Dirt blasters!

It’s fall, so the urban terrorist devices are at it again

Muriel Strand is a sustainability engineer who loves asking questions that make people stop and think.

Oh no, it’s leaf blower season again!

In the good old days of Sacramento, fall meant changing colors on the trees and looking forward to holiday festivities. Nowadays, fall marks open season on us as we are assaulted repeatedly by leaf blowers, more accurately called dirt blasters. Particularly nerve-racking is the questionable sanity of those who try using them during high winds or heavy rains.

We’re all victims of this urban terrorist device—not just because of the billowing clouds of smoky exhaust and gutter dust containing everything from dog poop to pesticide runoff, but also because of the noise (an orphan form of air pollution) from poorly throttled and muffled two-stroke engines, high-pressure fans and powerful airflows.

Clearly, the persistence of such nuisances implies powerful political-economic forces. Locally, bans were proposed, considered and derailed in 1991, when I was an environmental commissioner, and in 1997, when I was active in Citizens for a Quieter Sacramento. Thus I encountered many interesting facts and observations surrounding an issue which has so far provoked far too much heat and little light.

Dirt-blaster profits go to corporate manufacturers and retailers, and to landscapers, many with spiffy trucks full of underpaid workers and trailers full of equipment. But all the external and unaccounted costs—piercing dissonant whines, eye-stinging dust clouds, oily exhaust, depletion of nonrenewable resources, totally unnecessary contributions to global “weirding”—are inflicted on innocent bystanders. And people with brooms and rakes can’t compete with cheap gasoline nor the pleasingly powerful engines preferred by manly men.

Coincidentally, almost all government protections against noise pollution were disappeared by manly Republicans. President Ronald Reagan wasted no time deep-sixing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s noise-pollution budget, and Gov. Pete Wilson axed California’s program during the recession of the early 1990s. Nowadays, citizens are protected only by poorly enforced local noise ordinances based on the outdated research of vanished state and federal staff. Officials also mistakenly fear increased costs for maintenance and liability insurance against slip-and-falls if dirt blasters are banned.

Some business owners cry the blues, claiming dirt blasters are most cost-effective for tidying pavements and attracting (deaf?) customers. But there are no meaningful engineering comparisons between dirt blasters and any of a wide range of available alternatives, because no one in charge is insisting on any. So on-the-job training keeps teaching newbies that “gardening” means using herds of engines to make tidy parking lots and AstroTurf lawns.

Another inconvenient truth is that gardens don’t like dirt blasters chasing away all their nutritious and water-conserving mulch (mostly just in time for the rainy season) and coating their leaves and airways with choking dust. Besides, if we just quit overwatering and overlandscaping, our yards and towns could be as beautiful as any scenic wilderness.

Sensible public debate and policy has also been derailed by the jobs/class/color political hot potato. No elected official wants to be seen as taking away the jobs of people who are poor and brown and often indigenous farmers driven from their formerly sustainable homelands by our foreign policies. But the dire unemployment predicted on behalf of many of the poorest mow-and-blowers with the noisiest dirt blasters, oldest trucks, and darkest skins is flatly contradicted by the market failure experienced by homeowners seeking nonexistent quiet gardeners.

So while chemical air pollution has been kept at bay, noise pollution has been steadily increasing for years, causing stress, increased medical costs, lower student test scores, etc. To an engineer, noise is wasted energy.

From Harleys to helicopters, it’s everywhere and it can really hurt, or even kill, just as a straw can break the camel’s back. When the market fails, it’s high time for the government (that’s us, folks!) to step in. So let’s get together for quiet peaceful towns, mellow neighbors and happy gardens!