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New Orleans Airport Plans Slated For Environmental Scrutiny

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This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Aug. 29, 2011 edition.

Anyone who lives or works near an airport flight path knows how earsplitting jets overhead can be. Plans to rebuild or expand Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, unveiled in mid-August by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, could mean more noise for the City of Kenner--where officials have long been attuned to that issue. The Kenner-based airport is twelve miles from downtown New Orleans.

The New Orleans Aviation Board has been asked to analyze proposals that include building a new terminal on the north side of Armstrong International or expanding the current facility on its west side. Mayor Landrieu says he wants to create a world-class hub as the Crescent City's 300th anniversary nears in 2018.

Kenner residents worried about noise and air impacts have time to express themselves, as do those questioning whether the airport needs to grow. Last week, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford in Fort Worth, Texas, said "before any major expansion can occur, the airport will have to commission a full, environmental impact statement, taking into account all of the potential effects of expansion. Airport authorities typically commission these studies to companies that do them professionally, following federal environmental law." That process takes about two years from start to finish.

In such a study, "other agencies, the public and anybody with a stake in the outcome is allowed to comment," Lunsford said.

Ignoring excessive noise and fouled air can shorten your life, a stream of research has shown. Results of a study by the World Health Organization and its regional office in Europe, released this spring, said noise from roads, railways and airports aggravates one in three people in Western Europe in the daytime and prevents one in five people from getting a good night's sleep. Noise increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure, learning disabilities and tinnitus, WHO said. And people exposed to too much noise are often simultaneously exposed to air pollution. That seems to be true around airports, where exhaust billows as flights take off, jet fuel is repeatedly dripped over the same areas, and shuttle buses circle.

The New Orleans hub has been tackling noise pollution for decades. "The airport had a property buyout program and more recently a sound insulation program," said Michelle Wilcut, spokeswoman for Louis Armstrong International Airport. "The airport purchased homes within a certain "Ldn" noise level, and insulated others in less affected areas." Ldn stands for "day-night average sound level," a measure of a day's noise.

"The noise program purchased about 805 properties, totaling 121.8 acres of land," Wilcut said. "An FAA grant funded over $80 million for the airport's buyout program and sound insulation program, starting in 1988 and continuing through 2005." Sound insulation varied from house to house around the airport, but usually included increased wall and ceiling insulation, triple-insulated windows and new doors, she said.

"Both of these programs are complete, and we're now working with the City of Kenner to get buyout properties back into commerce," Wilcut said. "Properties purchased by the airport are no longer on the tax rolls of Kenner since the airport is a city agency. FAA paid for 80% of the land, and we're required to sell it and give the FAA back the money spent on acquiring the homes."

She continued, saying "we're currently working with Kenner on about 80 acres. We've been working with them so that the entire process--rezoning, compatible use, sale, and placement back into commerce--is beneficial to both Kenner and the airport." Some of the buyout acreage has already been sold, and some of it's on the west bank of Jefferson Parish, not Kenner, she noted.

Airports are among the most regulated facilities in the country, and must comply with rules from the FAA, the Dept. of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies, along with the Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality and other state and local agencies, Wilcut said.

Mike Quigley, Kenner's chief administrative officer, said "the City of Kenner has been working jointly with the City of New Orleans and the Aviation Board to initiate a viable plan to sell 80 acres of noise land or airport buyout property--which I also like to call redevelopment land. Currently, we're in the process of significantly shortening the time it will take to sell property to prospective buyers."

He continued, saying "concurrently, the City of Kenner is in the process of rezoning most of these properties to conditional use." Conditional use zoning is required when a property might impact public health, safety or welfare.

Most of the property that was bought out was residential, Quigley noted. "Those properties can't be used residentially again, and will have to be types of commercial properties, so they need to be rezoned." Under a grant, the University of New Orleans is assisting Kenner in deciding how to bundle parcels for sale.

The airport's noise abatement program appears to have paid off. At a Prudential Gardner office located on Williams Blvd., residential realtor and branch manager Linda Martin said, "since the property buyout program around the airport was completed, we haven't had one client comment or inquire about noise from the airport." Williams Blvd. runs parallel to an airport flight path.

As for other recent environmental issues, "back in February an underground storage tank at the airport released diesel fuel, involving a slight exceedance of benzoapyrene, benzobfluoroanthene and TPH-D or Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons," said Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality spokesman Tim Beckstrom. "Over 27 tons of back fill on the soil were excavated and sent to a landfill. The site was excavated down to the concrete slab that's used as a hold-down for the tank." DEQ documented and followed up on the spill, he said.

DEQ maintains an air monitoring station in Kenner, measuring NOx, ozone, Particulate Matter 2.5 and Volatile Organic Compounds. "No abnormal readings were seen at the Kenner air monitor from the diesel-fuel leak," Beckstrom said.

Beckstrom said that the airport may be required to submit documentation to DEQ if its planned growth impacts air, water or soil regulations under DEQ's purview.

The airport has had a number of makeovers in its time. New Orleans resident Frances Whidden, a retired, career flight attendant, said "when my family used to drop me off for my flights in the 1950's, the airport was literally a shack, not the domed structure you see today. It was surrounded by marsh, and of course the runways were short."

In recent years, the airport has deliberated about which concourses to use. Concourse A was closed last fall in a consolidation plan. "But plans to close Concourse B were dropped two months ago because of our growth trend," Wilcut said. Concourses C and D, the airport's newer departure wings, remain open.

When asked if Kenner officials have any air and noise worries about growth at Armstrong International, Quigley said "these are normal concerns that we will have and question." But he said "it's in the city's best interest to have a more viable airport, and we'll work with the airport to accomplish a plan that suits our mutual interests."

Meanwhile, Kenner's population has declined in recent years, though its Hispanic residents have swelled. Passenger use at the airport has grown and reached a post-Katrina high of 8.2 million people last year. The airport provides over 12,450 jobs, directly and indirectly, according to Mayor Landrieu's office. -end-

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