In 2021, Tweed Airport — owned by the city of New Haven, but sitting along the border between the city and neighboring East Haven — proposed an expansion that would see its 5,600-foot runway stretched to 6,635 feet, along with a new airport entrance and a new terminal.
Avelo, a commercial budget airline, began offering flights to six different U.S. airports out of Tweed in November 2021. New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker called it “a very exciting time for Tweed,” and said the expansion would create jobs. But since then, residents living in the area have complained of poor air quality — and of course, the noise from airplanes taking off in their backyard.
Last month, when WSHU reporters and producers sat down with local advocates and scientists to understand their greatest concerns about New Haven’s future amid climate change, that airport expansion was central among them. But they also expressed hope at some emerging solutions, like the efforts of the community advocacy group called 10,000 Hawks. The group is working with researchers to determine the environmental impact of the changes at Tweed — and it’s also opened up conversations about why the airport is expanding in the first place.
Some believe the success of this effort might provide a model for other citizen groups in Connecticut that want to be included in conversations on climate change.
An environmental assessment done by the Federal Aviation Administration in March of this year predicted the emission levels from the airport’s expansion would have little significant impact on local air quality through 2031. Advocates said that by stopping at 2031 — just eight years away — the study was able to ignore more long-term effects.
One of those advocates is local resident Gretl Gallicchio. She doesn’t call herself an air quality expert, but as a founding member of 10,000 Hawks, she has been part of a project to study air quality in the area, working with researchers from Tufts University.
“We started it because we realized that we didn’t know what this means or what it’s going to do,” she said. “How will this affect us? And neither unfortunately did the people in authority that we felt we could turn to for answers to those questions. And when we found that those answers were not forthcoming, we just dived in and learned as much as we could, as fast as we could.”
Residents founded 10,000 Hawks in early 2022 in response to Tweed’s expansion plans. Gallichio said the name of the group comes from the number of raptors that use the airspace around Tweed.
“What this area of New Haven is actually known for — besides Tweed-New Haven now — is the annual raptor migration in the fall that draws birders and schoolchildren from all over the eastern seaboard,” she said. “Lighthouse Park in New Haven sits smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic flyway, and we have these huge hawk festivals every fall. Tweed is trying to share the airspace of 10,000 hawks.”
The group applied for, and received, a $10,000 grant through the Greater New Haven Green Fund and teamed up with Dr. Neelakshi Hudda of Tufts University. Dr. Hudda arrived in New Haven with her mobile air pollution lab earlier this summer.
“Which has all these instruments for graduate students built into the back of a Chevy Volt,” Gallichio said. “It’s beautiful, because it’s all made with duct tape. It does not look like the moon buggy I thought it would be!”
“It’s an interesting project,” Hudda said. She and her researchers drive their mobile lab in the area around the airport, capturing what she calls “more short-term signals.” Meanwhile, researchers gave stationary units to residents themselves so they could measure the air pollution in their own homes. Hudda said that last idea came directly from community members themselves.
“I’m hoping that this will lead to greater recognition of the health effects that pollutants that are not commonly known, not commonly regulated, can have on the health of communities near airports,” she said.
Hudda adds that it’s increasingly common for residents’ groups to work directly with researchers on studies that could help their communities.
“And in fact, it’s something that several federal agencies that do fund research are promoting. There are programs specifically designed to do exactly that — develop community partnerships, provide technical assistance to communities and nonprofits — for everything from writing grants and managing grants to scientific support.”
In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced $177 million in grants for environmental justice to help “underserved and overburdened communities” around the country access grant funding. That’s not how 10,000 Hawks got their funding, but Hudda said it shows there’s an interest in bringing researchers in to work directly with communities.
Hudda said a wide range of projects like this are already underway across the country.
“Ranging from studies in which communities participate to understand the health effects of air pollution,” she continues, “to providing information on design ideas, on how to deal with resilience, how to cope and come up with more resilient strategies for climate change.”
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, who just won a primary bid for re-election, has publicly supported the Tweed expansion. (His opponent, Liam Brennan, had said he would wait for an in-depth environmental assessment.) In addition to the economic impacts, Elicker said the expansion will help make the airport more resilient for climate change.
“With the new proposed movement of the terminal, there are two things that will happen, the first is the new terminal will be effectively on stilts, so it will not flood anymore,” Elicker said. “Nor will the access road that goes to that new terminal. But in addition, part of the proposal will have what’s called compensatory storage … there will be areas that can contain additional water if the high tide is up and the floodgates are up, so that the water that comes out in the surrounding neighborhood can go into these areas rather than flood the surrounding neighborhoods.”
Gallichio, though, said she’s still skeptical.
“[Tweed New Haven Airport] also sits in the bottom of a bowl topographically, surrounded to the east and the south by extensive tidal wetlands,” she said. “It’s an area that already floods regularly. The highest point on the airport runway itself is maybe three feet over sea level.”
She said FEMA’s projections show it to be almost entirely underwater by 2050.
“It’s a strange place to have an airport in during the era of climate crisis,” she adds. “It’s a really strange place to try to make an airport bigger.”
Elicker also concedes that it’s well-acknowledged that air traffic in and of itself is not good for climate change.
“But we also don’t look at Tweed as if it’s an island,” he said. “As if it’s the only thing going on in the city of New Haven and the only area where we can address our climate change issues.”
A recent federally mandated study released by Tweed New Haven Airport and a national aviation consultant said in the bigger picture, a longer runway and larger terminal would reduce the region’s noise and air pollution as airport traffic increases.
“Air quality is a regional concern, which is why our ongoing work to improve HVN will reduce pollutants by removing hundreds of cars from our congested freeways every day,” said Tom Rafter, executive director of Tweed New Haven Airport Authority. “Improving the airport means marching toward a more sustainable future, including new energy options, the use of hydrogen cars, a self-sustaining micro-grid to replace current fossil fuel operations and more.”
“The draft Environmental Assessment is the NEPA-prescribed process for this project, and it is therefore our guiding document for environmental impact at the airport,” Rafter continues. “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, including air quality. We will continue to take part in this ongoing and federally regulated process.”
Air pollution doesn’t affect everyone equally, according to a Yale study released last month. The study found racial and ethnic minorities still face disproportionately high death rates related to cardiovascular disease caused by exposure to fine particulate matter. That comes as air pollution on the whole has been reduced.
Elicker has said the city would be doing a similar experiment to the one done by 10,000 Hawks — putting air quality detectors at strategic locations across the city, including Tweed Airport, to “better understand the degree that any local air pollution may impact different areas of the city.”
He cited the Hill neighborhood, which is predominantly Black and Latino, as one priority for testing air quality.
“[W]e want to make sure that we’re logging air quality over long periods of time,” he said. “And having a mechanism to share all that with the public. So people can see in different areas of the city, what the air quality is not just as a point in time, but over a long period of time. And I think that will guide us and better understanding the different impacts that different neighborhoods incur.”
Elicker said the advocacy of 10,000 Hawks played a part in that move, even though he and 10,000 Hawks are on opposite sides of the Tweed question.
“I think it’s always important to have groups advocating for important issues that residents care about,” he said. “And I know that the leaders of 10,000 Hawks deeply care about the environment and have some valid concerns about the airport and the impact to the environment.”
He said when it comes to residents working with scientists, “more information is better.”
“And us being able to understand the environmental impacts … is helpful, not just for the choices that we make as a city administration, but also for the surrounding communities in the state,” he adds. “To understand the difference between urban centers in the air quality, and some of the long-term impact that has on our population versus other areas in the state? That can help us apply for more grant funding to address some of these challenges.”
“Resilience Takes Many Forms”
Scientists say community-assisted research like that done by 10,000 Hawks, is increasingly successful. But they also say community groups will need support to accomplish their goals.
Dr. Deborah Abibou works for the Long Island Sound Study and Connecticut Sea Grant, but she describes her mission as fostering sustainable and resilient communities. Part of her job, she said, is to understand what barriers — like funding — may be present for communities to make their voice heard in the discussion around climate resilience, then do what she can to remove these barriers.
“Resilience really takes many forms,” she said. “There’s the immediate issues of understanding what our climate risks are, and preparing for them. But also building in community and having these sorts of outreach and education events are really important to building the baseline of people connecting with their environment and understanding how we depend on our environment.”
One example of this outreach came at Connecticut’s annual folk music festival in New Haven, held at Edgerton Park. Though much of the neighborhood around the park is made up of Yale students and staff, Connecticut SeaGrant provided bus transportation from four neighborhoods with more underserved population whose residents, as she said, “may not have joined (otherwise.)” These included Dixwell, Newhallville and Fairhaven. At the festival, Abibou gave a presentation about climate resilience along the Connecticut shoreline.
“You know, it’s kind of an understatement to say that historically, many voices have been left out of the planning process,” Abibou said. “So as we’re encouraging communities to do this planning for their resilience, we’re asking, how can we make sure that this is an equitable process for communities to be prepared for the impacts? They have to really understand what’s coming down the pipeline, so to speak.”
Abibou said one area of the work that could prove challenging is the same mechanism that allowed 10,000 Hawks to conduct its research: Finding and applying for grants.
“There is a lot of funding coming down the pipeline right now for resilience-related work,” Abibou said. “But there’s many communities that really need this sort of support but might not have the capacity to get large federal grants.”
Connecticut Sea Grant offers a grant-writing assistance program — in essence a small grant to help groups gain access to bigger grants. Basically, communities and nonprofits with an idea for how to support climate resilience on Long Island Sound can apply for funds to help them hire a freelance grant writer. They’re already taking applications now for green infrastructure projects, one of Abibou’s favorite examples is that of “living shorelines,” like ones currently showing success in Stratford.
Among the other challenges they may face, she said, are lack of coordination and a need for leadership.
“One level of challenge is the ability to put projects in the right context and move them forward efficiently,” she said. “There’s also just so much of the legacy of industry, which kind of goes along with the other social vulnerabilities. People living in areas that had either past or current pollution tend to also be minorities and tend to be low-income. So there’s a lot of layers of challenges where people have a lot of immediate needs and concerns, and sometimes lack the capacity to be able to have the luxury to focus on this sort of planning for the future.”
And in communities that have been taken advantage of for decades, there’s a danger that stretching regulations could become status quo.
“Where if rules have been bent in a place to allow certain activities, like wastewater and other industries, that people don’t want near them,” she said. “And other communities — if rules have been bent — want to make exceptions. Then there’s this momentum that the community is okay with it, and can keep happening.”
“You hear about new buildings going up in areas, and then not getting appropriate environmental assessments, and these are being put in floodplains, and you can see that there’s going to be issues in the future,” Abibou added. “But because exceptions have been made in the past, you see loopholes being used a lot. And I don’t think that that would happen in your other areas like Greenwich.”
She gives the example of Bridgeport, where plans to build a new high school in a floodplain are moving forward.
“The communities nearby are trying really hard to talk with the developers in good faith and have their voices heard on things that affect their day-to-day quality of life. But it’s a real struggle to have a good reception for that. Because the people developing the project will do what’s required of them, and really don’t have a motivation — there’s no consequence for them if they don’t respond to the community’s wishes.”
So what can they learn from the success of groups like 10,000 Hawks in getting grant money and the attention of local officials?
“Leadership and champions of causes really does go a long way,” Abibou said. “I’ve heard from communities like Bridgeport that pro bono legal assistance is not enough. They really need dedicated staff for work. … And what organizations want to fund tends to be a project that produces new metrics.”
She said there’s a lot of potential for community-driven science to empower people to understand their own community and give them tools to assess both the immediate risks and the long-term threats.
“And that means there’s more information for planners to use to address those issues,” she continues. “That’s an example of a way to build multiple solutions at one time, because it can give people a way to document and assist. and potentially encourage their leaders to implement resilient solutions.”
Gretl Gallicchio, the New Haven resident and member of 10,000 Hawks, said she hopes the group’s research can be directly applicable to understanding air quality.
“If we can get a good analysis of what that’s putting into the air,” she said, “we can far more intelligently and defensively extrapolate from that what an expansion of this airport into something that rivals Bradley [International Airport, the state’s largest aviation hub] — and it can also tell people in other parts of the state and the country who live near airports what the differences are.”
But more broadly, she hopes it shows a model for how residents can work with researchers.
“We, the community advocates, can learn from them,” she said. “But also help them bring an understanding of these issues, the climate crisis or the air quality public health crisis or the flooding issues. We can understand our own problem better, we can help find a solution, but we can also help these researchers bring the fruits of their effort to the communities who can then make use of it.”
The research can lend credence to efforts to sway local governments, corporations or other more powerful forces. And if grants don’t work, it may be as simple as a phone call or a visit to a university.
“If there is an academic institution within the community itself, reach out there first,” she said. “That may not immediately produce what you’re hoping for. But there just might be somebody in a department at a local university who’s just itching for an opportunity.”