Washington State Department of Ecology issues Clean Water Act permit for proposed third runway at Sea-Tac International Airport on August 10, 2001.

  • By Paula Becker (with research by Daryl McClary and Walt Crowley)
  • Posted 3/21/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 4208
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On August 10, 2001, the Washington State Department of Ecology issues to the Port of Seattle a permit that certifies compliance with Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act. This permit is a key step in the long process to allow construction of a third dependent runway for Seattle-Tacoma (Sea-Tac) International Airport. The Airport Communities Coalition, a consortium of six communities surrounding the airport, quickly files an appeal.

The permit certifies compliance with Section 401 of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, which relates to potential impacts of new construction projects on water quality. The United States Environmental Protection Agency charges states with ensuring that all projects adhere to the standards laid out in the Clean Water Act.

The 401 certification and an additional 404 permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers concerning wetlands protection were necessary before the Port could begin construction of a third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. During a planning process initiated in 1989 that included extensive community involvement, the third runway project emerged as the best of numerous options to preserve regional air service. A number of federal, state, and regional agencies ultimately determined that construction of a third dependent runway was essential to maintain the capacity of Sea-Tac during bad-weather conditions. The project’s potential environmental impacts and appropriate mitigation measures were analyzed in several detailed Environmental Impact Statements.

The Port’s progress toward the 401 permit was arduous. It had voluntarily halted processing of its original 1996 application after discovering that third runway construction would impact more wetlands than had originally been thought. The Port withdrew a second application in September 2000 in order to resolve a few lingering issues and to give permitting agencies adequate time for analysis.

The 401 permit obtained on August 10, 2001, required the Port to protect and monitor the health of streams within the watershed of the construction area, in addition to mitigating the project’s environmental impact on water quality and restoring wetlands displaced by the project. The permit was issued despite significant community protest of the project. The State Department of Ecology, however, found that the Port’s proposal satisfied both state and federal requirements.

On August 23, 2001, the Airport Communities Coalition filed an appeal protesting the issuance of the 401 permit. Third runway opponents charged that “science took a backseat to politics” with the permit’s issuance.

The matter was referred to the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board, which took testimony at a crowded session on March 18, 2002. The Board ultimately approved the 401 permit, but attached 16 additional conditions. The Port and the state Department of Ecology appealed several of these, taking particular issue with new and unprecedented testing standards imposed by the Board to certify the quality of the 17 million cubic yards of fill dirt required for the project. Runway opponents also appealed the granting of the permit. 

In May 2004, the State Supreme Court overturned some conditions and cleared the way for construction to resume. On August 19, 2004, the Airport Communities Coalition dropped litigation, after having spent $15 million over 10 years campaigning and litigating against the third runway.

Construction resumed and the 8,500-foot runway was completed four years later for a total cost of just over $1 billion. It opened on November 20, 2008.


“Third Runway Gets Key Permit,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 10, 2001; “Sea-Tac Gets Permit To Build A Third Runway,” The Seattle Times, August 10, 2001; “A Major Win For Third Runway,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 11, 2001; “Third Runway Foes Challenge Permit,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 24, 2001; “Clean Water Act, Section 401 Certification,” United States Environmental Protection Agency Website (www.epa.gov/OWOW/wetlands/regs/sec401.html); Larry Lange and Jeffrey M. Barker, "You Know That Third Runway? Sea-Tac's Really Getting It," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 20, 2004, A-1.
Note: This essay was updated on August 31, 2004, and again on November 20, 2008.

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