Port pile-driving project hits foul note with neighbors

Pinging sounds produced by a pile-driving project on the Tacoma Tideflats is driving some Tacomans "nuts."
By
Up Next
Pinging sounds produced by a pile-driving project on the Tacoma Tideflats is driving some Tacomans "nuts."
By

Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Ping, ping, ping. We found out what’s making that noise in Tacoma

January 20, 2017 08:00 AM

You’re not crazy, Tacoma.

You really have been hearing things.

For the past several weeks — at least — residents in Northeast Tacoma, downtown, the North End, Hilltop and even Central Tacoma have been, to varying degrees, perplexed and perturbed, wondering what on Earth is causing the mysterious rhythmic noise that has invaded our city, disrupting sleep and distressing ears.

The strange sound, audible from early in the morning until late at night, has inspired plenty of theories, many of them available on Reddit. Is it a foghorn? The work of unearthly beings? A covert military operation? Some sort of sonic torture targeted at the unsuspecting denizens of the City of Destiny?

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The more we heard, the more the peculiar pinging started to eat at us.

In short order, it became one of the paper’s top investigative priorities.

The strange sound, audible from early in the morning until late at night, has inspired plenty of theories, many of them available on Reddit. Is it a foghorn? The work of unearthly beings? A covert military operation? Some sort of sonic torture targeted at the unsuspecting denizens of the City of Destiny?

And for good reason. As one Central Tacoma resident emailed me this week, “The more time that goes by without an explanation, the more plausible ‘nefarious government mind-control experiment’ sounds.”

What’s causing the noise in question? Getting a definitive answer proved more difficult than anticipated, due in large part to the inherent challenge of describing mystery noises to unsuspecting communications flaks over the phone.

Me: “It’s not really a ding, more like a ping …”

Flak: *silence*

It’s here that Andy Buelow, executive director of Symphony Tacoma, proved useful. Buelow became mildly fascinated by the curious tone, which he described on Facebook as a “tapping” coming from the Port of Tacoma.

Using his musical background, Buelow got to work, identifying the noise as a “weird little quarter tone” that’s “halfway between the G and the A-flat above middle C.”

He went on to write that “it’s driving me NUTS.”

“I was being a little facetious,” Buelow explained of his Facebook post, which quickly reverberated with Tacomans searching for answers. “I hear noises all the time. And although I don’t play a lot of music anymore, I’m a musician. I’ll often hear something and I’ll immediately be figuring out what pitch it is.

“This one I just kept hearing.”

We’re right there with you, Andy.

I hear noises all the time. And although I don’t play a lot of music anymore, I’m a musician. I’ll often hear something and I’ll immediately be figuring out what pitch it is. … This one I just kept hearing.

Andy Buelow, executive director of Tacoma Symphony

In identifying the note, Buelow might have inadvertently helped to explain one of the reasons why the percussive “tapping” has been so captivating to much of Grit City.

He says a quarter-tone is a type of microtone, which cannot be completely re-created on a standard tuned piano. Playing the note accurately, which Buelow did for The News Tribune on Thursday from his apartment overlooking the Port of Tacoma, required a synthesizer.

According to Buelow, microtones are largely foreign to the Western ear. While they’re common in other cultures, and especially Indian music, Buelow says use of microtones in Western cultures has mostly been the domain of experimental efforts, going back to the 1950s and ’60s, and composers “looking for interesting and exotic sounds.”

“It sounds unusual, because our ears have gotten used to several hundred years of the equal temperament system, the way notes are tuned on a conventional piano, and before that the harpsichord,” he said.

Now I was getting somewhere.

The big break in the investigation, however, came from where they so often do these days — the internet. It’s here that one will find a Change.org petition that identified the noise as emanating from pile-driving work at Pier 4 in the Port of Tacoma. It states that “the granting of this permit has caused the surrounding residents a decrease in quality of life due to the excessive noise levels and extended operating hours of construction.”

According to the petition, which has more than 200 online signatures, the city of Tacoma granted a noise variance permit in December for pile-driving work associated with the ongoing expansion of Pier 4. The project will allow the Husky Terminal dock to berth larger ships and accommodate larger cranes.

The variance allows the company responsible for the $144 million reconfiguration, and the rebuilding of Pier 4, to pile-drive from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., seven days a week.

That’s precisely the timeframe that has generated most complaints about the mysterious noise. The petition calls for work at Pier 4 to be limited to normal construction hours (7 a.m.- 9 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. on weekends and holidays), and additional sound reduction efforts and audits to make sure the work is in compliance.

“The noise is so irritating and goes for way too long. There needs to be a cap on hours,” reads one of the many responses to the petition.

People haven’t been voicing frustration just online. Lisa Wojtanowicz with Tacoma’s department of Neighborhood and Community Services, the office that granted the noise variance, confirmed that the noise was related to construction at Pier 4 and told me “There have been numerous concerns passed along to the city.”

She said some residents had reported hearing the noise outside of the allowed hours, and while she believes the work is adhering to the conditions set forth in the variance, the city plans to “send some people down before 6 a.m. and after 10 p.m. to take a few readings and see what we find.”

To better understand exactly what we’re facing, I reached out to Tara Mattina, spokeswoman for the Northwest Seaport Alliance. After some initial confusion, I was able to characterize the noise in question as a rhythmic pinging, audible throughout much of the northern parts of the city between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., and she concluded that what I described “sounds like our project.”

If you’ve ever remodeled a house, it’s really inconvenient while you’re remodeling, and you just kind of have to focus on the fact that it’s going to be worth it in the end. … These jobs are pretty important to the state’s economy.

Tara Mattina, spokeswoman for the Northwest Seaport Alliance

Mattina says the work at Pier 4 — which is on the west side of the Blair Waterway and at the north end of the peninsula, and will involve the driving of 1,241 piles — is important because it will allow the port to align Pier 3 and Pier 4 to serve the increasingly larger ships that the industry is moving toward. She says the construction project was approved in April, and work started shortly thereafter.

When asked about residents’ concerns about the sound, Mattina noted the important role trade plays in the state’s economy.

“If you’ve ever remodeled a house, it’s really inconvenient while you’re remodeling, and you just kind of have to focus on the fact that it’s going to be worth it in the end.”

“These jobs are pretty important to the state’s economy,” she said.

So when will it end? As it turns out, the annual fish migration season, which runs from February until July and prevents in-water work without an Environmental Protection Agency permit, will soon soothe the ears of Tacoma.

At least temporarily. Mattina says pile-driving is expected to resume in July, and the project isn’t expected to be completed until 2018.

But if the company expanding Pier 4 wants to work the extra hours once pile-driving resumes? It will have to seek an extension from the city.