The Coastal Post - August 2000

FAA Pulls A Fast One On Marin

By Jeanette Pontacq

Jane Mina has tried several different brands of ear plugs trying to block out the sound of the constant roar and rumble of low-flying aircraft over her home in West Marin. She has tried leaving the TV or radio on all day and all night to counter the overhead roar. Jane now needs small yellow pills to help her sleep through the night-long racket and can no longer keep her windows open for fresh air. Janet is one of the unlucky residents who lives directly under one of the vastly-expanded flight paths over parts of Marin.

What Janet doesn't know is that the constant din is only part of what she is unwittingly being forced to endure. According to the National Resources Defense Council, these same aircraft that are causing low grade depression in a number of affected residents also disperse a fine mist of cancer-causing air pollutants as they pass over. This invisible toxic mist cannot be filtered out by our lungs and is directly absorbed into our blood streams. It becomes one more silent, potential contributor to Marin's identity as the county with the highest rate of breast cancer.

Jane's plight is of little interest to either the FAA, airport officials or most of our elected officials. Despite the FAA's straight-faced swearing that they "never shift noise problems," there was and is an obvious political agenda to do just that. The intent seems not only to pave over a more SF Bay to enlarge the airports without a regional study or plan, but to turn Marin into the major departure and arrival route, effectively exporting SFO to Marin and southern Sonoma counties.

That agenda is well on its way to reality. The PR machine is cranked up and Willie Brown has taken a vow to make it happen. Billions of dollars are involved. Marin's physical and mental health seem expendable.

As part of a recent study regarding SFO expansion plans, it was found that, with the major shift of air traffic from the south to Marin, more than 22% of jets using the three major Bay Area airports now crosses the Point Reyes National Seashore in West Marin-over 500 jets a day. This calculation does not include the heavy nighttime use of the same route by FedEX, UPS and other low-flying cargo carriers heading for their large cargo base at OAK Proposed airport expansions could surely double or even triple that number.

As if that were not enough, SFO presently uses the area over West Marin for a holding pattern when plane arrivals are stacked up. This means that, often, one plane will pass overhead three or more times. A sample calculation of what that means would be: if only 20 percent of the 500 flights use a holding pattern of only two passes, then 700 flights are overhead per day (not including cargo flights). If 30 percent of the 500 flights do so, the number is 800 flights. If the weather or delays are more intractable, the passes increase to three or four. You do the math and the numbers approach 1,000 passes a day.

Further, regulations now state that planes are supposed to be above 7,000 feet over such areas, but most are way under ...some as low as 3,000 to 4,000 feet. One erstwhile resident of Point Reyes Station, with a window seat on one of these low-flying jets, was able to see his wife watering their garden as he flew over and hear the pilot wax eloquent on the beauty of the area to passengers.

Although it is now patently obvious that the North Bay, mainly Marin county and southern coastal Sonoma county, is being used as a spillover route for both SFO and OAK to ease congestion and political sensitivity in San Mateo county, both the FAA and the airports so far give only lip service to the issue and silently turn away. The simple and logical request that the flight path be moved over water, which the FAA admits is technically feasible, has been put on the back burner.

After all, neither Marin nor Sonoma counties have any real representation or voice on any of the regional aviation planning agencies that make decisions concerning them. In other words, Marin and Sonoma still don't have a seat at the table to even voice their concerns or objections to being dumped on.... so they get dumped on and their objections ignored.

Quite a few residents in Inverness and Bolinas were buoyed recently when SFO finally agreed to put noise monitoring equipment up...one within the national park and the other in Bolinas. The official explanation was that the airport needed to substantiate the many complaints about excessive noise pollution coming from West Marin. The equipment was supposed to be for a two week period.

The day the equipment was installed, the noise level and the number of aircraft flying over Point Reyes National Seashore dramatically dropped. I can testify that the many residents reporting this phenomenon are correct. I did not know about the installation of the equipment, but I make a point of hiking up Mt. Wittenberg in the national park five days a week to stay in shape. On that first day with the equipment in place, I had the first relatively quiet hike up the mountain in over a year. I was so amazed that I immediately called an activist in Inverness after my hike to ask if the FAA had finally moved the flight path over water rather than over the park. "They must have done so, it is so quiet," I said. "No," he said, "the airport installed noise monitoring equipment."

The day the equipment was taken out, the noise level and the number of aircraft flying over Point Reyes National Seashore dramatically increased to levels even greater than before. This phenomenon highlights the impotency of requests so far made of the airports and the FAA (who controls flight paths) to address this issue by both Marin and park officials.

Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), one of the few elected officials who seems to be actively and effectively trying to work on behalf of affected residents, recently petitioned the head of the FAA in Washington DC to come out and experience the problem and get aboard a real solution.

Perhaps the FAA chief can help us here in Marin obtain real, hard numbers on the exact altitudes, airlines, and specific daily counts of flights now using West Marin as the corridor to and from SFO and OAK. She should also be asked why San Jose International Airport is able to support a ban on flights over that area during sleeping hours, but SFO and OAK seem unable to even deal with the thought. Above all, however, she should immediately facilitate approval to move the flight path over water rather than over West Marin and southern Marin.

To keep informed as more and more planes appear over more and more homes, please see a brand new web site on this important issue. If you are in West Marin, please register with the West Marin Coalition on Aircraft Noise at Box 960, Inverness 94937 (send name, mailing address, and email, phone or fax) so that you will be kept informed on what is going on (and get in line for one of their new bumper stickers). Feel free to contact me via and I will pass on your comments and registration to West Marin C.A.N. This overhead noise will only stop if people speak up and insist their elected officials act on their behalf. Let's do it! DO IT!

Contact: Supervisors: 499 7331 FAX 499 3645, 3501 Civic Center Dr., #329, San Rafael, CA 94903, email: , , , , and Rep Lynn Woolsey (415) 507 9554 email: , 1101 College Avenue, Santa Rosa, CA 95404.

Senator Barbara Boxer: (415) 403 0100 email: , 1700 Montgomery St., #240, San Francisco, CA 94111

Senator Dianne Feinstein: (415) 536 6868 email: , 525 Market Street, #3670, San Francisco, CA 94105.

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