Army to try to curb noise of test firings

November 11, 1994|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

The view from Gerald Curtin's deck on the Kent County waterfront, with bald eagles circling lazily overhead and sailboats skimming the Chesapeake Bay, is magnificent.

"We love being here," said Mr. Curtin, a 72-year-old retired chemical engineer.

But he and other residents, on both shores of the bay, say the incessant booms of the big guns at Aberdeen Proving Ground have rattled their homes and nerves for years.

Now, with a new study of Aberdeen's ordnance testing, the Army says it is working hard to find a middle ground between critical weapons research and residents' desires for some relief from the din.

Though noise from the testing is far from the most worrisome of Aberdeen's problems -- the base has begun an environmental cleanup estimated at $1 billion -- the thundering of tank guns and other weapons is, to some, the most noticeable of its products.

The Army says the study -- the results were discussed publicly for the first time at a meeting in Chestertown last night -- found that the testing is not likely to damage homes, but that there are ways to reduce the noise and do a better job of predicting when it could be annoying or potentially destructive.

Among the findings:

* A sophisticated computer modeling system to predict when noise from large-caliber testing could be excessive -- and help determine when not to test -- is underestimating the noise levels in Eastern Shore communities, particularly in Kent County. The Army says it is seeking money to improve the system.

* A network of 18 remote noise monitoring stations in Baltimore, Cecil, Harford and Kent counties is accurate, but could be improved to discriminate between noise from testing and other sounds, such as wind interference.

* Certain test ranges on the 72,000-acre proving ground generate more noise than others. Larger-caliber tests might be moved from those ranges or muffling devices constructed around them.

The study, which the Army says cost an estimated $500,000, involved measuring noise and vibration levels at eight Kent County homes, including Mr. Curtin's, from late January to late March. Acoustics experts at the Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine at Aberdeen analyzed 85 miles of audiotapes and matched the data to 31,000 "firing events."

Although the study focused on homes in Kent County -- where noise from the testing can be loudest because of weather conditions and topography -- the Army says the findings are valuable for gauging noise throughout the four-county region where the testing can be heard. About 300,000 people live within 15 miles of the proving ground.

Bill Russell, program manager for environmental noise at the Army health center, said officials of the British and Canadian militaries and the U.S. Marine Corps have requested copies of the final report, which the Army hopes to publish by the end of the year.

Some residents, including Mr. Curtin, allege that shock waves generated by 150,000 test firings of larger weapons each year have damaged seals on their windows, cracked walls and jostled computer screens. Some fear that foundations of homes could be damaged over time.

"We are not damaging their homes," Mr. Russell insisted.

Jane Hukill, another Kent resident who has fired back at the Army over its noise, said some people disagree with that finding.

"When you see things rattling [in a home], you have to think that it is causing structural damage," she said.

Regardless, she said, "It doesn't seem to matter to the Army what the emotional trauma is."

Undoubtedly, the Army must find a middle ground if it wants to be a good neighbor. Moving the test facilities, valued at $1 billion, is not practical. Aberdeen, the Army's only temperate region test site of its kind, conducts critical tests on depleted uranium anti-tank munitions and other weapons that were so effective during the Persian Gulf war.

Said Mr. Russell: "We are going to look at changing some ranges to see if we can reduce the noise."

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