DuPage judge slows O'Hare plan; Orders delay for health testing before existing old buildings get demolition OK

Chicago can't demolish nearly 400 homes and businesses in Bensenville to expand O'Hare International Airport until it shows the work won't threaten the health of nearby residents, a DuPage County judge ruled Wednesday.

The decision by Judge Kenneth Popejoy to block the planned demolitions -- at least temporarily -- threw a significant new roadblock in front of Chicago's O'Hare improvement project.

Agreeing to issue the preliminary injunction sought by Bensenville officials, Popejoy said he wants Chicago to run comprehensive health tests first to ensure toxic materials -- such as asbestos -- that may be in the condemned buildings and surrounding soils won't be released during the demolition work.

Once the health study is completed, Chicago officials must return to court to explain how the demolition work will be done so it won't threaten the health and safety of other Bensenville residents, Popejoy said.

It's not clear how long that study might take, but Bensenville attorney Joseph Karaganis said he was "very pleased" that Popejoy stopped the demolition work until tests are conducted.

"This is basic public health protection," Karaganis said of the ruling. "You don't start the bulldozers until you do some basic health tests."

Chicago already had pledged not to demolish any structures until "we know what is there," said attorney Richard Friedman, who represents the city.

"The city has made a commitment that it won't make these demolitions in a way that is harmful to the community," Friedman said in court.

Chicago has bought 500 properties in Bensenville, of which 391 are vacant. Friedman said the vacant homes and buildings near the airport already pose a safety threat because they are empty, and the expansion project can't proceed until the buildings are gone.

Bensenville officials, who have long opposed the expansion project, said the ruling is the latest blow to a project that is already behind schedule and at least $400 million over budget.

"This project is falling apart on several fronts," Karaganis said.

But O'Hare expansion chief Rosemarie Andolino put a positive spin on the ruling, calling it a "huge victory," because Popejoy agreed with the city's claim that the homes acquired in Bensenville are airport property by law and therefore not subject to local regulations.

"It solidifies our position all along," Andolino said.

Andolino couldn't estimate how the demolition delay would impact the construction timetable and budget for the runway project, but said "any time you're doing something else . . . that usually means it'll cost more money."

On Garden Avenue in Bensenville -- near the southwestern edge of O'Hare -- only one house of the 19 on the block is still occupied.

On Wednesday, resident Behlul Syla said he wasn't concerned about potential health risks posed by the demolition work, but he backs village efforts to fight the expansion project.

"I understand why they want to stop it," said Syla, 20.