EAST HAVEN – A top federal health official urged the Federal Aviation Administration to further study the health effects of expanding Tweed New Haven Airport on its underprivileged neighbors – a warning that drew a muted response from state and federal officials contacted on Wednesday.
“The likelihood that the proposed expansion will worsen health outcomes … given the connection between asthma and poor health outcomes near airports, strongly suggests the need for further analysis,” Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine warned FAA officials in a Sept. 26 letter that came to light on Tuesday.
Levine reminded top FAA officials that many of the census tracts surrounding the proposed expansion – wedged between the airport, interstate and Port of New Haven – already face some of the nation’s highest asthma rates and “breathe more ozone” than 96 percent of the communities nationwide.
“By allowing for more frequent flights by larger aircraft with more powerful engines, all expansion scenarios would increase health risks in these neighborhoods, several of which rank among the most cumulatively impacted communities in the United States according to the Environmental Justice Index,” Levine wrote FAA officials.
Under the expansion, Tweed would lengthen its runway, allowing for larger planes and increased flights over New Haven and East Haven, and would construct a new terminal, additional surface parking and a parking garage.
Asked for comment on Levine’s letter, a spokesperson for the FAA – the entity that can either approve the expansion, require further study, or reject the proposal – responded that the federal agency would address the letter as part of its ongoing review.
“The FAA issued the draft Environmental Assessment (EA) for a 60-day public comment period, which closed on May 1, 2023. Once the agency finishes reviewing and addressing all comments we will issue a decision. This includes addressing the letter from HHS Assistant Secretary Rachel Levine,” the FAA said.
It has been about nine months since a draft environmental assessment of the proposed Tweed expansion predicted little significant impact on noise, air quality, traffic, or wetlands. FAA declined to provide an approximate date for the release of its decision when previously asked by CT Examiner.
But Levine joined a number of local officials, as well as the environmental nonprofit Save the Sound, in questioning the sufficiency of the draft study, and calling for a more detailed Environmental Impact Statement.
Asked how the letter came about, Adam Sarvana, director of communications for Levine, told CT Examiner in a call on Wednesday that the assistant secretary spent several days in New Haven in February and spoke to local environmental activists.
Levine was appointed as assistant secretary by President Joe Biden in 2021, and helped to establish the Office of Environmental Justice in 2022. Sarvana said the letter helps to serve the office’s ultimate mission.
“She wrote this letter as part of what is an ongoing concerted effort to engage with communities with environmental justice concerns, to raise awareness of those communities’ health concerns, and to share data in ways that can improve public health outcomes,” said Sarvana.
Asked whether the Connecticut Department of Public Health would join its federal counterpart in calling for further study, department spokesman Christopher Boyle declined comment. However, he noted that his agency had provided Levine with local health data, upon request, that informed her September letter.
But Tweed Executive Director Tom Rafter, again, backed the existing analysis in an emailed statement to CT Examiner.
“The draft Environmental Assessment is the NEPA prescribed, appropriate process to guide us there,” Rafter said. “This thorough assessment is over 1,400 pages long – it is scientific and peer reviewed by experts at the FAA, the EPA, Army Corp of Engineers and CT DEEP, making it the gold standard for understanding and projecting the environmental impact of the airport. We will continue to take part in this ongoing and federally regulated process.”
According to Rafter, the expansion would allow for a more sustainable future at Tweed, including new energy options, the use of hydrogen cars, and the replacement of current fossil fuel operations. Tweed staff also referred CT Examiner to a March statement detailing the environmental assessment release and the promised benefits of the expansion.