As Gov. Pat Quinn announced his plan to start construction on Chicago’s third airport in Will County “as fast as humanly possible,” one local farmer in Peotone, where the airport is slated to be built 45 miles south of Chicago, is preparing for the worst case scenario—losing his family farm.
Lee Deutsche, whose farm has been around longer than four generations, said he fears urban commercial and housing developments will overpopulate the farmland and contaminate his and other farmers’ primary source of agricultural water from the nearby Kankakee River.
“It’s an environmental disaster waiting to happen,” said Deutsche, who still grows corn, soy and alfalfa. “It would cause an engine of urban sprawl that will draw people out of the south suburbs away from the communities they’re in, causing more housing, more lawns, and more air and water pollution.”
In 2002, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) began buying homes surrounding the airport with funding of $75 million earmarked by the Illinois FIRST program. IDOT came up with a proposal for the south suburban plan after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the site as a technically and environmentally feasible location.
Guy Tridgell, IDOT spokesman, said the site for the airport, which would cover 32 square miles, or about 20,000 acres of farmland, passed all state mandates on air, water and noise pollution in an environmental impact study and analysis. He said another airport is necessary to combat the influx of passengers that O’Hare and Midway airports have experienced in the last decade.
“The FAA and IDOT are working close together to make sure we move along with the project in the upmost respect for the environment and farming areas in Peotone,” said Tridgell.
There has already been a long-running debate about the airport, which would be called Chicago South Suburban Airport or Abraham Lincoln National Airport. The debate started after talks of the O’Hare expansion came into play– the main issues being air traffic congestion and pollution from both Midway and O’Hare airports.
Jack Saporito, executive director for the Alliance of Residents Concerning O’Hare, said the Peotone airport would relieve some of the pollutants that accumulate around O’Hare and Midway airports, where about 400 people die each year from cancer-causing air emissions by O’Hare airport alone.
Saporito said a recent report shows that the health of more than 12 million people is affected by fossil fuel and emissions from the 2 current Chicago airports, compared to Peotone, which would only affect 1.5 million.
“We need to relieve some of this air pollution. Whether the government decides to build another airport in Chicago, or a high speed rail system, something needs to be done now,” Saporito said.
Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter Sierra Club, said constructing a new airport in Chicago wouldn’t necessarily solve the air pollution problem at O’Hare and Midway airports, but would instead create more contamination for cities in the south suburbs and the state.
Darin said an airport in Peotone would bring an urban sprawl of commercial and housing developments that would potentially jeopardize the air and water quality, as well as disrupting the ecosystem and wildlife in the region.
“We shouldn’t rely on air traffic as a primary transportation mode, and that’s what it seems we’re trying to imply to the rest of the country by going through with this airport,” he said.
Darin said IDOT and Illinois politicians should encourage citizens to use other forms of transportation, especially for shorter distances within the Midwest region. “Instead of expanding or creating new airports in Illinois, we need to be investing in other forms of transportation, like high speed rail cars and clean energy vehicles,” he said.
Quinn vowed in his Feb. 16th budget address that Illinois will compete to become the high-speed rail hub of the Midwest.
Guy Trigdell said IDOT is in the process of land acquisition and has purchased more than 2,400 acres since 2002.
He also said IDOT expects a the FAA to complete a master plan for the Peotone project later in the year, but the date to begin construction on the airport has yet to be set.
Lee Deutsche, 69 years old, said he plans to go to his grave fighting for his family farm in order to keep the tradition alive.
“Both my sons are working on the farm now, and I want their sons to do the same when they’re older,” said Deutsche.