CLEARING — The Chicago Department of Aviation is working to quell concerns about city-installed, noise-reducing windows that are emitting a foul odor in households near Midway Airport, though city leaders and neighbors say they aren't doing enough.
Homes in the path of jets flying to and from Midway Airport have received special polyvinyl windows that seek to reduce noise as part of the city's Residential Sound Installation Program. But some of those neighbors say the windows are emitting a powerful odor that they worry could be harmful to their health.
A hearing held jointly by the City Council's Finance and Aviation committees at Hale Park, 6258 W. 62nd St., on Wednesday sought to give residents some answers to their questions and concerns. Mostly, however, aldermen and neighbors grilled Aviation officials on their plan and accused the department of dragging its feet on the issue.
They were particularly incensed with Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans' decision not to attend the hearing. Ald. Ed Burke grilled a deputy commissioner about her no-show, saying he couldn't believe the hearing wasn't "important enough" to her.
Officials at the hearing said Evans had a prior commitment and would be out all week.
"It's outrageous that she is not here today," 15th Ward Ald. Ray Lopez added. "I don't care what her previous engagements were. It's an insult to our community, and it's a direct insult to our legislative process."
The Aviation Department confirmed that it has received 86 complaints about the windows from neighbors, including four from homes near O'Hare airport. It has inspected 49 homes and has plans to inspect 37 more, said Aaron Frame, deputy commissioner for noise abatement.
The city has offered to replace windows in 20 homes, and has done so with at least one home, Frame said. Windows that have been removed are being tested in a lab to determine the gas that's being emitted and whether the substance is harmful. Air tests in some of the homes in question will be conducted, he said.
"We take this issue very seriously," Frame said.
Residents say the odor almost smells like an electrical fire. Pam Zidarich said it smells "funky" and can be overpowering.
"It's like a punch in the face," she said.
The city has removed a controversial clause in its waiver form that forbids residents with the windows from suing the city for any damages. Residents were asked to sign the form to receive new windows, but many have refused to do so before they know the potential harms of being exposed to the gasses, they said. Officials like Burke and the chairman of the Midway Noise Compatibility Commission have criticized the clause and advised residents not to sign.
In defending the clause, Mort Ames, counsel for the Aviation Department, said the waiver was a standard legal agreement the city requires for its workers or contractors to do work on private property. He said the controversial clause was taken out due to the scrutiny from officials.
But aldermen and neighbors say the department's actions are not enough. Neighbors who complained to the department accused its officials of obfuscating the facts and "stonewalling" on taking action.
Midway area resident Zidarich said her first complaints to the city last summer were met with puzzlement by officials, who seemed to not know of the issue. She said contractors dispatched to her home also seemed ignorant about the issue and at first did not detect the odor in her home, despite the city receiving complaints on the issue as far back as 2015.
"Why play it so close to the vest? What's going on?" she said. "I am scared. This is not imagined. This is not hysteria. You're dragging your feet is unconscionable."
Anne Prevenas said her two nephews, ages 9 and 13, live in a home with the odor-emitting windows and are constantly sick with respiratory issues. The family does not know what causes the illness, but has noted that the kids appear better during vacations or prolonged periods away from their home, Prevenas said.
Her sister has even put up a thermal blanket over the problem windows to try and keep the gasses away from her kids, Prevenas said. She said others have spent considerable money removing carpet drapes and taking other measures to try to resolve the issue.
"You're not allowing these mothers to protect their children, their families," she said. "There's no excuse."