Many, many years ago, when I was a staff lawyer at EPA headquarters, my duties included advising the program that implemented and enforced the Noise Control Act of 1972. My last involvement, though, was to help dismantle the program. In one of the more curious footnotes to the deregulatory wave that swept EPA in the early years of the Reagan administration, EPA axed the program – sort of. Leaving behind a regulatory ghost town, EPA revised its noise regulations to leave standing the bare structure of federally preemptive rules, while clearing the building of its regulatory and enforcement staff. In effect, EPA took itself out of the picture, morphing the noise regulations into a self-certification program for manufacturers.
And there, in 40 CFR Parts 201 through 211, the rules have resided (quietly) for the last 34 years – noise standards for rail equipment, trucks, and portable air compressors, as well as labeling requirements for hearing protectors. (But not garbage trucks. EPA promulgated final noise standards for those, but revoked the regulations on the eve of the DC Circuit argument in which EPA was to defend the rule. Think about that next time you hear the hydraulics whining outside your bedroom window at 5:00 a.m.)
Ah, but did the noise program really end? As one of my EPA supervisors quipped at the time, the noise program is like a spider you’ve stepped on: you think it’s dead, but then its leg starts twitching. Today’s twitch comes from the New York congressional delegation, specifically Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY), whose district lies in the flight path of LaGuardia Airport, and New York’s democratic senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Together, they have introduced “The Quiet Communities Act of 2016.” The bills (H.R.3384 and S.3197) would bring back EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control. The legislation focuses on aircraft noise (regulation of which has, since the early 1980s, rested solely in the hands of the FAA), and it’s fairly modest in scope, authorizing a program of studies and grants, not a return to command-and-control regulatory efforts. However, both bills include a charge to EPA to “assess the effectiveness of the Noise Control Act of 1972” – kind of like checking on the Betamax hiding in your garage closet.
Let’s not get carried away by the imminent descent of the “cone of silence” over our nation, though: www.govtrack.us gives the legislation a 2 percent chance of being enacted. But hey, you never know. All eyes on the spider!