Federal Noise Law

Excessive noise is not a “new” environmental and public health issue, or only a state or local matter. Federal policy and legislation to reduce public noise levels date back over 50 years to the landmark ecology laws of the early 1970s, which recognized the need to regulate a wide range of unhealthy pollution sources that were rampant at the time, and are still dangerously high.

That legislation enabled the U.S. to reduce historic levels of air and water pollution, but in the early 1980s, Reagan-era conservatives were able to block similar federal efforts to address another form of soaring air pollution — noise — with the result that it is now louder than ever, and Americans have been paying the price with their health ever since.

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Noise Control Act • Quiet Communities Act: 1978 / 2023 • Motor vehicles

1970 Clean Air Act

Under the Clean Air Act, which regulates all forms of air pollution in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was mandated to investigate and study noise and its effects on public health and welfare, coordinate federal noise-control activities, disseminate information to the public regarding noise pollution and its adverse health effects, and evaluate the effectiveness of existing noise-related regulations for protecting the public health and welfare.

Title IV of the Clean Air Act — the Noise Pollution and Abatement Act of 1970 — established the EPA‘s Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) to determine, among other things, “projected growth of noise levels in urban areas through the year 2000” and “effects of sporadic extreme noise … as compared with constant noise,” reduce noise pollution in urban areas, and minimize noise-related impacts and psychological and physiological effects on humans, effects on wildlife and property (including property values), and other noise-related issues.

In 1974, the ONAC published a ‘Model Community Noise Ordinance’ for local governments to modify and adopt as needed. The Reagan administration eliminated ONAC’s funding in the early 1980s, but the EPA still retains all of its statutory authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate noise pollution. A bill to restore its funding is currently pending in Congress.

Motor vehicles

Among the sources of pollution the Clean Air Act authorizes the EPA to regulate are emissions from automobiles, prohibiting “any person to manufacture or sell, or offer to sell, or install, any part or component intended for use with, or as part of, any motor vehicle or motor vehicle engine, where a principal effect of the part or component is to bypass, defeat, or render inoperative any [emissions control] device,” which refers to mufflers.

In other words, it is illegal under federal law to tamper with or replace the original muffler that came with the car in a way that prevents the exhaust system from effectively controlling emissions — including noise. This includes the sensors and software comprising the onboard diagnostics systems (i.e., “re-tuning” the engine). Similar provisions have been incorporated into state laws, but both are inconsistently enforced. [See Clean Air Act § 203(a)(3)(A), 42 U.S.C. § 7522(a)(3)(A)]

The Clean Air Act (CAA) also prohibits manufacturing, selling, offering to sell, or installing parts or components designed to bypass, defeat, or render inoperative any device installed to comply with CAA regulations, when the person doing so knows or should know it will have that effect [see CAA § 203(a)(3)(B), 42 U.S.C. § 7522(a)(3)(B)]. Civil fines for selling or installing emission-control defeat devices can be over $5,000 per device, and dealers can be fined over $5,000 per tampered vehicle.

1972 Noise Control Act

The Noise Control Act established “a national policy to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health and welfare,” and provided specific authority for federal noise abatement and control. (42 U.S.C. 4901 et seq.)

Under the authority of the Noise Control Act, the 1982 Code of Federal Regulations established the rules for both highway and off-road motorcycle exhaust-systems manufactured since 1983. It requires all motorcycles to be equipped with EPA-approved mufflers not just when they leave the factory, but at all times while they are in the United States. It is a violation of federal law to tamper with motorcycle emission-control devices, including those that control their noise emissions (i.e., mufflers).

40 CFR §205.162-2 Tampering With Noise Control System Prohibited

Federal law prohibits the following acts or causing thereof:
(1) The removal or rendering inoperative by any person other than for purposes of maintenance, repair, or replacement, of any device or element of design incorporated into any new vehicle for the purpose of noise control prior to its sale or delivery to the ultimate purchaser or while it is in use, or
(2) The use of the vehicle after such device or element of design has been removed or rendered inoperative by any person.

1978 Quiet Communities Act (QCA)

The QCA amended the 1972 Noise Control Act to establish a nation-wide Quiet Communities Program, which included grants to states, local governments, and regional planning agencies for:

  • Identifying and determining the nature and extent of noise problems
  • Planning, developing, and establishing noise-control capacity (including initial equipment)
  • Developing abatement plans for areas around major stationary sources of noise, including transportation facilities such as airports, highways, and railyards
  • Evaluating techniques for controlling noise and demonstrating the best available techniques in such jurisdiction

The Quiet Communities Act also supported studies and demonstrations to determine the resources and personnel that state and local governments would need to establish and implement effective noise abatement and control programs, and the development of educational and training materials and programs, such as national and regional workshops, to support state and local noise abatement and control programs. (42 U.S.C. 4901; Public Law 95–609; 92 Stat. 3079)

Other federal laws and legal rulings

1989 Supreme Court ruling on NY City noise-control regulations for concerts in Central Park

Writing for the 6–3 majority, Justice Kennedy said that in cases in which expression was not being banned but simply being regulated as to “time, place, and manner,” the Constitution does not require the government to choose the “least-restrictive means available” to do so. In other words, regulating sound levels is not an infringement on free-speech rights.

The Quiet Communities Act of 2023

A U.S. House of Representatives bill (H.R. 4892) to restore funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control, which was de-funded by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. It was first introduced in July 2021 by Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat representing New York‘s 6th Congressional district, a “majority minority” area of Queens. It was referred to the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.

Among the 2021 bill’s co-sponsors were Ruben Gallego (D–AZ), Kaialiʻi Kahele (D–HI), Ted Lieu (D–CA), Joe Neguse (D–CO), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D–DC), Karen Bass (D–CA), and progressives Judy Chu (D–CA), Yvette Clarke (D–NY), Adriano Espaillat (D–NY), Raul Grijalva (D–AZ), Pramila Jayapal (D–WA), Mondaire Jones (D–NY), Barbara Lee (D–CA), Gwen Moore (D–WI), Rashida Tlaib (D–MI), Nydia Velasquez (D–NY), and Frederica Wilson (D–FL).