The Sound and the Fury

With $450 million at stake in the battle over airport noise, critics say one thing is missing: The public's voice

Since 1975, when he moved into his south Minneapolis home, Dick Saunders has grown increasingly accustomed to pausing in mid-sentence to accommodate the roar of an overhead jet. "In the beginning, it just happened occasionally. Of course, 20 years ago, there were a quarter of the flights there are today," Saunders says matter-of-factly. "We get 80 to 90 decibels pretty regularly now."

In a few months, Saunders hopes to have some permanent relief from the racket, thanks to extensive soundproofing renovations on his 100-year-old home, which sits near Diamond Lake, about a block and a half from a major flight path at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. With central air, new windows, new doors, and additional attic and wall insulation, Saunders figures, the indoor noise should be slashed by at least five decibels.

The tab for the improvements will be picked up by the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) as part of its program to assist homeowners who live in the areas most severely affected by the airport noise. "I've looked at a lot of the homes they've done," says Saunders. "They do a good job."

All that noise: After a quarter-century under a flight path, Dick Saunders looks forward to having his home soundproofed
Craig Lassig
All that noise: After a quarter-century under a flight path, Dick Saunders looks forward to having his home soundproofed

But Saunders is worried that the MAC may "pull the rug out" from under a commitment to provide similar help to some 10,400 other homeowners in the south metro area, folks living in zones that are slightly less noisy than Saunders's. Some MAC members have publicly supported a move to provide full sound insulation to those homeowners--at a total cost of some $450 million, or roughly $45,000 per home. Others appear to favor less expensive options, including the "air-condition only" choice, which would cost about $150 million.

"Last I counted, there were four in favor, four against, and seven undecided," says Saunders, a former member of both the panel that advised the MAC on noise reduction and a grassroots citizen group called the South Metro Airport Action Council.

On June 18, when the MAC's board members meet to choose one of the insulation programs, they will do so without any input from the Metropolitan Aircraft Sound Abatement Council (MASAC). The private nonprofit had acted as the MAC's official advisor on noise-reduction programs since 1969. But as the MAC prepares to act on the most ambitious, controversial, and expensive noise-reduction measure in its history, MASAC's voice won't be heard; effectively, the council has ceased to exist.

Last fall representatives from ten airlines, following the lead of Northwest Airlines and the Air Line Pilots Association, resigned from the council. According to Northwest spokesman Dennis Mollura, MASAC "simply did not provide a balanced framework" for effective compromise. "We felt there was a need for a broader membership and participation on the council," he explains. "These are complex issues, and the manner in which MASAC tried to make decisions did not provide for a consensus view."

A number of citizen representatives who served on MASAC disagree. Dean Lindberg, a MASAC delegate from south Minneapolis, explains that the council was equally divided between industry and municipal, or "citizen," representatives. "Northwest's idea of balance would be ten industry delegates for every five citizen delegates," he scoffs. In addition, Lindberg observes, the council was limited to an advisory role. "As MASAC delegates, we got to push the buttons and pull the levers, but they weren't hooked up to anything," he says.

John Halla, a St. Paul citizen delegate to MASAC, contends that the airline industry had a strategic goal in withdrawing from the group. "By pulling out of MASAC, [the industry] effectively shut us down, because we couldn't get a quorum," he says. "And that silenced any opposition to attempts to pull back on sound-insulation commitments."

According to state Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Minneapolis), the proposed "rollback" of the extent of the insulation program is the direct result of poor calculations by MAC staff. In 1996, when the Minnesota Legislature was debating the prospect of building a new airport farther from the metropolitan area, the MAC projected that there would be a relatively low increase in air traffic in coming decades--a projection that bolstered the argument in favor of keeping the current airport. Those numbers, which were also used to calculate the cost of an expanded sound-insulation program, proved to be "dead wrong," Wagenius says. Already, she notes, traffic at the airport is at the level estimated for 2020; as a result, the noise-insulation zone more than doubled. (Jeff Hamiel, executive director of the MAC, could not be reached for comment.)

Sara Strzok, chair of the grassroots anti-noise group ROAR (Residents Opposed to Airport Racket), says MASAC's demise is lamentable. "It was one of the first airport-citizen collaborations in the country, and that's a pretty big deal," Strzok says. "The airlines say it was activist. It wasn't. But they did have some important accomplishments. They got sound-monitoring equipment, and they made a lot of information available."

R.T. Rybak, a longtime airport-noise activist, ROAR founder, and current candidate for mayor of Minneapolis, says the industry's withdrawal from MASAC represents a hardened posture towards noise abatement. "For the industry to find MASAC too citizen-oriented illustrates how out of touch they are," opines Rybak, who has made airport noise an early centerpiece to his campaign. "This was a very moderate group, which took small, well-intentioned actions. They only nibbled around the edge, because they didn't have the power to look at the big picture. I think the problem was that the industry could point to MASAC and claim they were doing something about the noise, and it wound up being a smokescreen."

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