Biomass Incinerator Noise a Nightmare to Neighbors
A “continuous roar.” Jet planes “revving” up for takeoff. Being on an “aircraft carrier during operations.” That’s how neighbors of the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center (GREC) describe the noise coming from the 100 megawatt biomass incinerator’s initial test runs.
Air pollution, climate disruption, forest degradation, and water consumption are the most obvious drawbacks of biomass incineration. Yet community members unlucky enough to live in close proximity to biomass power facilities must also endure wood dust, truck traffic, and — most distressingly — noise from the facility itself.
As a rash of taxpayer subsidized biomass incinerators spreads across the U.S., more and more communities — from Gainesville, Florida to Rothschild, Wisconsin — are literally waking up to this unbearable noise.
A “Report to the County Manager Regarding Noise” accompanied an inspection of the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center in September, noting “several sources of noise... of different frequencies, duration and loudness.” These included the “truck/fuel unloading operation, the conveyor systems and reclaimer, the dust collectors, the deaerator vents, the boiler, and the water cooling towers.”
The inspection also described a “high pitched ‘squeaking’” from conveyor belts and a “low pitched constant ‘humming’” thought to be caused by various aspects of the facility.
The World Health Organization list seven health hazards associated with noise pollution from industrial facilities such as GREC: hearing impairment, sleep disturbances, disturbances in mental health, cardiovascular disturbances, interference with spoken communication, impaired task performance, negative social behavior and annoyance reactions.
Gainesville Was Warned
Noise from biomass incinerators isn’t a new issue, but it’s still news to a lot of residents who believed developer promises that they wouldn’t even notice the facility operating in their backyard.
The 27 year old McNeil Generating Station, one of the oldest biomass power incinerators in the U.S. and cited as “the model” for the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, has been the source of numerous noise complaints by Burlington, Vermont residents over the years.
“Impacts of McNeil Station,” a report by Vermont Chapter of the Sierra Club, documented "disturbing noise and vibrations" coming from the incinerator disrupting the neighbors. The information from that report was provided to elected officials in Gainesville and Alachua County, and disseminated through an op-ed in the Gainesville Sun prior to the permitting and construction of GREC.
“Lessons Learned from Existing Biomass Power Plants,” a report written by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2000, noted that the McNeil Generating Station resulted in a number of “neighborhood complaints about odors and noise.” The report concluded that “siting the plant in a residential neighborhood of a small city has caused a number of problems and extra expenses over the years.”
How bad is biomass incinerator noise, really? Bad enough that dozens of retirees in the Turkey Creek neighborhood adjacent to Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, who were hoping to spend their golden years in peace and quiet, are now finding they often can’t get a night’s sleep. Several community members aired their grievances at a Gainesville City Commission meeting on September 19.
“Condemnation without compensation,” is how neighbor Russ Pisano described the situation, suggesting that the noise that keeps him from his legal right of quiet enjoyment of his home is the same as having his property taken away from him.
Meanwhile, a married couple lamented being “shut out of our bedrooms at night due to the extreme noise.”
In an email to Gainesville City Commissioners, Peter Perkins, medical entomologist and Retired Colonel in the U.S. Army, compared the sleep deprivation he has suffered as a result of the incinerator noise as “torture,” a practice that is not legally allowed to be used on “prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.”
“Our Community represents some 1,240 households who will have to change their lifestyles, wear hearing protection, or move to a new community further from this power plant,” wrote Perkins.
Even with double windows sealed tight, Ubaldo Schibuola can’t shut out the sound of the “extremely elevated amount of continuous noise,” including in the middle of the night.
After living in the “quiet” Turkey Creek neighborhood for more than twenty-five years, “with the windows and doors closed we can hear a noise that sounds like a jet engine,” wrote John Kaswinkel. “Now we have to have both additional air and noise pollution.”
Tim Keagy said the incinerator “sounds like a constant distant blow torch with a whine.”
“Sleepless in Alachua,” is how Larry Noegel has signed his communications to elected officials, blaming the City of Gainesville and developers for not warning residents about the noise.
“This continuous roar is terrible!! Please make it stop!!!” wrote Sharon MacNeille. “Property values in this neighborhood will surely drop when buyers hear the noise.”
“As Realtors we are obligated to disclose any problems of this nature to any prospective Buyers,” explained Marianna Kampa, realtor and Turkey Creek resident, “which will make it impossible to sell a home here, and it will decimate our property values and make life miserable for every tax paying homeowner in this area.”
Kampa’s statement is backed up by a report on the impact on property values from nearby incinerators. “The Effect of an Incinerator Siting on Housing Appreciation Rates” explains that “individual housing appreciation rates are affected by the presence of an incinerator.”
“A drop in house values may take place as early as the first rumors of the facility” and the drop can continue throughout the planning, construction, and operation of the incinerator.
“The observed differences in appreciation rates experienced by houses close to the incinerator and those farther away,” reads the report, “indicate that the local housing market has not fully adjusted to the facility, even after 7 years of operation.”
Sound and Fury
The Alachua County Commission decided in early October to “take part in public nuisance litigation if there isn't acceptable progress in reducing in reducing dust and noise” from the facility, which isn’t only impacting Turkey Creek neighbors, but also adjacent county property and workers.
Neighbors have formed an organization, Turkey Creek Homeowners for Environmental Justice, in order to “pursue suits in nuisance and to seek a permanent injunction against the operation of the GREC,” according to a letter to the City Commission written by the group’s President, Russ Pisano.
As a result of the public pressure, GREC has agreed to install “6-inch-thick, 48-foot-long noise-absorbing acoustic panels inside the power plant's stack” by December, though it’s uncertain whether this adaptation will reduce the noise enough for the local community.
At least one Turkey Creek resident isn’t interested in litigation, but another form of justice. “I sincerely wish that all the officials, representatives, etc. who promoted and/or approved the construction of the biomass plant should be bombarded with the same frequency and level of noise pollution that we are experiencing now.”