Residents hope for progress against industrial noise

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After years of frustration, scores of homeowners in the region of Covanta’s industrial incinerator in Bristol believe they may be making progress to end a relentless low-frequency noise.

Residents from as far as Southington, Wolcott and Plainville have joined with residents in southern Bristol to focus attention on what they say can be an occasional irritation or a 24-hour-a-day quality-of-life problem.

The Bristol-Burlington Health District has been researching the issue since a flurry of residents complained last fall, and recently deployed sound-measuring devices with stand-mounted microphones at numerous houses in Bristol and at least one in Plainville.

When Lauren Zup posted a photo of the equipment in her home this week, a half-dozen members of the Covanta Noise Complaints group on Facebook cheered. Many said it was a signal that health officials have finally found a way to document exactly what’s happening and pinpoint the source, which they’re convinced is the Covanta trash-to-energy plan.

“They installed it Monday. I’m hoping with the sound study they they’re going to be able to figure it out,” Zup, a Plainville resident, told the Courant on Thursday.

“We moved here two years ago. We heard this noise one day, we thought something was wrong with our house. We even had the HVAC and electrical system looked at. Then I saw somebody posted on Facebook at they kept hearing this humming, buzzing noise,” Zup said.

While she’s buoyed by the prospect that the noise measuring equipment will lead to a resolution, Zup said that the noise abruptly stopped early this week so there’s been nothing to measure.

“We haven’t heard it all week. They wanted to come today to listen to the recording but I told them there’s been no noise,” she said.  “Last weekend we heard it a lot, then some days you don’t hear it at all.”

That’s the same pattern dozens of residents have told Bristol’s city council and the health district’s staff. Many residents speculate that the elevation of each property, wind direction and the burning schedule at Covanta could all be factors in why the sound is persistent for a few days and nights but gone the day afterward.

“When (health district) staff come out at night, the noise levels may not be what they were a couple nights before,” Southington homeowner Francis Pickering said Wednesday when he took the problem to the state Council on Environmental Quality. “It’s the same issue you have with the check engine light in your car: You bring it to the garage and the light goes off, they say ‘we can’t find a problem.’ ”

Pickering told the council that the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection sets the noise limit for plants like Covanta’s when it issues a permit, but state lawmakers decided that ensuring compliance is the job of local towns rather than DEEP.

“The noise levels are set by state permit, but DEEP won’t enforce it. That’s been delegated to local governments,” Pickering told council members. “This results in numerous problems. When you have divided responsibility or accountability, it often leads to finger pointing and nothing gets done.”

Located on Enterprise Drive close to Lake Compounce, Covanta’s plant burns an average of more than 700 tons of garbage a day. The company doesn’t answer specific questions about the noise or its own research into the matter, but has said it will resolve the matter if evidence conclusively shows the source is its incinerator.

The Covanta trash-burning plant in Bristol is in the southern end of town, close to the Southington line. (Don Stacom/The Hartford Courant)
The Covanta trash-burning plant in Bristol is in the southern end of town, close to the Southington line. (Don Stacom/The Hartford Courant)

“Should it be linked to us, we will promptly address and rectify the issue,” the company wrote in a statement last month. “Our operations are conducted in compliance with our permits, and we remain committed to transparently addressing the concerns of our neighbors.”

Pickering asked the Council on Environmental Quality to look into how Connecticut permits are enforced.

“What is the point of state permits if the state is not going to enforce them?,” he asked.

“I understand Covanta has said if they determine the noise is from the facility they will remedy it, although it’s obvious it’s from the facility because you can just stand in front of it and hear it,” he said. “I’m a mile and a half away from the incinerator, I’m not an abutter. It is having quality of life impacts, and residents have reportedly sold their homes or are taking refuge in motels when it becomes too loud.”

The council’s staff said it would do research and present its findings next month.

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