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New O’Hare runway sparks noise pollution concerns

by Mitch Goldich
Oct 17, 2013


Courtesy of Chicago Department of Aviation.

Flights wil increase at O'Hare as part of an expansion plan. 


Courtesy of Chicago Department of Aviation.

Local residents have complained about added noise pollution due to the new runway opened at O'Hare Thursday.

Chicago O’Hare International Airport opened a new runway Thursday to decrease delays immediately and eventually allow an increased number of flights as part of a larger expansion plan. While it's good news for travelers, some local residents complain the expansion will increase noise pollution.

The Fair Allocation in Runways Coalition is one group of local residents that has protested the changes.

“How many planes fly over our head makes a big difference in our quality of life,” said Robert Murphy, a FAiR Coalition member who lives on the Northwest Side of Chicago. “Nobody was consulted. They’re just doing what they want to do.”

One of FAiR’s concerns is not just that the new runway will create more traffic, but that the Chicago Department of Aviation has used its opening as an opportunity to redraw traffic patterns. A higher concentration of flights will use certain runways that force planes to fly over the same residential areas.

The group has written letters to the department, Federal Aviation Administration, and local and state legislators.  FAiR has succeeded in gaining support from residents, and even leaders such as 39th Ward Alderman Margaret Laurina, but efforts have not slowed the airport’s plans.

The CDA is definitely aware of the issue.  Gregg Cunningham, the coordinator of special projects for the CDA, forwarded a response to some questions via email.  “The Chicago Department of Aviation is sensitive to the issue of noise impacts to communities surrounding O’Hare and Midway,” Cunningham emailed.  “In cooperation with the O’Hare and Midway Noise Compatibility Commissions, our goal is to minimize the impact to communities surrounding Chicago’s airports.

“The CDA will continue to work closely with the airport noise commissions, FAA and elected officials to reduce the impact of aircraft noise on surrounding communities.”

While the added noise will be a nuisance, it is unknown whether it could result in hearing damage to local residents.

“If it’s a noise that you didn’t bargain for, like if all of a sudden they put a train track next to your house, absolutely those types of things can be stressors,” said Dr. Alan Micco, a Chicago-based otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat doctor). “But unless the house was right next to the airfield they wouldn’t get enough to cause permanent injury,” he said.

Micco is an associate professor in otolaryngology—head and neck surgery and neurological surgery at Northwestern University. He is also a member of the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery’s hearing committee.

Exposure to high levels of aircraft noise was recently linked to an increase in heart disease, in a study released October 9 by BMJ, a United Kingdom research group focused on improving healthcare worldwide. The study found a link between the added noise and high blood pressure.

Micco agreed concerns over stress were more likely to be an issue than those over hearing loss.

That study was done outside of London Heathrow Airport, and FAiR is upset Chicago has neglected to do (or at least publicize) any similar studies. 

Cunningham stated the FAA did a three-year environmental study concluded in 2005, when the O’Hare expansion plans were first laid out.

Murphy said a new study is needed that takes into account the many factors that have since changed—including the new runway and new traffic patterns.

“We’re fighting to change not only the plan,” Murphy said, “but also that the community has a voice.”

O’Hare does have a Residential Sound Insulation Program for nearby residences to mitigate for noise pollution.  O’Hare’s website notes that 7,950 homes have been insulated through the program to date.

Murphy said those maps also need to be re-examined, from the decibel levels required for insulation to the geographic areas outside the original boundaries that may be affected by the new traffic patterns.