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Judge rules against Chicago over airport snow-removal bill

CHICAGO – Chicago must reimburse the U.S. government for $6 million in federal disaster funds the city used to help recoup airport snow-removal costs following major winter storms in 1999 and 2000, a U.S. district judge said in a ruling posted Monday.

A few years after the storms, a Federal Emergency Management Agency audit decided Chicago should never have used the federal emergency funds to pay for clearing O'Hare and Midway international airports. The city had argued it was justified using federal money, in part, because the airports are major aviation hubs and keeping their runways clear of snow ensures air traffic nationwide doesn't back up.

In the wake of both the 1999 and 2000 storms, the White House issued disaster declarations for the Chicago area, freeing up millions of federal dollars for the cleanup.

But in his 16-page ruling, Judge Charles Norgle sided with FEMA, saying regular maintenance fees paid by airlines were available to the city and, therefore, it didn't qualify to draw on the federal emergency money.

A message seeking comment from the city's law department on Monday was not immediately returned. A message for the U.S. Department of Justice, which represented FEMA, was only not immediately returned.

The legal wrangling may not be over; the city could appeal. It could also immediately turn to airlines and demand they help the city raise the $6 million at issue – a demand that could prompt further suits and countersuits.

The airlines have made clear in filings of their own that they believe they should be liable only for standard maintenance expenses and not for clean-up after declared natural disasters.

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