A Letter To Gary Idleburg re. Commerce Impact Study Public Meeting

Mr. Idleburg is a Senior Planner at the Washington Department Of Commerce and is overseeing the Sea-Tac Airport Impact Study. This letter is in reference to the public meeting held 6 November, 2019 at Burien City Hall.

Hi Mr. Idleburg,

I wanted to add to my somewhat discombobulated public comment last night. Frankly, I was a bit gobsmacked by the presentation. It was not what I was expecting at all. And that’s kinda the problem.

I’ll preface my remarks by saying that everything I’m about to write should be viewed with my great respect for your team. As an engineer who has been brought in to provide meta-analysis under less than ideal circumstances, I totally get what that’s like. But as an engineer, I feel like I gotta be direct as to the areas where improvement is needed. And these issues go way beyond ‘tweaks’ to the current plan.

What would Joe Lawmaker Do?

From where I sit, the whole point of your final paper should be to help policy makers decide how best to help us residents, right? The presentation has to make a compelling case for clearly defined problems and clearly defined actions that they can actually do. And this has to be presented in a manner that non-specialists can not only understand but empathise with.

But as I watched the presentations, I kept thinking, “If I were Joe Lawmaker from Mason or Clallam Counties would I have much sympathy for people in Des Moines? Would I want to allocate millions of dollars for any interventions based on what I saw in that presentation? And the answer is, “No”. I would just think, “Well, it’s sad for those people, but it looks like all the air, water, noise stuff is well-within established Federal and State limits. So… ya know… what’s the prob?”

He doesn’t know the territory!

At bottom, the ‘prob’ is that, as the guy says in that musical “He doesn’t know the territory!”, your people, as expert as they are in their respective disciplines, are simply not well-enough acquainted with the particulars of our area, the history, or the current work being done by activists to select for the best data and anecdotes and then write the proper narrative to explain what we’re going through.

In fact, I detected no overall narrative, merely a laundry list of scoping objects. And for data, your people fell back on the same sources that the Port, the County and the State always pull out to show how everything is okeedokee. But that creates the almost Soviet conundrum that has dogged all previous community efforts. So little real data has been gathered since 1997 that if you limit yourself to what is available, you’ll never see reality. Debi Wagner’s example of the absence of pollution monitors is but one of a hundred examples I could cite:

The only pollution monitor is in Georgetown, so  all the pollution must be in Georgetown, Dear Comrade!

If you use data like that, there simply aren’t enough footnote symbols available to make a report that would provide the proper context for the uninformed lawmaker. All a policy maker will see is that “Georgetown has higher emissions than Sea-Tac.” That’s just how human beings work.


What I have been trying to get you to understand is how deeply politicised the whole ‘airport impacts’ issue is for local governments. They all express ‘deep concern’, but in many cases, there is simply no great will among the various city councils to do anything other than to appear to be engaging. There are many reasons for this, which I’m happy to discuss at another time, but in order to keep this letter from turning into War And Peace, just assume for a moment that I know what I’m talking about when I make the following statement:

the last people you want choosing your informants for this study are the City governments.

In fact, the main reason I ran for City Council in Des Moines is because their entire approach to dealing with airport impacts over the past twenty years has been, and continues to be deeply corrupt. Neither my City Council, City Manager, State Representatives, or my City’s appointed Advocate to your committee were willing to allow my group to even witness your process, let alone provide input. The situations are very different in the other cities, but none are giving you proper effort, besides writing a check. This is outrageous given the stakes. But that’s the world you’re swimming in.

There is a whole range of more knowledgeable people that should have been interviewed to help shape your narrative on everything from Port Packages to health to relations with the Port to sociological impacts. You can never hope to get the information you need to make this a truly useful study for policy makers until you open your study up to this wider range of information.

Sadly, you and Stantec will likely shoulder all the blame if the study is not well-received. All the Quiet Skies groups repeat an incessant drumbeat of “The evil Port. The terrible FAA” because they don’t want to offend their local governments. And the various City Councils absolutely loooooove this because it deflects attention away from their failure to act on their own volition. The upshot is that the public will not understand the underlying political process and the clichéd (but true) aphorism “garbage in, garbage out”. They will blame you as somehow being just another part of a rigged system. The Cities will be able to say, “We tried!” And everyone will continue to buy into a sense of defeatism. Sorry to get so heavy, but is that what you really want to be the legacy of this study?

My Suggestion

The only way forward is for your team (Stantec) to re-open the process to any person who asks to be interviewed within the survey area. It is inadequate to allow for public comment onto the existing framework. That would be like adding a squillion footnotes to a complex financial statement–it may cover the necessary information, but it cannot convey the message that decision really makers need. I know how harsh this will sound, but from what I saw last night there are simply too many flaws in your team’s assumptions to make the study useful. The entire narrative needs to be re-framed and to do that, you need help from the community.

Because that’s the thing that wasn’t communicated to you: there are already subject-matter experts in the community; people who have already done the very tedious legwork you desperately needed to turn a shoe-string budget into something usable on short notice. You needn’t have worried about getting cranks. The only people who tend to care about this issue actually know what they’re on about. All they needed was a chance to give you the source materials so that the pros at Stantec could then massage that material into the proper format. In effect, you should let key members of the public write the story and have Stantec be the Editor.

I know you want to provide a good document that will help lawmakers do the right thing. I know you recognise at least some of the flaws the public pointed out last night and I know you ‘re on a deadline. But it’s not to late to turn this around. Please contact me as soon as possible to discuss the details of my comments and how we can make this the kind of document that we can all feel good about.



cc: Tina Orwall

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