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Blasting a hot issue in runway project

By Justin Boron

Several frustrated northern Clayton County residents grilled officials affiliated with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's fifth runway project Thursday night, hoping to gain some clarity about the runway's potentially detrimental effects on the community.

Ben DeCosta, the general manager of the airport, and several runway contractors met for the first time with residents who say airport blasting has caused significant damage to their homes. They said they are also worried about worsening conditions once the runway becomes operational in May 2006.

In the past year, the pensive citizens have raised questions about the possibility of short- and long-term damage to their property resulting from the detonation of quarry rock used for the fifth runway.

Until Thursday, they had interacted very little with managers for the project.

U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., and the local branch of the NAACP were instrumental in setting up the meeting at M.L. King Elementary School in College Park.

Contractors for the project gave a presentation on the federal and state guidelines for blasting and said they were within the set limits.

But some in the audience said the muddle of official talk did nothing to remedy the cracks and foundation erosion caused to their homes.

Joan Daviss-Reid, who lives in the Crystal Lake neighborhood near a blasting site, said the presentation sidestepped the real concerns of the audience.

"I can't tell you how angry I am when you tell us about your regulations," she said. "We are living in a situation where our homes are cracked."

State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, D-Riverdale, attempted to get some direction from blasting officials on how the citizens should proceed.

"It's just so convoluted," she said.

The contractors recommended residents contact their homeowners insurance provider.

At the end of the question and answer segment, audience members were handed blasting complaint forms that could be filed with Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire commissioner.

The potentially destructive effects of blasting were just one of the concerns surrounding the fifth runway.

Dexter Matthews, the president of the local branch of the NAACP, said residents are worried about airplane fumes and noise once the runway opens.

The noise abatement funds used to compensate residents for the airport's environmental impact are also a subject of contention.

Scott has said the funds are distributed unevenly between Clayton and Fulton counties.

But DeCosta said the areas in Fulton County fall within a larger noise contour, which the Federal Aviation Administration uses to determine noise levels caused by airplanes.

But he did say if Clayton County residents did qualify, the airport was prepared to intervene.

"We will be ready to correct (any adverse impacts)," he said.

Earlier in the day, the airport held a press conference to highlight the runway's progress.

DeCosta praised the pace of the $1.3 billion project.

Contractors are putting the finishing touches on the runway's embankment portion, which will feature a bridge over Interstate 285, he said.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said the runway is crucial to solving delays at Hartsfield-Jackson and many of the other airports in the nation.

"When we have a backup at Hartsfield, there are backups all over the country," she said.

Another component of the project's success, airport officials say, has been the level of minority involvement.

Nearly 30 percent of the work on the project is being done by minorities, DeCosta said.