Sleepless in Somerville: Complaints about airplane noise skyrocket, stir up community voices

Wig ZamoreWig Zamore. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Increased jet noise is plaguing city residents, who voiced their opposition to Logan Airport flight paths over Somerville in a City Council meeting this September. The cumulative number of city complaints about airplane noise collected by the Massachusetts Port Authority (MassPort)—which owns and operates Logan International Airport, Hanscom Field, and Worcester Regional Airport—has skyrocketed from 71 by August 2012 to 12,927 through August 2019. 

The fight against noise pollution is well on its way in the city and beyond, according to Tara Ten Eyck, the city’s representative to the 33L Municipal Working Group. 

“People are angry their quality of life has been completely diminished and they want something to change,” Ten Eyck explains. “Several people spoke about it as a public health issue.”

The City Council meeting drew a smaller crowd than anticipated, considering the recent complaints from the local community, according to Wig Zamore, Somerville’s Chair of the MassPort CAC Environment and Health committee. 

The impact of transportation-related noise pollution isn’t new to Somerville. Three grassroots organizations formed nearly 20 years ago to address MBTA construction and traffic, according to Zamore, and community efforts to balance land usage, transportation, public health, and traffic pollution have persisted. 

More recently in the last six years, though, changes to flight paths from one of Logan International Airport’s six runways have sparked increased community uproar for the consequently changing noise impacts experienced by different and larger communities. 

Specifically, the addition of runway 14/32 in 2006, which doubled departures from Logan Airport’s 33L runway, paired with new flight paths introduced in 2013 sparked rising numbers of complaints from the local community, according to Zamore. 

Since the flight path changes, jets departing from Logan runway 33L began travelling through East Boston, Chelsea, Everett, and Somerville before branching off toward either Cambridge, Belmont, Arlington, or Medford. 

The effect of increased noise is not unique to Somerville, and is an almost constant annoyance, says Cambridge resident Robert O’Neil. O’Neil says that jets pass over his house and neighborhood sometimes as frequently as every minute-and-a-half for days and nights on end.  

“It does impact my life anywhere from interrupting conversations to working in my backyard, interacting with my neighbors,” O’Neil says. “I work from home, so it has a significant impact on my ability to concentrate on my work and even have phone calls. I think the most significant issue is the constant repetition for very extended durations of time, anywhere from a few hours to a few days and from early morning to very late.”

The impact of airplane noise on the ground does not directly correlate with the mapped flight courses, according to Zamore. Instead, jet noise diffuses along those lines in many directions. And Zamore believes that the community’s sensitivity to noise pollution may be increasing. 

“People sometimes look at flight tracks and misinterpret that the noise goes straight down from the flight track, which it doesn’t,” Zamore explains. “As you move away from Logan Airport, even if every plane takes exactly the same track, there’s a very wide band of almost equal noise on the ground.”

Residents in Somerville and the surrounding cities are not just facing noise pollution from shifting airplane paths, though, according to Zamore. Noise from highway traffic and construction is causing just as much, if not more, harm to the local community. Zamore believes the noise pollution is greatest in lower socio-economic neighborhoods. 

“The traffic noise in Somerville, especially along the highway corridors, is much louder on an annual average than any of the jet noise,” Zamore says. “The traffic air and noise pollution is having much more health effect in Somerville. There are people dying from premature cardiovascular disease.

“It absolutely relates to class. There’s a reason that Eastern Somerville has the most highway pollution per-square-mile and the most diesel pollution per-square-mile of any community in Massachusetts. And the reason is it’s a rental population and it’s got a very large immigrant population. They’re too busy with other stressors to mobilize the political power to overcome that.”

Zamore explains that southeastern Somerville—an area with a highly concentrated population of low-income families and immigrants—has been hit particularly hard with high levels of noise and air pollution from traffic. Somerville is home to the most vehicle miles traveled per-square-mile in the Boston area (over 200,000) and the most diesel commuter trains per-square-mile per day, all centered around the southeastern side of the city.

Zamore also believes that highway I93 should not have been built after the Clean Air Act of 1970, explaining that leaded gasoline has a particularly devastating impact on the surrounding communities. 

“The effects of leaded gasoline break my heart,” Zamore says. “For many of those most exposed, leaded gas took away a lifetime of intelligence, emotional stability and quality of life.”

Chelsea has even more low-income and immigrant families per-square-mile than Somerville, according to Zamore, and comes in second to the city in vehicle miles travelled per-square-mile per day. It also hosts more large trucks and ships and lies more closely under Logan runway 33L departures. 

“Transportation is our biggest environmental problem and the hardest pollution source to separate from the daily lives of citizens,” Zamore explains. “Nevertheless, environmental justice populations bear the greatest burden and wealthier communities are often the most protected.”

Moving forward, many locals are calling for a solution that redirects the current flight paths from Logan runway 33L. Ten Eyck is of the opinion that overhead noise from airplanes should be distributed equitably among neighboring communities that benefit from easy access to Logan Airport, and both she and O’Neil agree that the issue would be best resolved with a regional outlook. 

“It’s not a Somerville issue or a Medford issue or a Cambridge issue,” O’Neil explains. “My personal objective would be not to shift this concentrated noise onto somebody else to give myself relief. I want to try to see a way to disperse those flights over a larger geographical area so that the burden of that noise problem is shared by more, and also therefore is less of a burden for everybody.”

Zamore, on the other hand, believes that moving Logan offshore would provide the most relief.

In hopes of reaching a solution in the near future, MassPort and the Federal Aviation Administration have asked residents from affected cities to weigh in on several proposed “flight dispersion concepts” from MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation RNAV Study. Many locals, like Eyck and O’Neil, believe that collaboration among the impacted cities could strengthen their efforts.

This story appears in the Nov/Dec print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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