The battle against increased air traffic has been waged by New Haven environmental activists for a decade. Due to recent legislative efforts at the city and state level, this battle seems increasingly dire.

Rachel Heerema, a New Haven resident and member of the activist group STOP Tweed Expansion, joined the city’s Environmental Advisory Council on Wednesday night at City Hall. Heerema is one of many residents who have expressed concerns about the Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport’s proposed runway expansion. The expansion would require state funds, which looks more likely since the January decision by the Connecticut Airport Authority and Tweed Airport Authority to “explore a deeper partnership.”

Heerema said that those in favor of the airport expansion were going back on 2009 legislation that limited Tweed’s runway length.

“I moved into the neighborhood after [the 2009 legislation] and I assumed that the memorandum of agreement was a memorandum that would stand. And, in fact, it hasn’t,” Heerema said at the meeting.

The runway expansion was forbidden by a 2009 memorandum between New Haven and East Haven as well as by a Connecticut state law passed in the same year. The state law and memorandum of agreement both limited Tweed Airport’s main runway at 5,600 feet — with the memorandum also limiting annual boardings at 180,000. Yet, the agreement between New Haven and East Haven was revoked by Mayor Toni Harp in January. The State Transportation Committee, co-chaired by state Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, has introduced legislation to remove the 2009 state law.

“This is a positive sign that state and local leaders are moving toward consensus about the overall importance of Tweed and the need to support the greater New Haven business community with commercial air service,” Harp said in an interview with the New Haven Register. “[My administration] agrees a viable commercial airport will help attract and retain world-class talent and to grow as a city and as a region.”

In her presentation, Heerema cited that New Haven has a comparably high percentage of asthma patients as well as people who suffer from lung or bronchial cancers. Although she said this could by no means be wholly attributed to air travel in the area, airport expansion would only put local residents at greater risk.

Heerema also cited that St. Bernadette’s School, Nathan Hale School and the East Shore Park are all within 1 kilometer of the airport, adding that increased air traffic resulting from the runway expansion would put children at a greater risk of suffering from asthma and other respiratory ailments.

Laura Cahn, the chair of the Environmental Advisory Council, expressed her conflict on the matter, saying she would have to look further into the issue.

“I know having an airport in our municipality is a draw for hiring people who are coming here, and I know that a lot of people like airports,” Cahn said. “I just don’t even know [if I’m in support of the expansion]. I’m going to have to research a lot about this.”

Further paving over the wetlands that surround the airport would put the area at a greater risk for flooding, Heerema argued. She said the wetlands were “harmed irreparably” in the 2009 compromise, which saw houses, wetlands and other debris in the area completely compacted under the agreement that the airport would not expand any further. The wetlands work “as a sponge,” she explained, and further paving would put the area at greater risk during a storm. Heerema said that because the airport was built on a coastal flood plain, more paving would lead to more disastrous effects on property in the area.

Still, Yale faculty members and other University officials have also supported the runway’s expansion. Craig Crews, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale and founder of the New Haven–based biotech startup Arvinas LLC, expressed his support for the runway in a Yale press release.

“I often hear the unfortunate comments about how difficult it is to access our community,” Crews wrote. “Connectivity is important for investors, for current and future employees, and for vendors. There’s a need for ease of connectivity that this type of expansion in infrastructure would allow. It is worth doing.”

The Tweed-New Haven Regional Airport carries two airlines — American Eagle, with flights to Charlotte and Philadelphia, and Shoreline Aviation, with flights to New York.

Nick Tabio |