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Jet Noise Complaints from Northwest Side Residents Soar This Summer

By Heather Cherone | September 5, 2014 1:19pm | Updated on September 8, 2014 8:47am
 A plane soars over the Northwest Side, where noise complaints were up this weekend.
A plane soars over the Northwest Side, where noise complaints were up this weekend.
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DNAinfo/Heather Cherone

O'HARE — Complaints about jet noise soared to new heights during the summer months, as elected officials under pressure from fed-up residents demanded that federal and local aviation officials do more to turn down the racket caused by planes using a new runway at O'Hare Airport.

In July, some 27,956 complaints were made to the city-run toll-free hotline, 150 percent more complaints than were filed in March — before the warm summer weather allowed people to get outside and open their windows, according to the most recent data released Friday by the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.

Heather Cherone peels back the red tape to find out what officials are doing about the situation:

Since July of 2013 — before a new east-west runway opened last fall as part of the $6.6 billion O'Hare Moderninzation Program — the number of complaints have skyrocketed more than 1,100 percent, according to data from the noise commission.

More complaints were filed in July than were recorded annually in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, according to the data.

Donald Walsh, who lives in the Indian Woods community near Edgebrook, said he is often awakened at 5 a.m. by planes flying over his home, which is more than seven miles from the airport.

"We are victims of outrageous aircraft noise," Walsh said. "We can't even talk to each other anymore."

Residents of Ald. Mary O'Connor's 41st Ward, which includes Norwood Park and Edison Park, filed the highest number of complaints of any Chicago ward, logging 6,449 objections to the sound of planes taking off and landing at O'Hare.

However, city aviation officials are quick to point out that those complaints came from only 410 residents of the 41st Ward, with many people filing dozens of complaints every day.

The data also shows an increasing number of complaints from residents in the 45th Ward, which includes Jefferson Park and Forest Glen. In July 2,085 complaints were filed by 169 45th Ward residents.

In the 41st Ward, complaints rose 295 percent from March to July. In the 45th Ward, complaints jumped 134 percent during the same time period.

The record number of complaints during July came during one of the busiest months at O'Hare, with 2,614 flights arriving and departing — among the highest monthly totals since the Great Recession, officials said.

Ald. John Arena (45th) was the only Chicago alderman to speak at Friday's meeting, and he urged aviation officials to direct planes to make their final turns before landing at O'Hare by turning over the lake — as they did for many years — rather than over the Far Northwest Side.

"These planes are low and slow and they pass over the city not once but twice," Arena said. "This traffic flow can be managed right now."

Meeting in a room with a capacity of only 100 people — and a 54-member commission — many residents who planned to protest the airport's flight path at the meeting were turned away by two Chicago Police officers and commission staff members. 

Robert Murphy, a member of Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition — a group that formed a year ago to object to the new runway at O'Hare — called on chairwoman Arlene Mulder and Executive Director Jeanette Camacho to resign, saying the coalition was not "functioning appropriately."

Commissioners — most of whom left before the public was given a chance to participate — spent much of the meeting debating a pair of dueling resolutions calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to re-examine the noise and air pollution caused by planes traveling to and from O'Hare.

The commission adopted a resolution calling on the FAA to complete an initial assessment of whether additional environmental studies are needed to determine the impact of a new runway scheduled to open in October 2015 on noise and air pollution

While FAA Regional Administrator Barry Cooper said that determination would be made by the time the runway opens, the commission asked the agency to complete it sooner — and set a deadline of Jan. 1.

"We are going to hold their feet to the fire," said Catherine Dunlap, who was appointed by Ald. Mary O'Connor to represent the 41st Ward on the commission.

Cooper said the ongoing examination will determine whether the changes since the initial study are  significant enough to require a new study, one that could take three and a half years.

But that assessment does not address the noise and pollution created by planes using the runway that opened in October 2013 and sent hundreds more flights over Far Northwest Side homes that had little or no jet noise in previous years.

In response to angry questions from several suburbs, Cooper said the inital environmental study "adequately" addressed the environmental impact of the runway that opened last year and properly modeled the flight paths that are now in use.

Federal aviation officials said the flight patterns at O'Hare are designed to ensure the airport operates as efficiently and safely as possible.

Another measure, introduced by Park Ridge Mayor Dave Schmidt calling on the commission to endorse a call from U.S. Rep Mike Quigley, (D-Chicago), for a complete re-do of the now-decade old study of the impact of the new flight paths to and from O'Hare on the surrounding neighborhoods. 

"We need to re-examine the decade-old environmental assumptions to ensure that the safety and well-being of our citizens is not being compromised," Quigley wrote to the commission, urging it to consider Schmidt's measure.

Laura Sisemore, a spokeswoman for Quigley, said FAA officials have told the congressman's office they are finalizing their response to his request for a new environmental study.

Mulder said that measure was not properly submitted by Schmidt, and could not be voted on Friday. It was placed on the agenda for the commission's Oct. 3 meeting.

Quigley again this week urged the FAA to speed up its study of whether more homes around O'Hare should qualify for subsidized soundproofing, such as new attic insulation, air conditioning, exterior doors, storm doors and windows that block all noise.

FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said that study, which began in September 2012, is expected to be completed in mid-2016.

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