Bill to ban gas-powered leaf blowers awaits D.C. Council hearing

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Some community members have sought a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, citing noise and environmental concerns. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2016)
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As leaves begin to fall across Northwest, leaf blowers have been revving up to combat them. Autumn also brings an annual cacophony over complaints about excessive noise from the gas-powered machines.

A bill pending before the D.C. Council would ban the use of gas-powered leaf blowers within the District starting in 2022, as requested by various community members who have cited concerns regarding both noise and pollution.

But in the time since Ward 3 member Mary Cheh first introduced the measure in January 2016, it has never made it to a committee hearing. The 2016 bill was referred to the Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs, which had tentatively planned a hearing that fall. But leaf blowers were lost in the shuffle after the committee’s chair, Vincent Orange, lost his re-election bid, took another job and resigned from the council before completing his term.

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Cheh introduced this year’s version of the bill in April, co-sponsored by Kenyan McDuffie of Ward 5, Charles Allen of Ward 6 and at-large members Anita Bonds and David Grosso. It was referred to the council’s Committee of the Whole, led by Chairman Phil Mendelson, who hasn’t yet held a hearing.

“They’re just not doing anything — nothing’s scheduled, nothing’s planned,” Cheh said in an interview. “I know we have lots of other stuff, and I would bet the chairman is almost singularly focused on how we’re going to pay for the paid leave bill. … And after we get past that, he probably has a number of other things to clean up.”

A man uses a leaf blower in a Palisades parking lot. (Brady Holt/The Current/September 2017)

Cheh said reassigning the bill to a less busy committee would be an irregular procedural step for the council, and one she does not expect in this case. A spokesperson for Mendelson didn’t respond to questions about the chairman’s plans for the bill or his own opinions on leaf blowers.

The District already regulates leaf blower noise, but critics argue that there’s no adequate enforcement mechanism. Today, a leaf blower can’t emit more than 70 decibels at a distance of 50 feet. Violations need to be verified by a Metropolitan Police Department officer using a decibel meter. Cheh and other critics of leaf blowers say a blanket ban would make it easier to identify violators, and the bill also shifts primary enforcement responsibility to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

There’s also an environmental benefit, Cheh said, given that the two-stroke engines used in many leaf blowers are notorious for their pollution. “I’m not saying it’s a solution to climate change or anything like that, but it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.

In various jurisdictions that have banned gas-powered leaf blowers, landscape companies have argued that quieter electric units are costlier and less effective than gas-powered ones, making it challenging to meet their customers’ expectations for price and performance.