More than 40 years have passed since EPA’s noise regulation program was silenced by a Reagan-era rollback.
It’s time to start again, in the view of an advocacy group that accuses the agency of turning its back on a major peril.
In a slowly escalating campaign that includes meetings with top EPA appointees and a recent lawsuit threat, Massachusetts-based Quiet Communities Inc. aims to revive what was once a bedrock function of the Office of Air and Radiation. Should the group prevail, it would mark a rare, if not unprecedented, achievement in pushing the agency back into a previously abandoned regulatory sphere.
“The science shows the health of more than 100 million Americans is at risk from exposure to excessive noise — for hearing damage, cardiovascular disease, psychological disorders, and other serious adverse health impacts,” the group wrote in a March letter officially notifying EPA of its plans to sue.
The problem is only getting worse, the letter suggests, and highlights research indicating that people of color and low-income neighborhoods are disproportionately vulnerable. With ear-pounding sources that range from gasoline-powered leaf blowers to crypto mining, the group adds, “individuals and communities continue to suffer from the noise of nationally sold products that Congress otherwise intended be controlled on a uniform, nationwide basis.”
There’s no sign, however, that EPA is eager to regain a responsibility that could require millions of dollars in new spending and open a fresh line of attack for critics alleging federal overreach.
Under then-Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency never replied to a 2017 petition seeking resumed enforcement of the 1972 Noise Control Act, according to Quiet Communities. During the Biden administration, the group has met with top air office staffers, including acting chief Joseph Goffman — thus far, to no avail.
“While Mr. Goffman expressed sympathy with our concerns, he made no commitments to reinstating the noise control program,” the letter says.
According to an EPA website, the agency is usually the first line of contact for questions regarding noise pollution. But it adds that “roles have shifted,” with state and local governments now often responsible for responding.
Asked for more information on EPA’s current work in that arena, a spokesperson this month pointed to the possibility of litigation in declining to comment.
Because the mandatory 60-day window for advance notice of an upcoming lawsuit expired last week, Quiet Communities is now free to bring litigation at any time. In an email, Sanne Knudsen, a University of Washington law professor representing the group, said that EPA never replied to its March letter. Without specifying a date, Knudsen indicated that a suit is in the works over the agency’s “total failure to carry out the commands of the Noise Control Act for forty years.”
By a traditional definition used by EPA, noise is an “unwanted or disturbing sound.” Congress’ attempt to confront the cacophony of everyday life was part of the landmark wave of environmental legislation that crested in the early 1970s and also gave life to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Under the Noise Control Act, lawmakers concluded that “inadequately controlled noise presents a growing danger to the health and welfare of the Nation’s population, particularly in urban areas.”
With some exceptions, the law put EPA at the regulatory forefront, with authority to set standards for construction equipment and other major sources.
Among the sectors eventually covered by new limits were aircraft, motorcycles and rail switching yards, recalled David Hawkins, who headed what was then EPA’s Office of Air, Noise and Radiation from 1977 to 1981. But motorcycle enthusiasts “were freaked out,” said Hawkins, now a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He added that setting aircraft standards was difficult because it meant consulting with the Federal Aviation Administration, which had the lead, and the FAA “typically took” industry’s side.
A bureaucracy gone berserk?
The noise office was relatively small, with a $12 million budget and about 100 employees at one point, according to Quiet Communities. A 1979 report stressed the importance of working with state and local officials; the office’s other tasks included noise effects research and creation of a volunteer noise counselor program to help resolve community-level complaints.
But the program lacked “strong political allies,” law professor Sidney Shapiro later wrote in a retrospective study that fingered a bid to dampen garbage truck noise as a key factor in its demise. The rule required trucks to run their engines more slowly when they compacted trash, with almost 20 million city dwellers and suburbanites expected to benefit from the reduced din.
Besides garbage haulers, local noise administrators and White House staff were opposed, according to Shapiro’s study. James Kilpatrick, a conservative newspaper columnist of the day, slammed the regulations as “one more instance of a bureaucracy gone berserk.” Amid the public hubbub, Shapiro wrote, the noise office was discredited.
in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, taking office early the next year with an inaugural declaration that “government is the problem.” Soon after, Chuck Elkins, the noise office’s director, was told that the White House had decided to end funding. Congress acquiesced. Noise office employees dispersed to other jobs. The garbage truck standards were eventually scrapped.
But the Noise Control Act remained on the books.
“EPA is caught in this bind that they were still legally required to carry out the act, but they haven’t had anybody working on it in such a long time,” Shapiro, now on the law faculty at Wake Forest University, said in an interview this week. “This is so unusual.”
Both Shapiro and Elkins are now advising Quiet Communities in its efforts to revive the noise control program. In an email late last week, Elkins, now retired from EPA, said he was traveling on vacation and not in a position to speak. In a letter last year, however, he and other advocates urged Goffman to pump some $18 million into EPA’s fiscal 2024 budget request for the proposed restart, with the money to be spent on updates to key technical documents, enforcement of existing regulations and support for community noise reduction efforts.
The letter’s signers also included Shapiro; Joel Mintz, a former EPA attorney; and, Jamie Banks, the president of Quiet Communities, whose website describes its purpose as helping “to find solutions to problems of harmful noise and pollution affecting communities.”
A cut of just 5 decibels in environmental noise levels could save almost $4 billion annually by reducing the prevalence of hypertension and heart disease, they wrote. A noise office revival would also deliver “environmental justice benefits.”
Their letter was made public by Protect the Public’s Trust, a conservative watchdog group, which obtained it though an open records act request. The correspondence does not reflect an EPA response, but the Biden administration’s $12 billion fiscal 2024 budget request for EPA, released in March, contains no money for noise control.
Among those now rooting for a turnaround is Hawkins, who predicted that noise regulations would bring spillover effects. Setting standards for gasoline-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers, for example, would probably hasten the shift to electric models, “which would be good for the climate, as well,” he said.
“I think it’s a great initiative, and I hope they succeed.”
Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.