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Section Three of a seven-part article:
The Dormant Noise Control Act and options to abate noise pollution

B. Noise Abatement During the Period in which the Office of Noise Abatement Control was Functioning

The Noise Act assigns EPA the responsibility to promulgate emissions standards, require product labeling, facilitate the development of low emission products, coordinate federal noise reduction programs, assist local and state abatement efforts, and promote noise education and research. Implementation of governmental programs is difficult (28) and measured against this reality, ONAC accomplished a great deal. Yet, like other health and safety programs, (29) ONAC had both successes and failures. Some of the failures were self-induced, but others can be attributed to forces beyond ONAC'S control. The following section describes EPA's record in meeting its statutory duties.

1. Regulation of Noise Emissions

The NCA authorizes EPA to regulate noise emissions emitted from products distributed in interstate commerce (30) and from interstate railroads (31) and motor carriers. (32) ONAC promulgated several regulations and identified additional sources of noise that it intended to regulate. Although its regulatory output was not high, ONAC'S output was reasonable in light of the constraints under which it operated.

Congress mandated a four step regulatory process for regulating product noise. The first three steps consist of reports that EPA was required to write within short time deadlines. (33) Within 9 months EPA assessed the effects of noise on the public health and welfare, (34) within 12 months it evaluated what levels of abatement were "requisite" to protect public health and welfare, (35) and within 18 months it identified "major" noise sources and "techniques for reducing noise from those sources. (36) The second report, known as the "Levels Document," and called a "landmark treatise" by one commentator, (37) concluded that an adequate margin of safety required persons to be exposed to no more than a yearly average equivalent sound level of 75 dB for an 8 hour day to prevent hearing loss, and an average equivalent sound level of 55 dB to protect against activity interference. (38)

As a fourth step, Congress required EPA to propose initial regulations for each major noise source for which an emission standard was "feasible" within 18 months of its identification and to promulgate a final regulation within 6 months after the proposed regulation.(39) ONAC during its tenure identified ten products for regulation, promulgated four regulations (air compressors, motorcycles, trucks, and truck mounted waste compactors) and proposed two regulations (buses and wheel and crawler tractors). (40) No emissions standards were proposed for four of the products identified as noise sources (pavement breakers, power lawn mowers, rock drills, and truck mounted refrigeration units). (41) For both the proposed and final rules, ONAC habitually missed the statutory deadlines, often by several years. (42)

EPA had similar delays in regulating motor carrier and railroad noise emissions. Congress required EPA to propose emission standards for these noise sources within 9 months and final regulations 6 weeks later. (43) ONAC promulgated one motor carrier standard which was 1 year late. (44) EPA proposed seven railroad emission standards and promulgated five of them. (45) The American Associations of Railroads (AAR) sued EPA after it was 2 years late promulgating the first standard. (46)

Although the D.C. Circuit ordered EPA to promulgate a final regulation for other areas of railroad operations by August 1978, (47) EPA missed the court's deadline by over 2 years. (48)

The statutory deadlines were unrealistic for several reasons. (49) The principle reason was that ONAC faced significant technical problems in developing a regulatory program. (50) ONAC'S efforts were also hampered by insufficient funding and staffing in its early and later years, (51) and by a lack of cooperation from EPA administrators, who were sometimes slow to sign off on clearances needed by the program. (52) For example, ONAC'S standard for interstate buses sat in Douglas Castle's office, EPA's administrator during the Carter administration, for over 1 year and eventually became a victim of Castle's failure to sign off on any agency regulations during his waning days as administrator. After the Reagan administration took office, the bus standard went unattended by the EPA Administrator for another year. (53) In general, EPA managers did not disregard the noise program, and some were supportive of it, but several appeared to regard noise abatement as less important than the agency's other missions. (54) This last sentiment was also present elsewhere in the agency. For example, one of ONAC'S attorneys reports that other EPA attorneys held him in low regard because he was "stuck" representing the noise program. (55)

2. Product Labeling

EPA's second function under the NCA is to mandate labeling for products that emit or reduce noise, (56) but the only labeling regulation ONAC promulgated was for hearing protection devices. (57) The primary reason was that EPA's agenda in noise regulation was dominated by the restrictive legislative deadlines established by Congress for the promulgating of noise regulations. (58)

In addition, a person outside of the agency believes that the leadership in the labeling area was less experienced than in other areas of ONAC. (59)

3. Low-Noise-Emission Products

The NCA also ordered government agencies to purchase "low-noise-emission products" (LNEP), defined as products that emit "significantly" less noise than permitted by an applicable emissions standard. (60) Although ONAC took the preliminary steps necessary to effectuate this aspect of the NCA, (61) the office could not do more because the statute authorized EPA to define an LNEP only after it had promulgated an emissions standard for a product. Since at the time ONAC was abolished, it had promulgated emission limits for only four products, (62) little progress was made in stimulating LNEP purchases by the federal government. ONAC, however, was more active in encouraging states and local governments to purchase quieter products through its "Buy-Quiet" program, described in a later section. (63)

4. Coordination of Noise Reduction Activities

EPA also had the responsibility to coordinate the programs of other federal agencies relating to noise research and noise control. (64) ONAC engaged in a wide variety of efforts pursuant to this responsibility, and while some of its actions have been criticized, its efforts in this area were substantial.

ONAC engaged in various types of activities that related to the noise programs of other federal agencies. It criticized the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) proposed noise protection rule, (65) chaired the interagency task force responsible for implementing President Carter's "Urban Noise Initiative," (66) and published reports describing federal research and other actions concerning noise. (67) One of the most important of these established guidelines for considering noise is land use planning and control. (68) Prior to some of this activity, the General Accounting Office (GAO) gave EPA generally low marks for its interagency coordination efforts. (69)

ONAC also engaged in coordination efforts addressed to private industry and international regulators. Towards the end of its tenure, ONAC worked with professional groups and regulated industries concerning development of consensus standards that both the private sector and the government could use. (70) ONAC personnel also served as part of the United States representation at international meetings concerning noise abatement. (71) ONAC also worked on harmonizing domestic and international regulations to reduce economic dislocations for United States firms operating here and abroad, (72) " including "extensive coordination" with the EEC.(73)

Despite these efforts, there are some complaints that ONAC could have done a better job of domestic and international coordination. For example, a scientist alleges that although there was "effective" communication between the technical community and ONAC during its early years, ONAC subsequently refused to participate in consensus development activities, and disregarded some or all of their consensus standards after they were devised. (74) An industry official alleges that at an ONAC-sponsored workshop, the regulated industries were unanimous about the need for ONAC to work more closely with them in developing goals and incentives for noise abatement, but that ONAC failed to include what industry said when it published a report of the proceedings. (75) And there are complaints that the behavior of an EPA official at an international meeting offended representatives from other countries and harmed EPA's credibility with them. (76)

An EPA official notes that such complaints are common from persons in regulated industries and others who are unhappy when an agency does not accept their recommendations. He also disputes the characterization of what happened at the European meeting and denies that EPA has been disabled from effectively representing the United States. He notes that EPA continues to serve as the representative of the State Department at international conferences and receives invitations to contribute to such conferences in Asia as well as Europe. (77)

EPA's other efforts at coordination concerned the FAA's regulation of airport noise. (78) From December 1974 to October 1976, EPA submitted 11 proposals to FAA concerning aircraft noise. (79) Although the FAA did not accept most of these recommendations, (80) this result may not be a fair measure of their impact. By drawing public attention to the adequacy of FAA regulation of aircraft and airport noise, EPA undoubtedly influenced how the FAA proceeded. Moreover, FAA regulation was based on the scientific and technical work done by the EPA concerning the impact of aircraft noise. (81)

5. Assistance of State and Local Noise Control

Prior to 1978, EPA provided only limited support to state and local noise control efforts, (82) primarily because the NCA assigned the agency only limited responsibilities concerning nonfederal noise abatement. (83) In 1978, after congressional oversight hearings revealed that EPA's original mandate was inadequate to foster state and local initiatives, (84) Congress passed the Quiet Communities Act, (85) which authorized ONAC to create a grants program and offer technical assistance to improve state and local noise abatement. (86)

After receiving this new authority, ONAC embarked on an ambitious and innovative program of supporting local and state governments, which for the most part was well regarded. ONAC offered a limited amount of direct financial assistance to a small number of states and cites, (87) but most of its efforts consisted of technical support such as ten regional technical centers, (88) the ECHO (Each Community Helping Others) program, (89) and over 100 training programs attended by 4,000 noise officials. (90) ONAC also wrote and distributed a model state and local noise ordinance. The former was incorporated by 20 states, (91) while the latter was distributed to over 1200 communities. (92) The model code has received compliments (93) and criticism for being too detailed, impractical, and noncommittal. (94) Concerning these complaints, an EPA official responds that ONAC prepared a 300-page workbook to explain the model ordinance and how it could be tailored to suit the needs of particular cities. (95) Finally, ONAC established a "buy-quiet" program that offered communities model contract specifications for the purchase of low-noise emission products. (96)

6. Noise Education and Research

The NCA also requires EPA to develop and disseminate information and educational materials concerning noise and to sponsor research concerning the effects of noise and the methods by which it can be abated. (97) ONAC was active in both areas, and once again its efforts were for the most part well received.

Beginning in 1976, ONAC'S education efforts included establishing a National Information Center for Quiet, producing public service television announcements, designing and distributing teaching materials to school systems and unions, (98) and publishing 260 technical reports concerning noise abatement. (99) The reports have been praised as being useful to health and engineering professionals, (100) and criticized for being uneven in quality and technical content. (101) EPA also sponsored research projects to investigate potential health dangers posed by noise and techniques to abate noise more effectively. (102)

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This page about the Noise Control Act is part of Section Five:
which is a subset of the Politics of Noise, and the Activist sections of