Against Expanding Tweed

It’s the 21st century. After centuries of struggle and scientific advances in medicine — of one painful step forward followed by numerous staggering steps back — we’ve arrived at a moment in history where we know in detail the things that can hurt a person, and how, if not always why. We know the various ways that pollution can lead to things like asthma and cancer. We know how diet can affect mood and sometimes lead to autoimmune disorders. We know how damaging industrial waste can be both for the environment, and for the people who live in and depend on the environment for food and shelter.

We’ve seen the damage, and to our credit as a species, we’ve found ways to slow, arrest, and in some cases to roll it back. In my hometown of Branford, the Atlantic Wire company has been shuttered; people fish and swim in a part of the Branford River that just a decade ago made NYC’s East River look like a mountain brook. More broadly on the Long Island Sound, fish preservation initiatives have led to a rebound in menhaden populations, which, in time, will allow fishermen to catch at least one 20-25lb bluefish per month. As someone who grew up poor, I can testify to the difference a fish like that makes in a kid’s diet and habits. Advances in technology are making the cars that back up on I-95 during rush hour and Route One on the weekends cleaner.

We’re far from perfect, and maybe not even good (although, as individuals, often well-intentioned), but we understand how much harm has been done to the environment, and is being done to the environment, and have correctly concluded that this constitutes harm to ourselves. We are, therefore, attempting to remedy the sins and errors of our past, before they bury our future.

If Atlantic Wire, a business that required toxic industrial chemicals (and depended for profitability on an ability to dump said chemicals into the Branford River), suggested reopening its factory on the Branford River, people would protest. No number of jobs would be worth spoiled water and birth defects among the children raised nearby. No financial windfall would compensate for the human catastrophe we know follows in the wake of a DuPont.

The science is established now, it’s not up for debate. People may argue about whether the harm to human health is acceptable in utilitarian terms — some number of people profiting greatly from the sickness and misery of a few — but nobody would deny that the sickness or misery caused by industrial pollution aren’t real. Gone are the days of Mr. Burns — he’s been identified, and satirized. We know his name, and his game. We wouldn’t be fooled by the power plant owner, the industrialist, the death-peddler, if they suggested adding a few jobs in a town that would then become blighted by illness and misery.

A factory by any other name

What if there was another profitable but toxic way to use land, that didn’t raise red flags the way a factory would? What if one could build a factory that didn’t look or act like a factory, but produced the same deleterious effect on human health, and the same devastation in the environment? Are people so gullible that they could be deceived into putting the profitability of a big business ahead of their own, simply because the shape of the project didn’t include tall smokestacks and brick or cement walls?

Yes; people would be that gullible; especially when this factory-that’s-not-a-factory promises beyond jobs and economic growth that most quintessentially seductive pact, in which people are made more comfortable, and the product that’s being developed is convenience.

The name of the factory-that’s-not-a-factory is Tweed New Haven Airport.

Tweed airport before expansion; a small but busy place from which to fly locally

Stench followed by sickness

We tend not to think of airports as factories, because they are conduits rather than component-makers in the great commercial engine, but in terms of the pollution they generate, the two are similar. As recently as a decade ago, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, LAX was the largest single source of carbon monoxide in the entire state of California. 

Anyone who’s had to sit on a tarmac in an airplane knows that, from the smell; anyone who’s stayed at an airport hotel has heard the planes taking off, rattling the windows, and when the wind blows just right, smelling the fumes of burned JP8.

Afghan and Iraq veterans know the smell too, from a different place — burn pits, which were recently acknowledged as leading to respiratory conditions and illnesses such as cancer and asthma. JP8 isn’t just used in jets, it’s the military’s standard form of fuel. I saw it poured into blivits, giant balloons that would hold thousands of gallons of the stuff. I saw it poured back out into armored cars and helicopters — it’s poured into other vehicles, too — tanks among them. I know the smell of JP8 well. Sometimes when planes fly over my house in Branford, low, approaching Tweed, the smell they leave in their wake returns me to the dusty hills and mountains of Afghanistan, a plume of smoke wafting in off a pile of trash that’s been accelerated by a liberal dousing of JP8. This is probably because the fuel commercial aircraft use (Jet A or Jet A-1) is a first cousin of JP8; fuel that’s missing a couple ingredients the military adds to make it more stable for use in extreme environments. JP8 is more hazardous to human health than Jet A or Jet A-1 in the sense that lava is more hazardous to human health than a blazing fire; the difference is in degree.

The worst stench I ever smelled was in Ukraine, on one of two trips I made to the city of Mariupol, a kilometers-long factory out of the mid-20th century. It was in a bowl, near a marsh on the Azov Sea. The air reeked with fumes, the pollution was asphyxiating. I had to hold a rag over my mouth for minutes while the car crept by the factory and checkpoints, almost choking on the rancid air. People fished in the marsh behind the factory. I asked around, and the life expectancy in the area was abysmally low — people said in the 50s, though that’s anecdotal.

Is it the case that these people were genetically inferior, or subject to the outrages of poverty and malnutrition? No, AzovStal was a place people were proud to work, and were well compensated to work there. This was a matter of living inside a space where the air was so thoroughly polluted, it was impossible to maintain good health. A nightmarish place to live, a dangerous place to raise a family. Though it must be said that Russia found a way to make living in Mariupol even worse!

Humans tend to live in valleys, near water, so I’ve lived in a couple other places where I got to see firsthand what happens when air pollution gets out of control: Vicenza, when I was posted to Italy with the 173rd Airborne, and earlier in Osaka when I was teaching English in Japan. Both cities exist in bowls, valleys surrounded by high mountains where the air can sit and settle when the wind doesn’t blow. Children growing up in the area are at much higher risk for asthma (we know this in part because of the detailed medical records kept by the US military). And while numbers are hard to come by for Osaka, it’s an industrial city, and I recall vividly the awful smell that would descend over the city on occasion.

New Haven is in a partial bowl; especially that part of it in the lowest area, Fairhaven, bounded by hills to the north, west, and south, and gas tanks and I-95 to the east. Various environmental hazards present themselves to Fairhaven residents — any pollution that is generated in or around the low-lying area eventually settles there, either from power generation, planes overhead, traffic from I-95, or other sources. And children in Fairhaven are at a higher risk for asthma.

The shore is alive with the sound of airplanes

We’re accustomed to thinking of pollution in terms of toxic chemicals that can affect our health. Such chemicals might, as in the case of particulates spread by smoke and smog, lead to respiratory, cardiovascular and/or other internal illnesses. Cancer, autoimmune disorders, deformities among infants, pre-term births. Horrible stuff.

Modern medicine has established a causal relationship between another type of pollution and ill health — what’s called “noise pollution.” As anyone who has heard a loud bang unexpectedly knows, noise can be upsetting. There is an evolutionary purpose for this — noise represents a threat, the approach of something that can harm you, be it a large predator or a storm. This is hard-wired into us, so much so that noise beyond a certain decibel level actually hurts us. Ask the guy who’s suffered from tinnitus in his left ear since a squad leader dumped a magazine full of 5.56 next to his head providing covering fire during a fighting withdrawal in 2010 how I know.

Beyond injury that can occur during construction or in combat, there’s the persistent effect of noise pollution that isn’t extreme or long-lasting enough to cause permanent damage but which, over time, can exacerbate preexisting conditions or make serious conditions worse. A motorcycle roaring down the road, waking you in the middle of the night. Nearby fireworks. A study published on the National Institutes of Health site concludes: There is clear evidence that sleep disturbances are associated with health deterioration, and growing evidence that exposure to noise pollution, around-the-clock, negatively affects health, too. It has also been proven that nocturnal noise pollution significantly impairs sleep, objectively and subjectively.

Noise also pollution increases the incidence of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and impairs cognitive performance in children. Lancet. 2014 Apr 12; 383(9925): 1325–1332.

Who has been jolted awake late at night, or early in the morning, by a low-flying jet taking off from Tweed, or coming into land? This is not a regular occurrence here in Branford, or in this area — but it will be, for Tweed to be a successful and profitable business. Will local ordinances make any difference? Of course not. The FAA is not bound by town ordinances such as those dealing with noise, or pollution — it is a federal authority. Once the expansion is complete, it will become difficult and dangerous to live in the area, and people who have the means, and value their health, will be forced to leave the area or deal with the consequences. Those who lack the means will, as people without means must, remain.

Environmental impact (birds, plants, etc)

When we talk about people leaving the area to avoid pollutants of the chemical or auditory variety, our first thought is (quite naturally) for ourselves. Nature, however, is also affected — plants, animals, insects; the ecosystem.

How much damage has been done to earth in the name of progress? The Greater New Haven area is a strange, dim reflection of itself from 500 years ago. Wetlands have been filled in for condominiums or developments; lowlands and the ocean, dumping grounds for trash and water carrying chemicals and plastics downward throughout the food chain.

Nature itself is changeable. The pyramids were built with the assistance of a giant Nile tributary that dried up millennia ago. Water levels go down, as when England was connected by land bridge to Europe and Long Island was an extension of Connecticut, and water levels go up, as was the case when the world was a much warmer place. But these changes usually occur gradually, over thousands of years, and the changes we’re making unfold in months and decades.

So much effort has been made in Connecticut to heal the ecosystem. To make the food chain stronger and more resilient, by making efforts to clean water in sustainable ways and planting native pollinator species and helping reinforce the bottom of the ocean food chain in various ways.

And yet here we go, with Tweed, tearing paths through the air, poisoning the flora and the fauna, rolling back whatever meager progress hundreds of volunteers have made to help prop up a system on which we depend, and which has been brought through neglect, inattention, and convenience to the very brink. The noise pollution that will damage the health of residents is awful enough — at least people can afford to move their bedrooms to basements, or the wealthier, install insulation that mitigates the effects of low-flying jets. Animals have no such protection.

We know that expanding Tweed and Tweed’s flights will damage the environment— this isn’t up for debate, every place that has an airport of a particular size or a factory ends up seeing citizens, wildlife, and plantlife suffer from illnesses at higher rates, and the environment negatively affected. That’s guaranteed. This isn’t the 1950s, the science isn’t unsettled.

Investing in the Past; a New Haven Legacy of Failure (Farmington Canal)

The 21st century has been characterized by extraordinary opportunities for businesses and governments capable of taking advantage of technology breakthroughs. One of these is the widespread adoption of remote work technologies such as Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, and probably some other new platform I haven’t heard of. Remote work has just begun to transform how people relate to the office — a generation of young workers have no connection to traditional office culture, and do not need or want it, a shift that will totally reorganize how businesses invest in infrastructure, and where people live. Why hire a coder living in San Francisco for $200,000 when one can get someone of comparable discipline, work ethic, productivity, and utility for $25,000 a year who lives in Kyiv, or Calcutta, or Nairobi? For those businesses where security and citizenship are a concern, hiring someone for $150,000 a year who lives in a suburb of Cleveland or Indianapolis still offers extraordinary savings, when multiplied over dozens or hundreds of workers.

This has other implications as well, for “the city,” which was developed organically over time as a way to gather resources and specialists, and then, in the industrial age, to gather workers for factories. In a service economy, there isn’t much need for corporate offices, save among those to whom it is familiar and comfortable. People can just as easily do their jobs remotely, and those businesses that are most successful are those that can take advantage of the flexibility offered by remote technology. In time, those businesses will inevitably overcome rivals that sink millions or tens of millions into obsolete commercial real estate.

The decision to expand Tweed is based on an assumption that the social and work habits of the 20th century will dominate that of the 21st and therefore that the same infrastructure will be necessary. Who is deciding that an airport is a great idea? People who use planes to move around the country for work or for leisure. Who moves around the country for work or for leisure? Those with the resources and professional connections to take advantage of a national or international network — older, more established, financially successful people. People whose vision of the future depends on their experiences of the past, for better and for worse.

It’s not entirely clear where the $100 million projected to improve Tweed will come from, though older, more established, financially successful people and institutions is a good wager. AvPorts, the LLC that will own and operate Tweed, claims that it will raise the capital from various sources. As the chief business of these organizations is profit, it’s reasonable to assume that the expansion is, from their perspective, a speculative investment — a wager. One can be certain (and not assume) that profit will be the overriding concern in any conversation that requires making choices that impact neighbors. It is also reasonable to think about the cost of maintenance for large infrastructure of this sort, which, when speculative investment fails, often ends up defaulting to municipalities. Take as an example of this the abandoned and half-remediated Atlantic Wire site, which still has contaminated dirt exposed to the elements. Atlantic Wire is bankrupt, and the company that bought the property for development claims not to be responsible for maintenance or cleanup. Who pays? Branford residents and, eventually, the town. Who’ll pay for any inconvenience or disaster that strikes an expanded Tweed? Connecticut, New Haven, the shoreline.

This isn’t the first time New Haven has gotten into bed with investors to gamble future commercial success on an aging or mature transportation field. Gambled in the sense that transportation infrastructure is expensive, and any investment in the field must weigh the cost of development against the risk that it is or will eminently become obsolete — that nobody will use the new thing that has been bought, and that it will become an expensive and fruitless millstone, which instead of driving economic development, will be a costly weight around a city’s neck.

In the early 19th century, New Haven leaders pooled private resources and invested in an established and millennia-old technology at the worst moment possible. They took out loans, raised capital, and poured great reserves of human energy into creating the Farmington Canal. Rivers had been the primary engine of commerce since before the time of the Pharaohs, and making a river where none existed represented the pinnacle of organized human might. The visionaries of the Farmington Canal, long vexed by Hartford’s position on the Connecticut River, sought to jump New Haven over its nearby co-capital city, to dominate trade in Connecticut, and enrich its citizens.

The story of how those New Haveners and leaders in nearby towns (led by the accomplished and renowned Yale Man James Hillhouse) were able to muster political will and raise private capital is similar to the story of how Tweed is coming together as a speculative investment. People interested in learning more about how the canal was built and by whom are encouraged to read more about the canal’s fascinating and sad history.

Sad, because at the same time laborers were digging a path through Connecticut’s legendarily rocky soil, big changes were happening across the Atlantic Ocean. In Great Britain, a device called the steam engine had been set on a carriage that was itself placed on parallel metal beams supported by wooden trestles. This primitive device would lead to the development of the train, and almost overnight, totally revolutionized commerce. The investment necessary to create and maintain a canal was immediately outstripped by that of the investment needed to create and maintain rail lines. Those cities and groups that were quick to invest in railways reaped extraordinary benefits. Not only did the Farmington Canal fail, proving profitable only once while operational, it did so in the context of other projects succeeding. The canal has, after renovation, recouped some of the labor that went into its design and construction, as a beautiful walking and biking trail — this was not something intended by its original advocates.

New Haven today has an advantage over New Haven of the early 19th century. Perhaps New Haven’s leaders of the 1830s did not know about the train, had not read the literature or seen the potential when they sank money, time, and effort into shoveling out a divot through which to send boats laden with goods for trade. It may not have even occurred to them that there was another opportunity on the horizon. Today, the opportunities to invest in transformative and revolutionary infrastructure are many, and well known to all. The possibility that canals could become obsolete may not have been public or even specialized knowledge in 1835; today, it is likely given technological developments that small airports will become obsolete, and all but the biggest will fold (or become huge money pits for the regions that insist on operating them on the taxpayer’s back).

What are some potential targets for infrastructure development that aren’t airports? Anything having to do with electrified transport (cars, trains, bikes). Anything making a place more attractive for someone to live, as cities will become attractive not because of work opportunities, but because they are pleasant places in which to commute, socialize, and raise families (here, pedestrian and bike lanes seem like a useful way to develop New Haven and its surrounding area). If as seems likely drones will play an increasing role in commerce, perhaps developing an Aerodrome for drones (a hub for larger and smaller drones) might be worth considering; it has the advantage of offering New Haven a potential advantage over competing cities, rather than attempting to replicate a mature service that is already available nearby in JFK, Bradley, La Guardia, and Newark, to name a few.

There are two things about Tweed that are novel to any extent — cheap flights, and that one should only drive 5-25 minutes for a flight, rather than 45-120 minutes. At some point, the cheap flights will vanish, just as fares for Uber have steadily climbed from their appealing beginnings. And the more people who use the airport, the more traffic one can expect, eroding the advantage in convenience one reaps on the road. Neither of these will make any difference to the generation accustomed to socializing personally and professionally online, whose businesses and entrepreneurial projects will absolutely demolish those of rivals who insist on hazarding their company’s precious resources on commercial real estate — what amounts to living museums.

Painting a target on New Haven (military)

There is another compelling variable to consider when it comes to Tweed’s expansion. The odds of its being a problem are not great, but it is a consideration worth mentioning, given how human history has unfolded, and the unlikelihood that we or our children are living at the end of history.

Has anyone looked out of the passenger side window of an airplane taxiing down the runway at Bradley or JFK or O’Hare or LAX, and seen a C-130 Hercules military transport, or a C-17 Globemaster, or Blackhawk helicopters parked somewhere on the tarmac? Thought to themselves: “aren’t there military bases for that sort of thing?” Wondered: “why is military equipment sitting right next to — no, on — civilian infrastructure?” I have!

Part of this is because much of the military has been privatized, and a great deal of what was once exclusively civilian or exclusively military has been made into a combination of both, to save money. If convenience has been one head of the hydra of our age, saving money in the name of corporate efficiency has been the other — a satanic beast that has twice betrayed us. First during the pandemic and second (more recently) in Russia’s wicked and immoral invasion of Ukraine. Fully one third of what was once military tasks and responsibilities have been outsourced to private contractors, all the while making use of whatever space can be rented or leased on the private market (one study estimated that half the over $14 trillion spent on the various post-9/11 wars has gone to private contracting, according to a piece by PBS, for some sense of its pervasiveness). The argument is that it saves tax dollars and is efficient, when in practice, it doesn’t do the former and isn’t the latter.

An uncomfortable secondary consequence of this military sprawl into public life is that a regional airport is a military target in a way local airports are not. Regional and international airports are always on an enemy’s list of objectives either to be seized for follow-on operations, or destroyed to impact a nation’s ability to mass air power for defense. In a war, regional airports can expect at least one of two things (sometimes both): to be invaded by an enemy army, or to be bombed or rocketed by an enemy air force. If you doubt that this is true, I encourage you to read up on any war that has taken place since aircraft became a large part of warfare.

Rather than indulge a lengthy fantasy about the ways in which a large airport would endanger the area and its residents during war, how New Haven would take on a significance to an opposing military that it does not currently possess, I’ll conclude by saying that New Haven is not at present any higher on anyone’s list of cities than Hartford, or Stamford, or New London. Expanding Tweed as some hope will mean if there is ever a war, that someone will be punching in missile or drone or air drop / air assault coordinates corresponding with whatever facility is there. Expanding Tweed represents a risk. That risk is small in a world characterized by peaceful coexistence. It is much bigger in a world contorted by war.

The argument for Expanding Tweed

Up until now, the arguments presented have been those against expanding Tweed. In the event one has not heard the arguments for expanding Tweed, they are as follows, in no particular order (some will be more appealing than others):

1 — it will bring jobs to the area; dozens or hundreds depending on how big one thinks Tweed will get

2 — it will help New Haven grow both by making it a more convenient destination, and by (arguably) generating revenue

3 — it will make travel more convenient (currently for those who have property or business in Florida)

4 — it’s a done deal, expansion is a fait accompli and you’re dumb if you resist it!

Most of these arguments have been debunked or challenged point by point in an Op-Ed by Sara Nadel (a classmate of mine at Hopkins) published by The Hartford Courant. For people seeking a comprehensive breakdown of the arguments against the arguments for Tweed, one cannot do better.


There are a few (conditional) arguments for expanding Tweed, and many more against expanding it. Whether it will be expanded or not is beyond me; I’m a town RTM member in Branford, a man with few connections and little practical influence. Weighing the pros and cons the expansion doesn’t seem like a terrific idea — certainly not a slam dunk — and it also seems clear to me that not all the cons were weighed properly before people decided to go ahead with the project. Rather than be put to the people of this area only after a sincere public accounting of the costs and benefits to such a project, and in keeping with the modest and democratic traditions of New England, the expansion is being treated like something that has already been decided, and citizens as childlike annoyances who need to be tolerated and convinced, rather than adults who are capable of making up their own minds (but who might choose against such a massive change to the area’s environmental and infrastructural topography).

I hope this piece has offered readers some material for consideration. If, upon consideration, readers feel moved to do something to slow or stop an airport expansion that is likely to do quite a bit more harm than good in the short and long term, I beseech them to write or act.

Published by fancypencilhand


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