FBI Terrorist Screening Center, Vienna, Virginia
In an otherwise quaint community just outside of Washington D.C., noise emanating from an unmarked three-story office building is driving the residents of Vienna, Virginia to distraction. For almost two years the building has been subjecting the Vienna community to a loud, high-pitched noise caused by 23 industrial rooftop air-conditioning units, which residents compare to the sound of a helicopter hovering a block away, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
It just doesn’t stop.
The building’s only tenant is the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. Here agents gather sensitive national security data like no-fly lists. The building houses tons of high tech computing instruments, and to protect the equipment it needs to be kept cool, 24/7.
The noise is coming from 23 “dry cooler” air-conditioning units that run non-stop on the building’s roof. Each unit has 10 high velocity fans – that means 230 high-velocity fans are filling the community with their high velocity fan noise morning, noon and night. The noise is not so loud that it interferes with conversation, but it is loud enough and annoying enough to have locals at their wits’ end. After two years, promises to fix the noise problem have gone unfulfilled, meaning residents’ vulnerability to noise-related health problems has gone unresolved.
One neighbor, Jeff Lewis, told a Washington Post reporter that the “hellish unending noise” is a constant outside his home’s windows. Another neighbor, Ken Foley, says the noise penetrates his home’s double pane windows. Even his air conditioning unit turned up full blast doesn’t drown out the sound. Foley has been asking for help with the noise problem since August, 2010.
Before the FBI moved in, the building on Follin Lane was occupied by the CIA. They were quiet, according to the neighbors. The CIA moved out of the 200,000 square foot building years ago and the building was bought by a Bethseda-based company called Goldstar Group and Chicago-based Transwestern Commercial Services $25 million in 2005. When Goldstar took possession of the building and its 18-acre adjacent property, it told Vienna it would be a good neighbor.
Vienna says they have been anything but a good neighbor.
Although the noise problem didn’t start until 2010, it was in 2007 that the FBI decided to move its Terrorist Screening Center to the property and call it Liberty Park. And here is where it gets really crazy.
The building was gutted and rebuilt prior to the FBI taking occupancy in the fall of 2010. In August of 2010, those 23 air conditioning units were installed on the roof and the noise was immediate and alarming when they were first fired up. Local residents immediately began complaining to town officials, and the Vienna planning and zoning director issued a “modified stop work order” on the building – they were ordered to stop working between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. Nights when the noise continued after 8 p.m., police would be called to the site, and only then would the air conditioning units be shut down for the night.
At first Vienna officials denied the FBI an occupancy permit because of the air conditioners’ noise, but Goldstar, the FBI and the General Services Administration (GSA) - the federal agency that helps manage and support the basic functioning of federal agencies - promised the town that if the FBI could have the occupancy permit and move in, these three offices would work diligently to correct the noise problem. Town leaders believed what they were told – I mean, it is the FBI we’re talking about here, what could go wrong? So, the occupancy permit was issued in November 2010.
Since air conditioning isn’t a necessity in the D.C. come November, the noise had thinned. But by spring 2011 those 23 air conditioning units were fired up again and the noise pervaded the community night and day. Adding insult to injury, once Goldstar had their occupancy license in hand, the 8 p.m. – 7 a.m. stop work order was nothing but a distant memory. Pleas to Goldstar, the GSA and the FBI to make it stop did not make it stop. It still hasn’t stopped.
In November 2011, Goldstar promised Vienna that a noise absorbing solution would be installed around the roof units. Of course, by then another winter was rolling in and the units were shut down. Spring 2012 turned into a repeat of spring 2011, with more stalling from the building’s owner, more decibel testing by Vienna officials, and more outrage pouring from Vienna’s beleaguered citizens.
One thing that should be addressed in all of this is the long-term health effects this non-stop noise could be having on area residents. Studies prove that exposure to noise above 65 decibels for more than eight hours daily increase the risk of permanent hearing loss, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. But scientists are quick to point out that the decibel levels can be significantly lower than 65 and still have a harmful effect when people are exposed day in and day out with no relief. Many of Vienna’s residents are also suffering from noise-induced sleep deprivation as a result of the building’s din, which exacerbates existing health problems and creates new ones.
Children exposed to noise pollution have trouble concentrating and their school performance suffers. Children, the elderly, and people battling illness are the most vulnerable to noise-related health problems, but no one is immune. One resident says that the noise resembled a propeller plane taking off in his direction. After two years of that imagery, the psychological impact, combined with the fact that it’s loud enough to keep everyone’s stress level high (the fight-or-flight reflex is not meant to be turned on all the time) has the community in an uproar.
Goldstar, at this point, is shuffling papers and issuing statements that basically claim that the building’s operations do not violate any ordinances of the Town of Vienna. However, Goldstar claims that, in collaboration with GSA, it wants to address the noise concerns and “be a good neighbor.’”
Needless to say, after giving the community its word two years ago in exchange for an occupancy permit and then never making good on its word, Goldstar should have no reason to expect the Vienna community to believe, well, one word its company officials say.
Plus, Goldstar is committing only to reducing the noise to “legal levels” – which in Vienna were defined back in 1950, using outdated decibel and frequency measurement criteria.
Air conditioning units like these didn’t even exist when Vienna’s noise ordinance was written, and the effects of noise pollution on human health were not known back then either.
As town officials and residents mull over their next course of action, it’s a tough road any way you look at it. The town absolutely can’t face another summer of noise, and all options are on the table at this point – including a legal injunction.
So despite all the broken promises and the growing resentment of the community, what has kept Vienna residents from taking drastic action even after two years have passed and they still have received no relief from the noise?
Vienna residents are proud to have the Terrorist Screening Center in their community. After all, who wants to sue the Terrorist Screening Center?