2013-09-26 / News

One resident’s fight again the Castle Hill Light horn

By Ken Shane

The Castle Hill Light features a horn that has annoyed Beavertail residents for years. Brad Whitman, a former environmental lawyer, has taken steps to quiet the signal. 
Courtesy/U.S. Coast Guard The Castle Hill Light features a horn that has annoyed Beavertail residents for years. Brad Whitman, a former environmental lawyer, has taken steps to quiet the signal. Courtesy/U.S. Coast Guard The United States Coast Guard station at Castle Hill stands directly across the West Passage of Narragansett Bay from the homes of Jamestown residents who live along Beavertail Road.

One of the station’s features is a horn that is supposed to warn approaching mariners of potential hazards in inclement conditions. And therein lies a problem.

Brad Whitman is one of those Beavertail residents. Whitman worked as an environmental lawyer for 32 years. His career included a stint at the U.S. Justice Department where he represented eco-friendly organizations like the U.S. Environment Protection Agency and the Coast Guard in federal court.

Whitman built his house in 1980. As the years went by, he became increasingly upset by the noise. The horn only went off in foggy conditions, but the sound was so penetrating that it made life unpleasant in the Whitman house.

“It was so obviously unnecessary because we have so many horns around,” Whitford said. “Castle Hill by itself presents no major obstacle to mariners. It’s simply a bump in the land where the Coast Guard has had its station for generations, but it’s not like Beavertail, which we all assume has to have a lot of protection.”

Whitman and his family put up with the noise for many years, but things went from bad to worse about five years ago. That’s when Whitman started to realize the horn was going off at random with no relationship to the weather. The blaring noise caused Whitman to go out and purchase expensive sound-blocking windows. He installed white-noise machines in his house, and even wore earplugs.

Nothing seemed to help.

Whitman spoke to an aunt who lived down the road. She agreed that the sound had been upsetting for years. That’s when he decided to take action.

In the summer of 2012, Whitman wrote a letter to a Coast Guard admiral in Boston who is responsible for the New England district. The letter was copied to the Coast Guard’s public affairs division in Washington, as well as Congressman David Cicilline, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Save The Bay.

“I was an environmental lawyer in Washington during the time that all of these laws were enacted,” Whitman said. “The noise-control act was one of the early ones in the 1970s but was abandoned more or less during the Reagan administration and nobody has ever done anything with it.”

According to Whitman, the original federal noise-control laws were enacted because the sound from airplanes during takeoff massively impacted people in certain areas.

These days, Whitman said, airplanes are one of the quietest modes of transportation.

Whitman got an immediate response from Cicilline, who offered his help on the issue. The congressman said he would contact the Coast Guard to see what could be done. Another rapid response came from the Coast Guard in Boston. The letter acknowledged the horn was being activated during times of perfectly clear weather. Officials said there was something wrong the device.

“I was happy there was some action,” Whitman said.

Next Whitman got another letter from the Coast Guard saying they wanted to make a change so the horn would only be activated by a radio signal. That type of change requires a public notice and the Coast Guard was prepared to issue one. The signal would be controlled via a transmitter at Hog Island. Mariners approaching in bad weather would be given a frequency that would allow them to activate the horn. Once activated, the horn would stay on for 45 minutes.

“That sounded perfectly reasonable as a fallback,” Whitman said. “I didn’t know if they should have the horn there anyway because they’re well covered at Brenton Reef and the rest of the locations. In any event, I said I would go with it.”

So it seemed that Whitman’s problem would soon be resolved. There was a public notice. Then a formal notice was issued, saying the change was going to be made.

The only thing is, nothing ever happened. In March, Whitman, who divides his time between Jamestown and Philadelphia, came to his Jamestown house and discovered the horn was still blaring regularly for no apparent reason.

More calls to the Coast Guard were placed. The explanation was there was difficulty in acquiring the equipment necessary to make the renovations. Whitman was worried that budget concerns would be used as an excuse not to do the work.

“They know perfectly well that this thing is not going to break the budget,” Whitman said. “Furthermore, they were already committed to do it because they’d issued the public notice and said they were going to do it.”

The Coast Guard acknowledged Whitman’s assessment was accurate and once again said they were going to do the work. Whitman returned to Philadelphia and returned at the beginning of the summer. The problem was still not solved. There was another call to the Coast Guard. Whitman was told the new unit would be installed the next day. It was just in time – he was planning a family reunion at his house and expected 42 guests.

The work was done the following day as promised, and the constant blaring stopped. The horn began going off only in foggy weather. It seemed the long nightmare was over.

But that proved not to be the case. Later in the summer, Whitman began to hear the horn blaring again when the weather was clear. The Coast Guard said they had no knowledge of the horn going off at inappropriate times. The problem continues to this day, although it is not nearly as bad as it used to be.

Whitman speculates mariners may be using the frequency to activate the horn unnecessarily as a way to show off, or just out of curiosity.

“I feel that we’ve made a lot of progress,” Whitman said. “I don’t understand why it’s not fully what they said, but it’s an example of how you just have to stay on something.”

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