After more than a year of silence, Redondo Beach officials are once again grappling with the problem of noise.
The City Council has asked the city attorney and a citizens committee to suggest ways to improve the city’s regulation of noise from industrial plants, particularly Southern California Edison’s Redondo Beach power station. The Edison plant has been a source of controversy and noise complaints for decades.
City officials have taken Edison to court twice in the last few years for violating the city’s noise ordinance. But the utility was cleared of wrongdoing in both cases after judges said the city’s acoustic readings failed to distinguish Edison’s noise from other noise in the area.
In the year and a half since the city lost its last case against Edison, residents have been virtually unprotected against industrial noise. Soon after the trial, city officials announced they were drafting a new law to regulate noise. But those efforts were put on the back burner because of a change in command in the city attorney’s office.
Now, however, city officials are once again looking for ways to deal with noise--and Edison.
“I don’t have any agenda that Edison is horrible,” Mayor Brad Parton said. “They’ve been here a long time and I think we can come to a solution. But our law needs to be enforceable or we need to get rid of it.”
The Edison plant, 41 acres of oceanfront land just east of King Harbor, uses steam and turbines to generate backup energy for the utility’s power grid. The noise that has gotten the most attention comes from safety valves on gas and steam lines. When pressure builds, the valves open, causing an ear-splitting screech designed to alert Edison workers.
Many residents also complain about a constant whirring noise, which they say sounds like a vacuum cleaner or a plane about to take off. Edison officials say that noise comes from fans that push air into the boilers for combustion.
Just why the city has been unable to successfully prosecute Edison for violating its noise ordinance is a matter of dispute.
Former City Atty. Gordon Phillips said the law itself had technical problems that made it too difficult to enforce. But several members of the city’s 7-year-old citizens committee on noise blame the court defeat on the failure of city officials to take proper noise measurements and to have good expert witnesses in court.
“Nothing went wrong with the existing noise ordinance,” said committee member Bill Wiener, a retired microwave engineer. “It was a case, in my considered opinion, of incompetence on the part of the city.”
The existing noise ordinance, in effect with some modifications since 1976, sets allowable noise levels that are higher during the day than at night. Under the law, noise is measured where it is heard, not where it is generated.
Edison officials say it is unfair to measure noise where it is heard. Instead, they have proposed revamping the law so noise would be measured at its source--in their case, at the power plant’s property line.
“We feel it’s the best measurement of what noise is coming from the plant,” explained Edison area manager Bob Jensen. “It would be easier to enforce, and it’s more fair because (a property line measurement) pins down the actual source of noise and the level of noise coming from that source.”
Several members of the noise committee disagree, pointing out that noise can be amplified hundreds of yards from the source by geographic features and atmospheric conditions. If noise were measured at Edison’s property line, they say, hundreds of residents who now suffer from noise would have no recourse against the power plant.
“In my opinion, the proposed property line ordinance is a farce and totally unacceptable,” said committee member Tom O’Leary, a civic activist and Edison’s fiercest critic. “It totally ignores the impact on victim residents.”
He and other committee members want the city to leave most of the current law intact, but to modify it so that it covers low-frequency noise that is thought to cause property damage. They also want the city to purchase noise-monitoring devices that would make it easier to identify the source of a noise. Such equipment could cost as much as $75,000.
In the last several years, Edison has spent more than $4 million to make its Redondo Beach power plant quieter. The utility recently spent about $250,000 to install mufflers on four of the plant’s 60 to 80 safety valves.
Edison also expects to have a noise cancellation device at the generating plant by the end of the year. The device will generate noise at a frequency that company officials hope will cancel out the whirring noise produced by the fans.
Although Edison’s efforts so far have done little to dampen complaints about noise, utility officials say they are committed to working with the city to solve their noise problem.
“We’re trying to resolve the issue,” said Jensen, the area manager. “We’ll give consideration to any proposal that is enforceable, fair and reasonable.”