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The Wilderness Speaks. Are You Listening? (New NPS video)

Arts, Wildlands No Comments »

The National Park Service is gearing up for next year’s 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.  As part of their celebration, the NPS has just released this wonderful short video highlighting Olympic National Park and its compelling and varied soundscapes.  Fittingly, this production is built around Gordon Hempton’s sound archive; the park is his backyard, and he’s spent countless hours over the past few decades reveling in its sounds.

This is part of a video series, America’s Wilderness, that’s available on YouTube—subscribe to their channel!  And to get a deeper taste of Gordon’s Olympic recordings check him out on iTunes: autumn with elk, cobblestone beach, driftwood log wave resonances, creek from beach to forest.

IMO shipping noise guidelines complete, awaiting approval

Ocean, shipping No Comments »

After a couple of years with no progress to report, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) appears to be nearing completion of “Voluntary Guidelines for the Reduction of Underwater Noise from Commercial Shipping.”  This process began in 2008 with a burst of activity and focus from the US and European IMO representatives, but appeared to languish in recent years (see this earlier AEInews report, with links to key documents).

Ship and Barge2

The effort falls under the purview of the IMO’s Marine Environmental Protection Committee (MEPC), which assigned development of the standards to its sub-committee on Ship Design and Environment (DE).  The DE formed a “drafting group” led by the US, and this group has nearly completed its work, with just one paragraph in the preamble still to be solidified.  At its March 2013 meeting, the DE subcommittee approved the draft guidelines; their next step along the long and winding bureaucratic road will be their submission to the full MEPC at its next meeting, in April 2014.

The draft guidelines are currently not publicly available, but the DE meeting summary notes:

The non-mandatory Guidelines are intended to provide general advice about reduction of underwater noise to designers, shipbuilders and ship operators and consider common technologies and measures that may be relevant for most sectors of the commercial shipping industry. Designers, shipbuilders, and ship operators are encouraged to also consider technologies and operational measures not included in these Guidelines, which may be more appropriate for specific applications.

The guidelines give recommendations on predicting underwater noise levels, such as using underwater noise computational models; standards and references that may be used, including ISO/PAS 17208-1 “Acoustics – Quantities and procedures for description and measurement of underwater sound from ships – Part 1: General requirements for measurements in deep water” (see this ISO press release on these new standards); design considerations; onboard machinery selection and location; additional technologies for existing ships; and operational and maintenance considerations.

Here’s hoping that the MEPC is able to take up the Guidelines at their 2014 meeting as planned, completing this modest first step of encouraging the shipping industry to incorporate noise emissions into the design of new vessels.  The ISO/PAS standards will provide clear guidance for measuring the noise footprint of ships, though the IMO is not ready to suggest or mandate any particular maximum noise levels at this time. See this AEInews post on NOAA’s recent ocean noise mapping project; shipping noise is the predominant human contributor to overall ocean noise levels.

NPS to study how soundscape quality affects park visitors

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Human impacts, News, Science, Wildlands No Comments »

Equipment GRSA squareWEBFor over a decade, the National Park Service has been on the forefront of public lands agencies in addressing the role of sound and noise on both wildlife and park visitors.  NPS’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division has catalyzed baseline acoustic monitoring in seventeen parks, and carried out groundbreaking research on the effects of noise on wildlife.

Now, NPS is planning a national survey on how the quality of park soundscapes affects visitation at national parks, and the economies of gateway communities.  An August 9 Federal Register notice is seeking public comment on the value such a study, with the hope of doing a small-scale pilot survey in 2014, in preparation for the full study in 2015.  The last time NPS sought comments on a similar proposal, they received no public comments and did not proceed.  Now’s the time to chime in, as comments close on September 9.  (Go here, and be sure to note the topics they want input on, and send your comments to both email addresses listed.)

“In addition to parsing out the extent to which visitors value being able to hear the sounds of nature, the study will provide other useful information such as how acoustic conditions affect the likelihood of repeat visitation to national parks,” the agency said in a summary of the survey.  

At a daylong public outreach workshop on Noise in Communities and Natural Areas earlier this month (which I was fortunate to attend), Kurt Fristrup and Frank Turina outlined some of the ongoing soundscape work in parks. Turina described a pilot project at Rocky Mountain National park that uses flashing signs to notify motorcyclists of the noise levels of their bikes (much like instantaneous speed-tracking signs), with the goal of encouraging riders to moderate their noise while enjoying park roads.  Fristrup shared some fascinating research revealing that hikers on the Hermit Trail at the Grand Canyon nearly universally reported lower levels of overall satisfaction with their visitor experience after overflight helicopters start flying each morning. Hikers were asked to rate their experience on a 7-point scale, from Very Pleasant to Very Unpleasant.  Prior to the start of flights, Very Pleasant (7) received was the most chosen rating, with no one choosing the lower Unpleasant to Very Unpleasant ratings of 3, 2, or 1.  After flights began, the graph of responses shifted distinctly toward the less pleasant ratings: the number of people rating their experience at 7 dropped dramatically and the lower ratings, all the way down to 1, joined the mix.

Indiana wind developer sues over 1500ft setback, says zoning chair shouldn’t consider experience with existing wind farm

News, Wind turbines No Comments »

Over the past several months, I’ve been watching with interest an apparently growing concern in farm country about wind farm setbacks.  Several counties in Indiana and Illinois have been moving toward somewhat larger setback requirements after living with a first round of large-scale wind development.

This week, juwi Wind filed a suit challenging recent decisions by the Tipton County Board of Zoning Appeals, which in March approved a conditional use permit for the proposed Prairie Breeze Wind Farm, while requiring a 1500ft setback from non-participating property lines.  The county zoning ordinance requires just 1000ft from non-participating homes, and in July, juwi requested that the permit conditions be changed to 1400ft from non-participating homes and 750ft from non-participating property lines.  juwi claims that their request for this change was summarily rejected by the BZA without the required public hearing at which they could make their case.  (Ed. note: It appears that the conditional use permit has no provisions for easements from landowners willing to live with turbines closer to their homes; the vast majority of turbine locations planned by juwi are closer than 1500ft from neighboring property lines.)

Wildcat 1 SmallIn addition, juwi is making provocative claims that BZA chair Jerry Acres is no longer capable of making an unbiased decision, thanks to comments he’s made suggesting regrets about his support of the Wildcat Wind Farm (left), which began operating early this year and has generated complaints from at least 20 homeowners.  At the March hearing at which the Prairie Breeze conditional use permit was approved, Acres said, “On the E.ON vote (approving the Wildcat Wind Farm), I looked more at the financial gains than probably the long-term losses. I probably didn’t do my homework on E.ON and that’s what I’m saying.”  Acres also said at that meeting that he’s had some personal experience with siting issues, after visiting a friend who lives near Wildcat.  This apparently straightforward response from a public official who is charged with understanding the consequences of his decisions is attacked by juwi; the complaint alleges that “these comments from the Board’s President, Acres, demonstrate that he was not unbiased and objective, and that he improperly injected his personal feelings into the matter, for whatever reason.”

Neighboring Howard County has settled on an increase from 1050ft to 1500ft from non-participating homes, along with a decrease in the noise limit from 55dB to 50dB, as Wildcat Wind Farm moves into Phase 2 and 3. Two other counties have enacted formal or informal bans on wind development; Marshall County formally banned wind farms, and Clinton County passed a non-binding motion to stay windfarm free. “I tell you, it’s not about money, it’s about people with me,” County Commission President Skip Evans said. “It’s about quality of life. It’s about all the citizens of Clinton County, not just those who stand to profit.”  

Meanwhile, Delaware County has paused for two years, waiting to see how recent wind farm developments in the region work out before settling on a development plan.  Tom Green, chair of the city-county plan commission, said in his proposal to pause, “I have noted many changes in policies around the country regarding this issue, some of those changes are a complete reversal of existing policy. Let us not make the same mistakes or reactions in providing guidance for our community.” 

Film features the stories of Fairhaven wind farm neighbors

Health, Human impacts, Wind turbines No Comments »

Fairhaven Film ScreenshotA new film from Fairhaven, MA, features the compelling real-life experiences of several local residents who live close enough to the wind turbines to hear them on a regular basis.  The film, entitled Too Close, has a calm and caring tone, and is free of side-issues that can at times clutter the wind turbine siting debate (e.g., economic or carbon-reduction arguments), and focuses nearly solely on audible noise, with only a brief mention of infrasound.  Also, refreshingly, quality of life (including sleep disruption and intrusion in backyard solitude) is given as much or more attention as more acute health effects, and the film is free of the more alarming/alarmist claims that are featured in some other concerned citizen documents.

The 44-minute film can be viewed here.

There are just a couple of things I would add for context, which may be useful as you consider these stories from a range of “regular” people dealing with this new noise in their local soundscape.  First, though it’s mentioned in passing a couple of times, some of the issues, especially shadow flicker, but also noise for some more distant residents, are more problematic at particular times of year. For the closest residents, it can be daily or near-daily, while at other places, the problems may at times recede from the intensities described here.  When interviewees speak of things that happen “sometimes” or “some days”, it’s not always clear how commonly (how many days a month, hours a day, or months of the year) these experiences occur.

Also, as in every town with noise issues, these hardest-hit residents are a minority of nearby residents.  Surprisingly, few solid surveys exist to help us get a better sense of the proportion more severely affected, but some numbers from Fairhaven offer a sense of it.  There are just over 700 homes within 3000 feet, and residents of at least 56 of these have filed formal complaints; that would represent about 8% of homes, a small proportion, but a significant breadth of impact.  In this video, all or nearly all of the residents live significantly closer (950-2100ft); it’s quite likely that most of the complaints come from this closer zone, and that somewhere between 10-20% of closer homes have complained.  Also, we need to bear in mind that not everyone is comfortable publicly complaining; doubtlessly, more than 56 homes are experiencing issues similar to those discussed here.

A valid question can be raised about how high a proportion of negative impact is acceptable around any new infrastructure or industrial development.  Some will surely argue it’s reasonable to expect to impact 5-10% (or even 20%) of nearby residents, while providing social benefits for many more.  Yet, in a small town, when over 50 families are having their lives disrupted, it can cause a serious rupture in the local social environment; this “tearing the community apart” effect has been stressed in many other locales where noise became an issue.  As reasonable as it may be to suggest that “you can’t please everyone,” it’s also entirely valid for towns to consider the effects on their sense of local community if dozens of homeowners were to become aggrieved at a proposed new development.

All in all, this film provides a credible and compassionate look at the personal side of an issue that is often swept up into polarizing hyperbole and self-serving rhetoric from both sides.