As state officials and business leaders line up to support a planned expansion of Tweed New Haven Airport, the two neighboring cities – New Haven and East Haven – are in a battle over an unequal share of the economic benefits and environmental costs of the project.
Gov. Ned Lamont is, so far, a vocal advocate of the plan.
“This is how you open up a state. This is how you get a state moving again,” said Lamont at a May 6, 2021 press conference announcing the expansion, according to a story in the New Haven Register. “It’s a really important project in the most important region in the state.”
But if the economic benefits of the expansion are clear, a recent study of hospital and emergency department visits by DataHaven – and queries by CT Examiner to federal, state and local officials – raise significant questions about how seriously supporters of the project are studying or considering the possible health effects for neighboring residents.
Both New Haven and East Haven qualify as “environmental justice” communities – a term that takes into account poverty and the racial composition of a census tract – and under a federal executive order dating to 1994, projects like the Tweed expansion must identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.”
But according to the DataHaven study, while residents of New Haven are more than twice as likely to be hospitalized or seek emergency-department help for asthma than the state average, about 60 visits per 10,000, in the East Haven neighborhood directly adjacent to the proposed expansion, that number is nearly triple the state average, or about 174 per 10,000.
A 2021 review of the impact of commercial aircraft activity on air quality by federal Environmental Protection Agency employees found that ultrafine particles are elevated around airports and associated with lung inflammation in individuals with asthma.
Asked by the CT Examiner about the impact of the expansion on the neighborhood’s public health, Chris Kelly, an attorney for Save the Sound, said East Haven residents have a right to feel uneasy.
“A lot of people are concerned because they live in an area which is more polluted and faces more issues than other parts of the county,” Kelly said. “They want to have more information about what this really means for them.”
Kelly also said that New Haven County has the highest levels of air pollution in the state, which should spur air-quality monitoring at Tweed.
That’s what Lynne Bonnett, a New Haven resident and an environmental justice advocate, has asked state officials to do.
Bonnett has a plan to install air monitors with Clarity, an air sensing company, and have UConn students analyze the data, at a cost of about $1,000 a year for each monitor and $50,000 to fund a study with the university.
Bonnett told CT Examiner that members of 10,000 Hawks, which opposes the expansion, have asked Tweed Airport Authority Executive Director Sean Scanlon to help the group install air quality monitors at the airport, but according to Bonnett, Scanlon declined.
In a series of phone and email conversations with CT Examiner, Scanlon acknowledged that he had been approached about air quality monitoring, and said he was open to the idea, but questioned the usefulness of collecting air quality data at the airport.
“It’s important to consider that air quality monitoring stations tell you the levels of emissions, but not the sources of emissions,” Scanlon explained in an email. “Given our location in close proximity to both a busy port and interstate, it would be impossible for that monitoring station to determine what’s coming from the airport.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, which is overseeing the review, did not provide a substantive response to email queries regarding environmental impact data capturing at Tweed.
But according to Charles Rothenberger, a climate and energy attorney for Save the Sound, computer modeling is only as accurate as the data informing the simulation. Rothenberger suggested that a better approach would be to use portable air pollution monitors to provide quality, real-time data.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, who backs the expansion, also supports installing air-quality monitors around Tweed, and said he has discussed the idea with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“While it’s difficult to know exactly where the source of pollutants are,” said Elicker, “it will be helpful for us to understand what kind of air quality is in the region so that we can respond.”
Elicker also acknowledged that both New Haven and East Haven residents have an increased risk for respiratory ailments, but in a telephone interview with CT Examiner, he made the case for economic development as a means to improve the health of local residents.
“Improving the economy in New Haven and increasing job opportunities for people will also improve health outcomes by allowing them more access to health care,” said Elicker.
Scanlon acknowledged that many residents have concerns about the expansion, but said that based on Tweed’s polling and ticket sale reports, most in the community support the airport.
“East Haven is in the top five of people who buy tickets across the entire state, so people are supporting it with their wallets,” Scanlon said.
Edith Pestana, the state official in charge of overseeing environmental justice for DEEP, acknowledged that she has received numerous complaints about airport emissions from residents neighboring Tweed, but said that because the environmental assessment is under the purview of FAA, her jurisdiction is limited.
“If there was some illegal air emission that left the property and impacted the community, we would respond,” she told CT Examiner. “But at this point, there’s no standards for jet fuel.”
Pestana said that EPA also controls jet fuel emissions. She said she forwards resident complaints to EPA.
“We don’t have any teeth in the game,” said Pestana.
Asked for “Any comments or concerns regarding environmental justice issues with the Tweed New Haven Airport expansion,” Lamont spokesperson Anthony Anthony referred CT Examiner to DEEP for comment.