Testing O'Hare's Air Pollution Regulators Will See If Planes' Emissions Really Are Excessive
McCoppin, Robert, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Travelers returning to O'Hare International Airport after a long trip might notice a fine layer of soot on cars parked there.
City officials maintain the soot is mostly from cars - not planes - but residents who live near the airport increasingly are starting to wonder just what's in that air they breathe every day.
To find out, state regulators for the first time will test the air from O'Hare over six months for hazardous air pollutants.
Jet engines shoot out benzene, formaldehyde and other known cancer-causing toxins. The new monitors will attempt to find out how much of those substances accumulate in the air.
The question is crucial to nearby residents because aircraft emissions largely are unregulated.
Since 1997, commercial jet engine manufacturers have had to meet federal standards for emissions of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen, but not specifically for toxins such as benzene.
Older engines, some decades old, are not covered by the regulations. Unlike automobiles, jets are not required to undergo routine emissions tests while in use.
General aviation craft, including private planes and military aircraft, are not regulated at all.
And no one regulates the cumulative effect at O'Hare, for instance, where 900,000 flights a year cut through the air.
Opponents of O'Hare expansion repeatedly have accused the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency of not doing its job to identify and regulate emissions from such a major industry.
"Nobody is watching them," said Jack Saporito, an Arlington Heights resident who heads the Alliance of Residents Concerning O'Hare. Citing various studies of aircraft emissions, he added, "That's a toxic cocktail that comes out of there."
The state EPA does require many fixed industrial sources to file annual reports detailing how many toxins they release each year, including some ground facilities at O'Hare such as boilers, but not the airlines.
Jets are considered a mobile source of pollution and are not covered specifically by mandates such as the Clean Air Act.
Because airlines conduct interstate commerce, state EPA spokesman Dennis McMurray said, the state EPA has no jurisdiction over them.
State lawmakers have tried repeatedly to pass bills to force the EPA to check O'Hare's air, but the measures repeatedly were rebuffed.
Last year, the EPA opposed conducting tests of the air near O'Hare, arguing that it would duplicate a federal study of toxins in metropolitan areas, take 4 years and cost up to $4 million.
State Sen. Dave Sullivan, a Republican from Park Ridge, got the EPA to conduct the test for $200,000 for six months.
"I often hear complaints about the air near O'Hare, but we have no data," Sullivan said. "Now, we'll get monthly reports. We'll see what the problem is so we can address it."
City of Chicago officials maintain there is no need for such a study because they did one last year.
That study concluded that the pollution from aircraft was minuscule compared to pollution from cars and trucks, industry and even home furnaces. Backers of the new study say it will be more comprehensive and ongoing with comparison data from monitors in Northbrook and southeast Chicago.
Nationally, the U.S. EPA develops emission standards for jets and the Federal Aviation Administration is charged with regulating the industry. Critics question how objective the FAA can be, since it also is supposed to promote aviation.
The FAA does work with the airlines, but together they are making significant strides in reducing air pollution, according to EPA analyst Ken Petche.
Since the 1970s, Petche said, emissions from new engines have been reduced about 70 percent for carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen.
Airlines are working on voluntary programs to cut pollution from jets and ground vehicles, for instance, by running them on electricity at the gate. …