East Hampton Airport’s Environmental Impact

East Hampton Airport sign
East Hampton Airport (James J. Mackin)
James J. Mackin

The most egregious sole source environmental problem on the East End of Long Island and the largest contributor to climate deterioration is East Hampton Airport. 

The aircraft using this facility generate approximately 51.5M lbs. of carbon emissions annually, a hugely negative amount, equivalent to 30,000 households each burning 57 propane tanks per year. Unimaginably, piston engine planes still use leaded fuel (avgas), which is doubly poisonous. Lead is particularly harmful to children, including those going to pre-school right next to the airport. Air pollution impacts all of us.

In addition to air pollution, fire-retardant foam used earlier at the airport during crashes and drills is responsible for seriously contaminating our aquifer while ruining hundreds of individual wells, resulting in the creation of a New York State Superfund site with a cleanup cost of $32M and growing. The incessant loud, low-flying aircraft also create noise and visual pollution, impinging on the mental well-being of thousands of Long Islanders beneath the flight paths on both forks and all the way to NYC. In 2019 there were 50,000 complaints from nearly 600 households on the East End alone. Stop the Chop NJ/NY has noted that much of the incessant helicopter traffic is destined for East Hampton. They hate it too.

Ominously, there is the constant threat of a crash that could kill citizens in their homes as well as instigate a wildfire that might quickly burn out of control. There have been seven documented crashes at or near East Hampton since 2004, and who knows how many near misses. More than once I have seen three different types of aircraft flying in three different directions right over our home. East Hampton is the only airport I know of where aircraft routinely fly in and fly out on the same flight paths, relying solely on visual distancing. Insane is what a sane person would call this.

Currently, there are 20,000 operations a year (TWENTY THOUSAND), many of them large jets and helicopters with just one, or even no passengers if returning, generating an enormous and unnecessary carbon footprint. Even with the pandemic, total flights were only down 15% for 2020 (after years of continuing increases), and year-round daily commuting rose significantly, as KHTO has expanded from a seasonal to a year-round travel hub. Those impacted have no safe and quiet days–ever.

The New York Times has stated that the wealthiest 1% of the population generate more carbon emissions than the bottom 50% combined. The airport is used by a miniscule, though highly entitled, percentage of the population, few of whom are year-round residents, all of whom could get to the East End by other travel means. The primary economic benefit goes to out-of-town operators and the sole aviation fuel business, which pumps nearly one million gallons of jet and leaded fuel at the airport each year. There is no genuine economic justification for the Town to continue enabling this pollution. This is really about the “pollution of convenience”, and the environment and those living in it be damned. 

Now aircraft operators will tell you of the great economic benefit of the airport, in addition to their charitable acts of flying puppies in. However, in the very report that they commissioned from their consulting firm, EBP, the economic benefit figure arrived at was $77M. That may sound like a lot of money, but it is actually just 3% of the economy of the East End, again using EBP’s own numbers. And it falsely assumes that every person coming via the airport would not come if the airport were not available. One would more logically assume that at least half of those folks would still visit the Hamptons, but by other means. That reduces the “economic benefit” to 1.5%. Thus, the true benefit is negligible. (These figures have been confirmed by East Hampton Town’s own economic impact study.)

And what about the harmful economic impact of the airport: the air and water and lead pollution, the psychological toll of unhealthy noise levels, the reduced property values and tax revenues of thousands of homes in the flight paths, the unavailability of 570 acres of public land, and all the potential jobs that would be created if that land were repurposed for the common good? All that is simply ignored in their “study”. 

Resistance to environmental preservation routinely cloaks itself in fear of untenable economic damage. However, a clean and healthy natural environment has been the single most essential economic driver of the East End for well over a century. Unbridled development, human folly, and an out-of-control airport are truer threats to our economy and to our community itself. I’m not recommending that we close the bays and beaches for goodness’ sake, but rather that we once again allow people to enjoy them in natural tranquility, as they used to be so treasured.

In East Hampton Town’s discussions of environmental sustainability, the recent call for a “Climate Emergency”, and the resultant end to all unnecessary carbon emissions, we surely must deal with the greatest polluter in our midst. For anyone truly concerned about the climate crisis, reducing unnecessary carbon emissions has to be the primary goal, yes? Then we can enact a long overdue solution to our transportation problem by building a low impact high speed rail line from NYC.

At this time, with the Town of East Hampton regaining full control of KHTO in September 2021, environmental advocates and beleaguered citizens are calling for an essential re-envisioning that would turn our biggest polluter into arguably our greatest environmental achievement. This is hardly an extreme position; it is common sense. To close the airport and transform the available portion of the vast property into unspoiled, safe and quiet habitat, nature centers, hiking and biking trails, recreational spaces, community gardening, green businesses, a solar field, and reforested areas with native species, would be the finest measure for East End preservation in decades—as well as a powerful national example as we move toward solving the global climate crisis. 

Barry Raebeck is cofounder of Quiet Skies Coalition and then Say No to KHTO

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