually the area that’s the most has the shortest sea level rise. It’s only four and a half feet right now,” says Venegas. “That is our natural mitigation for flooding for the whole town. And not only does it affect the shoreline community in East Haven, but any overdevelopment here actually will affect flooding up Farm River and affect the northern part of the town.”
Researchers at the First Street Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to “Make climate risk accessible, easy to understand and actionable for individuals, governments, and industry,” have warned that previously once-in-a-lifetime weather events are increasing in frequency, which makes it more important for communities to increase the number of absorbent surfaces through the expansion of green areas and the implementation of pervious surfaces where normally they would use pavement.
As part of the approval process for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the airport managers prepared an Environmental Assessment to judge some of the potential impacts of the project. That assessment found that the expansion’s impacts would have effects below certain federal standards, making them “not significant” and not in violation of the FAA’s rules.
The assessment also compared the estimates to those potential impacts that could occur if the airport did not expand to a new terminal.
In terms of air quality, they claim that without adding additional flights, they would instead be forced to utilize larger, higher capacity aircraft which would expend, according to their estimates, a greater amount of pollutants. This is, of course, if they decide to increase the airport’s passenger capacity without increasing its footprint.
Residents, however, do not believe the Environmental Assessment provides enough information or enough evidence to support these claims. They have been pressuring the FAA to require the airport to complete the much more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement.
Residents urging the FAA to take this approach are also being aided by Save the Sound, an organization focused on conservation in the Long Island Sound region. Save the Sound wrote a letter to the FAA last year also requesting the Environmental Impact Statement.
Among the concerns cited by Save the Sound were “significant effects on inland and tidal wetlands; stormwater flooding, sea-level rise, and other floodplain and resilience issues; disruption of local and migratory wildlife habitat; compromised water quality due to increased traffic and discharges; increased greenhouse gas emissions; and the effects of emissions, traffic, and noise on nearby state-designated environmental justice communities in East Haven and New Haven.”
“The FAA must undertake a thorough environmental review to assess these impacts on the natural and human environments at and around Tweed,” said Chris Kelly, Save the Sound’s Peter B. Cooper Legal Fellow at the time. “Residents deserve to understand the consequences of this long-term and highly controversial project. Under NEPA, projects with foreseeable, potentially severe impacts require a full Environmental Impact Statement. In fact, an EIS was required for a smaller expansion of the airport in 2002. Not only is an EIS the right thing to do—it’s the law.”
Venegas and other East Haven residents say the expansion project doesn’t include specific plans for environmental mitigation. The worry is that the FAA will approve the Environmental Assessment assuming those mitigation plans will come later.
Additionally, Venegas says she is concerned that any mitigation plans that do arise will focus on offsetting damage that might be done at the airport by making improvements to areas in other parts of town.
“The thing is that there is no timeline for airports or anyone under Connecticut DEEP to do any mitigation anywhere,” argues Venegas. “So, they can take a year or 20 years as long as they have it in writing. ‘I will do something else elsewhere to mitigate for the damage that I’ve done here.’ That’s all that’s needed by the law.”
Potential environmental impacts from the project have also garnered the interest of researchers specializing in the environmental effects of industry.
A community environmental group that sprung up as a result of the airport expansion – 10,00 Hawks – has launched a Critical Air Quality Monitoring program in the area around TWEED Airport. As part of the project, researchers from Tufts University in Boston have visited the area to install a mobile air pollution lab.
The group hopes to create an air quality map of the area to show the effects of airport activities on the surrounding area. In addition to exterior air monitoring, they have also launched an effort to study changes in indoor air quality in the area.
Most recently, researchers from the University of Connecticut have set their sights on the Tweed-New Haven area in an effort to understand whether certain types of water contamination from chemicals known as PFAS (or Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) increase with expanded industrial activity, including the airport expansion.
Airports are a major source of certain PFAS chemicals because they are used in the foam used by firefighters when putting out fires from aviation fuel. That foam is also used in training exercises and leaves a residue on the pavement which is then washed into local waterways by rainfall.
Dr. Kaitlyn Campbell, a post-doctoral fellow at UConn and co-investigator on the study, says they chose the area for their project specifically because of the proposed expansion.
“The main reason we’re targeting areas around airports is because they use the Aqueous Film Forming Foam, also known as AFFF,” says Kaitlyn, referring to the foam used by firefighters at airports to extinguish aviation fuel fires. “That typically contains PFAS and that can run off from their different runways or their fire training facilities that they might have on-site, and that can then get into the aquatic environment and pollute any kind of organisms that are there, or just the watershed itself.”
The UConn study is part of a larger project to understand the impact of PFAS on coastal areas near airports and industry. The researchers will catch fish and shellfish and measure the level of PFAS in their systems.
PFAS are particularly dangerous because they are water soluble but extremely difficult to break down once they are introduced. They are also ubiquitous, used in hydrophobic materials like Teflon and water and stain-resistant fabrics, and have built up in the bloodstreams of 97% of Americans.
PFAS are associated with multiple health effects ranging from increased cholesterol and changes in liver enzymes to increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer as well as an increased risk of pre-eclampsia in pregnant women. There are also potentially dangerous effects in children including low birth weight, birth defects, and decreased vaccine response.
The Food and Drug Administration has taken a special interest in PFAS contamination in food sources and has discovered at least one type of PFAS in between 41-74% of sampled seafood.
Campbell says the other reason they wanted to study the area was to establish a baseline understanding of existing contamination. To them, it is a matter of environmental justice, since residents living near an airport are more likely to be lower income.
“A lot of people don’t really want to live near an airport. There’s a lot of air emissions and noise pollution. And so, with the proposed expansion that’s going to be a hundred million dollars, it’s going to increase the area quite a bit,” they explained. “So, we kind of wanted to do a baseline environmental assessment in the area as well to kind of see, is there PFAS contamination? To what extent? And what types of PFAS are we finding?”
The comment period for the draft Environmental Assessment closed on May 1st and received over 1,000 responses from members of the community. The FAA’s response is expected by the end of the summer.
For the residents opposing the expansion, the hope is that those comments force the FAA to reconsider and make the Connecticut Airport Authority submit to the longer Environmental Impact Statement process.
According to projections in the Master Plan, the Airport Authority expects the expansion to increase the number of flights Tweed-New Haven could handle during a year and triple the number of passengers it could serve. This could lead to fiscal benefits for the area, increased business, and potential jobs. They also highlight a commitment to easing traffic and safety caused by airport activities. But for those who call the airport their neighbor, these are benefits that could come at their expense.