Who Is Making All That Noise? -Rick Enser

“It was an act of self-hypnosis, a deliberate drowning of consciousness by means of rhythmic noise.”
George Orwell

“Anything noisy is poorly designed.”
Raymond Loewy


Noise has been one of the prominent topics of debate over the Clear River Energy Center (CREC), so much so that the project’s proponent (Invenergy) devoted 135 pages in their October 2015 application to an assessment of noise.  In that report, much data was presented, analyses conducted, and conclusions drawn (based on the design of the facility as it was then envisioned), all of which needs to be examined by more qualified experts than you and I.  In a nutshell, Invenergy is confident that the noise produced at CREC will not exceed roughly 41 decibels at the nearest residence, the limit established by the Town of Burrillville in its official noise ordinance.

Even the experts will have difficulty analyzing the truth behind these assertions.  The report states that, “noise levels presented in this analysis represent a ‘best estimate’ of operation noise emissions”, but nowhere is it stated what the actual level of noise will be produced by the facility.  Table 13 of the assessment provides a listing of various components of the power plant with their respective decibel ratings (7 components exceed 100 decibels), but there is no clear indication of what the total decibel output will be when multiple components are operating at the same time.  Moreover, there is little mention of the combined noise of CREC and the nearby Spectra compressor station that is already operating.  An accurate figure of the total decibel level produced at the site is critical to understanding how far the effects of noise will be into the surrounding landscape, beyond the actual footprint of the project.


“Soon silence will have passed into legend.  Man has turned his back on silence.  Day after day he invents machines and devises that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation…”
Jean Arp


The Invenergy Noise Assessment only analyzes the impact of noise on humans -, there is no mention of how noise will affect the hundreds of other species that dwell in the surrounding forest, the same forest that Invenergy proposes will be the primary buffer to protect the local human residents from the power plant’s noise.  Surprisingly, there has been little research conducted about the impacts of noise on wildlife.  This lack of knowledge is reflected in a 2013 article published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, entitled:  A framework for understanding noise impacts on wildlife: an urgent conservation priority.


“There are also noisy animals and silent animals, musical and unmusical kinds, but they are mostly noisy about the breeding season.”


The ability to detect sound is a critical part of the lives of many species of animals, especially birds, amphibians, mammals, and insects.  Individuals of the same species communicate by sound, predators rely on sound to detect their prey, and prey relies on acute hearing to evade predation.  These behaviors have been honed over thousands of years in natural environments where the only sounds were those produced by the animals themselves.  Noise can be thought of as any sound that is not naturally produced and therefore inappropriate in a natural situation.  Noise is almost always associated with human development and activity.

Individual animals react differently to noise, depending on the degree to which noise interferes with the sounds that they depend on, but in general noise increases stress in many species, which ultimately leads to reduced fitness and decline.  In short, forest animals will retract as far as they can go into the remaining quiet parts of the forest, until they run out of room.  In Northwest Rhode Island, and across the neighboring borders of Connecticut and Massachusetts, one of the region’s largest tracts of forest supports a significantly high number of species simply because of its size; but the region has already suffered losses of species that even these thousands of acres was not enough.  Humans have already had 300 years to substantially reduce the size and quality of this forest, but what remains is still unique in this part of the world and any further loss of forest acres will result in continued species declines and extirpations.

How does noise fit into this scenario?  As already mentioned, the effects of noise on wild animals is not well understood, but there are a few studies that can attest to the potential for significant impact.  Notable is a Canadian study conducted at gas compressor stations in Alberta (similar in size and design to Spectra’s) that looked at the impact of compressors on breeding bird populations in the surrounding forest.  Results showed that songbird density and pairing success declined as far as 700 meters (nearly ½ mile) from each of the facilities where the average noise level was 55-60 decibels at the source.

How far might we predict the effects of noise to be from a gas-fired power plant producing 2, 3, or more times the level as the Alberta compressor stations?  How might this level of noise also be translated in regards to its impact on echolocating bats, calling frogs, singing insects, migrating birds, to the owl trying to hear a mouse walking in the leaf litter, or the mouse straining to the hear the faint wingbeat of the owl?


“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Aldo Leopold


-Rick Enser

Richard Enser is a teacher, lecturer, author and one of the leading naturalists and foremost expert in Biodiversity in the state of Rhode Island.  After earning a Master of Science degree from URI in 1975, Rick taught natural history and ecology at both the URI W. Alton Jones Environmental Education Center and Johnson & Wales University. Then, in a move that was to shape the majority of his professional career, Rick accepted a position as Botanist (1979), then Coordinator and Botanist (1981) of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management’s (RIDEM) Natural Heritage Program, protecting the state’s native biological diversity through a program of inventory, environmental impact review, restoration and conservation planning. Rick defined, developed, and distinguished that program until he retired in 2006 and now teaches and works as a consultant on biodiversity issues, focusing on how landowners can manage their properties in ways that are most beneficial to preserving biodiversity. He is also past president of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, a consortium of ecologists and naturalists working together to advance scientific knowledge of the state’s biota, ecological communities and environmental resources.

Keep Rhode Island Beautiful

One Comment

  1. Beautifully written cautionary tale. Noise is a very big deal to consider in this proposal. The one thing we know for sure, it won’t get any quieter.

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