April 2005

Have you heard the buzz?

By Gail Binkly

Tom Herzog likes the sounds of silence.

That’s why, in 1994, he bought 45 acres on Haycamp Mesa in Montezuma County, land surrounded largely by the San Juan National Forest. His nearest neighbor is 3 miles away.

“I was a renter all my life,” he said. “ I had to put up with lots of noise.”

A carpenter, Herzog built his own home, using cinderblocks in the walls both for protection from wildfires and for additional quiet. “There’s always someone up here with a chainsaw,” he said.

He spent $30,000 to put in solar panels and equipment so he wouldn’t have to run a noisy generator. Then he settled back to enjoy the stillness.

“This is heaven on earth to me,” he said. “People came here all the time and said, ‘This is what silence is’.”

But no more, he said. According to Herzog, on or around Aug. 1, 2004, he woke to a strange low, rumbling noise. It sounded like a motor running in the distance, but it didn’t cease. “By the end of the day, I was thinking, ‘Is somebody driving on my property?’ But there was nobody.”

After 10 days of the continual noise, he thought maybe the nearby Lost Canyon Ranch, a private hunting reserve, was running a motor of some sort. He drove to their driveway and listened, but the noise sounded no louder.

One night at 2 a.m., frantic to find the source, he got up and started driving. “ I drove 20 miles in all directions, but it sounded the same,” Herzog said. Finally, in speaking to San Juan National Forest officials, he learned that a new compressor station on Mancos Hill, 13 miles away, had started operating Aug. 1.

The compressor station was built to provide extra transmission capacity for a natural-gas pipeline owned by TransColorado Gas Transmission Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Kinder Morgan Inc. As part of the same project, TransColorado also built new compressor stations in Montrose and Mesa counties and upgraded existing stations in Dolores and Montrose counties.

The pipeline extends from Rio Blanco County, Colo., to a point in San Juan County, N.M., where it connects with various other pipelines. Herzog is convinced the compressor station or the extra volume of gas is somehow causing the noise. He says it’s too much of a coincidence that the station went on-line at the same time he began hearing the sound.

Kinder Morgan officials, however, are equally adamant that their pipelines and facilities cannot possibly be the source.

“In the area he’s concerned about, our pipeline is under ground the entire way,” said Doug Schminke, Western Slope operations manager for Kinder Morgan.

And extensive noise-abatement technology was used in constructing the Mancos compressor station, he said.

“We go to extreme measures to mitigate sound. The technology is available.”

‘Peaceful and serene’

The Mancos compressor station caused controversy when it was proposed at the Mancos Hill site where it now sits. A number of neighbors came to voice concerns about many issues, including noise.

But Kinder-Morgan took extensive measures to keep the noise level low, Schminke said.

“We engineer numerous methods to reduce the overall sound,” he said. Such methods include burying the pipeline instead of having it above ground, using heavily insulated berms to house the compressors, installing special, quiet fan blades on the cooling towers, insulating the exhaust piping, and putting a hospital-grade silencer/ exhaust muffler on all the units.

Sound-level surveys are taken before and after a station is built, Schminke said, to make sure the noise level is acceptable.

“Mancos is an extremely quiet facility,” he said.

Patrick McCoy, land and minerals forester with the San Juan National Forest, agrees. He was responsible for overseeing the construction of the compressor station, and he believes every measure was taken to keep it quiet.

He pointed out that the Mancos station is 13 miles away from Herzog’s home and that people living much closer to it have not complained of the noise.

“He’s the only person that has brought this issue to us,” McCoy said, adding that he has visited Herzog on Haycamp Mesa and could hear nothing amiss.

“I was out there in October and November. To me it’s peaceful, serene,” he said. “Sometimes you hear the wind or a vehicle on 184.”

Travels a long way

But Herzog maintains there is a low humming noise that sometimes increases or decreases in intensity but is always present, a maddening background sound. He speculated that it may not be the compressor station that is causing it, but the pipeline itself with the increased volume of natural gas moving through it.

Before August, according to McCoy, the pipeline handled 300 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. The three new compressor stations increased the capacity to 425 million cf per day.

But according to Schminke, the Mancos compressor station wasn’t even operating for much of March because maintenance work was being done at the site.

Herzog argues that might not matter because, as part of the overall project, TransColorado upgraded other stations northward on the pipeline, thus ensuring that a high volume of gas might still be moving. But Schminke said the volume of gas moved is seasonal, increasing only when demand is high.

Lisa Sumi, research director with the non-profit Oil and Gas Accountability Project in Durango, said there isn’t a lot of research specific to noise made by oil and gas facilities. But literature she has read does indicate that a turbulence “ can get set up in a pipeline which can create a low-frequency noise,” she said.

Likewise, although concrete information on the distances noise can travel is hard to come by, it’s known that low frequency noises – the kind often emitted by compressor stations or possibly pipelines – can travel a long way.

“Noise can travel significant distances, especially low-frequency noise,” she said. “At higher frequencies the ground or trees can act as barriers or can absorb those frequencies but low frequencies tend to be able to travel unabated. The types of distances he’s dealing with I don’t think are unheard of.”

Buildings can also take sound waves and re-emit them as a vibration, Sumi said. At night the noise tends to be worse.

She said landowners in areas around Durango, where there is considerable oil and gas extraction, have complained of low-frequency noise they describe as like an engine running in the distance, a hum or a throbbing. McCoy admitted it was theoretically possible the pipeline’s vibration was resonating through a geologic formation, but he considers it highly unlikely.

The Taos hum

Part of the problem is that noise is highly subjective. One person may not hear his own dogs yapping outside, while his neighbor may be nearly driven to violence by the sound. A rumbling semi may seem soothing to a truck driver but could keep people a half-mile away from sleeping.

Furthermore, many people hear noises that arise within their own ears, a condition known as tinnitus. And there’s always the power of suggestion — when someone learns about a noise, he may think he hears it too.

A phenomenon called the “Taos hum,” after the New Mexico city where it was first publicized, exists worldwide, involving many otherwise normal people who hear a low-frequency rumble that nearly drives them crazy.

According to information on the Internet, one man in England took to sleeping on a park bench instead of in his comfortable home because that was the only place he didn’t hear the noise. His wife, on the other hand, was unaffected.

Some experts speculate that certain people just hear low frequencies better than others and can be bothered by sounds that seem nonexistent to the majority of the populace.

Herzog insists that the noise he hears isn’t subtle. “The whole forest is humming like a truck stop,” he said, adding that he experiences the sound even in Rico and Cortez.

Schminke firmly denies the pipeline could produce such noise. “I can assure you that you couldn’t hear our facilities in either of those places,” he said.

Herzog was encouraged recently when he saw an advertisement in a local paper asking if anyone else heard a rumbling in the Cortez area. He contacted the man who had placed the ad, Jim Black of Cortez.

Black told the Free Press he has heard the noise since some time in 2004. At first, his grown children commented while visiting that “your refrigerator runs all the time,” but when that proved not to be true, he investigated further.

After being scoffed at by people with various phone companies, he said, he persuaded Empire Electric technicians to check the sound. They replaced a nearby transformer they thought might be faulty, but that hasn’t eliminated the problem, which so far remains a mystery, Black said.

He isn’t convinced the noise is the same one that Herzog hears. Black said an expert has told him the sound is only 10 to 14 decibels and very low frequency. However, its omnipresence bothers him.

“It just gnaws on you after awhile,” he said. “I sleep with earplugs.”

A trade-off?

Herzog has complained to the EPA, the state oil and gas commission, the Public Utilities Commission, even the U.S. Department of Transportation, all to no avail. He said his nearest neighbors don’t hear the noise, but other people who have visited the area, including his friends and some ranchers moving cattle onto grazing tracts, said they could hear it.

“I don’t know why it’s assumed that if you hear a sound you’re a kook,” he said.

Kinder Morgan officials and the Forest Service’s McCoy said they have done all they can to investigate Herzog’s complaint.

“No one other than Mr. Herzog has come forth,” McCoy said. “I don’t want to spend a lot of taxpayer money on something if only one person hears it.”

But Sumi said even one individual’s complaint can be legitimate.

“We all have different sensitivities, so some people may hear it and others may not, even in the same household,” Sumi said. “It’s really easy to look at individual landowners who are experiencing problems and say, oh, they’re just sensitive, they’re a bit wacky, but I do think this is a serious issue that we’re only going to experience more now that the oil and gas industries are moving closer to where people live.”

Black’s experience echoes that; he said some visitors to his house hear the humming, while others don’t. One thing is clear: Noise is everywhere in our society, and the hardest noises to deal with are those that can’t be traced to their source.

Schminke noted that, as the world grows more crowded, the potential increases for intrusive noise from a multitude of sources, but that may be a necessary component of our hightech lifestyles.

“We have more and more vehicles traveling the highways, more and more industries and mills manufacturing products, even entertainment facilities that add to the overall background noise,” he said. “It’s just a trade-off we have to recognize to enjoy the comfort that we do today.”

Reporter’s note: The reader may be wondering whether I heard the rumbling Mr. Herzog is talking about on Haycamp Mesa. The answer is yes, though I don’t find it to be as loud as he does. If anyone also hears the noise, he asks that you e-mail freepress@fone.net.