While Noise Injuries Mount, Regulation and Enforcement Are at a Standstill

TQC member Quiet Communities, Inc. signs contract with environmental law clinic.

Quiet Communities, Inc., a founding member of The Quiet Coalition, has recently contracted with the University of Washington Regulatory Environmental Law and Policy Clinic (UW RELP) to investigate various approaches to re-engage federal, state, and local governments to take an active role in addressing noise pollution.

Rick Reibstein, J.D., Co-Chair of Quiet Communities’ Legal Advisory Council, stated, “One might ask whether our national personality changed from responsible adult to careless teenager. In the 1970s a Republican president signed into law many of the basic environmental protections Americans take for granted. A later Republican president then abdicated responsibility for protecting against noise pollution. We should not be quiet about the fact that the cessation of the national effort was wrong: the health and environmental impacts are serious and can be reduced.”

Over 40 years ago, Congress recognized that excessive noise was degrading our environment and endangering the public health and the United States became the world leader in dealing with noise pollution. The Noise Control Act of 1972 stated that “inadequately controlled noise presents a growing danger to the health and welfare of the Nation’s population, particularly in urban areas; that the major sources of noise include transportation vehicles and equipment, machinery, appliances, and other products in commerce; and that, while primary responsibility for control of noise rests with State and local governments, federal action is essential to deal with major noise sources in commerce control of which require national uniformity of treatment.”

This statute is still in effect. It declares that “it is the policy of the United States to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare.” It also was intended to “establish a means for effective coordination of Federal research and activities in noise control, to authorize the establishment of Federal noise emission standards for products distributed in commerce, and to provide information to the public respecting the noise emission and noise reduction characteristics of such products.”  The Act required the Environmental Protection Agency to carry out a number of activities to educate decision makers and the public, and to prevent harm from excessive noise.

Following the passage of the 1972 Act, there was a burst of activity. In November 1972, EPA announced a major study of airport noise and the development of noise standards for trains and motor carriers in interstate commerce. In its 1974 report, the EPA identified a “24-hour exposure level of 70 decibels as the level of environmental noise which will prevent any measurable hearing loss over a lifetime.”  Similarly, it identified 55 decibels outdoors and 45 decibels indoors as thresholds for interference with activities and annoyance.”

The Quiet Communities Act of 1978 responded to the need for more effective local noise control programs, expanded the public education program, and provided increased funding for technical assistance to the states and local governments. The 1978 Act increased the EPA’s role in helping states to establish noise control programs and providing information about the harmful effects of noise, including psychological and physiological effects of noise on humans and the effects of noise on domestic animals, wildlife, and property.

In 1978, EPA, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Defense, and the Veterans’ Administration formed an Ad Hoc Group on Noise and Land Use, which in 1980 published, Guidelines for Considering Noise in Land Use Planning and Control.

In 1981, the Reagan Administration made a policy decision to shift primary responsibility for noise enforcement to the states. The Office of Noise Abatement and Control which had been established in 1970 under the Clean Air Act, was defunded. Regulatory legal expert Sidney Shapiro discussed the history and implications in his 1991 report to the Administrative Conference of the United State and 1992 article in the Ecology Law Quarterly.

Now, 35 years later, the EPA devotes a web page to noise abatement – and little else. There is no enforcement of existing standards, many of which are outdated and yet preempt local and state efforts to update them. New industries, such as the now ubiquitous lawn maintenance industry, are completely unregulated, exposing the public to noise levels known to be harmful to hearing and health.

Noise is no less a problem now than it was four decades ago. Commercial, residential, and consumer products emitting noise far exceeding safe noise levels have proliferated. Restaurants, movie theaters, fitness centers, and outdoor sports, music, and other public venues routinely expose the public to unsafe levels of noise.

The UW RELP, under the guidance of renowned environmental law scholar William H. Rodgers and Todd A. Wildermuth, Director of the Environmental Law Program at the UW School of Law, will consider the following:

  • The efficacy of petitioning the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Surgeon General, and the National Research Council to update existing findings on noise pollution and its impacts on health.
  • Strategies to reinvigorate enforcement of the Noise Control Act.
  • The applicability of laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and consumer protection laws on noise and on products that emit noise.
  • Ways in which states and municipalities, notwithstanding preemption rules, might be able to take stronger action to protect the public health from the impacts of excessive noise in the absence of federal enforcement.
  • The strategy of developing and advocating for model quiet zone programs in addition to local ordinances and state laws.

Fellow Legal Advisory co-chair Jeanne Kempthorne, J.D. added, “We’re thrilled that this highly respected program will be examining the legal options for restarting our national program to reduce unnecessary harm from noise.”  UW RELP is expected to conclude its work in 2017.

By Jeanne Kempthorne, JD and Rick Reibstein, JD
Founding members, The Quiet Coalition

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