Capitol’s leaf-blower noise may get slight dampening; full cure would be costly

Staff writerJune 12, 2014 

Groundskeeper Jeff Hogan uses a gas-powered blower to clean up debris on the west Capitol campus near the Temple of Justice in background. The gas-powered blowers will soon be replaced by electric models which are more ecologically friendly. Hogan says he uses a blower every day and considers it an indispensable tool.

DREW PERINE — Staff photographer Buy Photo

Maintenance crews at the state Capitol plan to buy a few new leaf blowers equipped with mufflers to dampen the racket that annoys some state officials when trees start dropping leaves each fall. The crews also will restrict the hours of using the loud power equipment around main Capitol Campus buildings during legislative sessions.

Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark’s quest to switch the state Capitol grounds crews to battery-powered blowers fell short. Such blowers already are used around the Governor’s Mansion at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee.

The Department of Enterprise Services said testing showed the battery-powered tools just don’t have enough power to deal with the 180 dump truck loads of leaves hauled off the Capitol Campus each year.

To do the work by hand with rakes, which Democratic state Sen. Kevin Ranker has suggested, would require seven new staffers at a cost of about $256,000 a year, according to Jeff Whitehead, operations manager for the DES buildings and grounds program. He said raking also would put 10 percent to 20 percent of the workers at risk of repetitive motion injuries.

Whitehead made his remarks Thursday to Goldmark and three other members of the State Capitol Committee, which oversees decisions about Capitol Campus buildings. The committee at Goldmark’s behest had asked DES in March to switch to battery-powered tools but on Thursday agreed to give the agency another six months to see how its compromise approach works out.

“This is just another example of how change is very difficult,” Goldmark said, acknowledging that DES made an effort to deliver on his initial request. “I would suggest we provide the staff another six months to find a workable solution.’’

Under its new approach, DES will spend $3,500 to buy eight new blowers equipped with mufflers. These will dampen sound nearly to the level of battery powered machines, but without sacrificing power to move wet piles of leaves.

The agency also is restricting use of the gadgets on the main campus to between 6 and 7:30 a.m. during January to April when lawmakers are often in session.

Other restrictions will take effect for east campus areas that are year round - specifically between the hours of 5 and 7:30 a.m. in the courtyard of the Natural Resources Building and Office Building 2, near where Goldmark works and had complained of disruptions to his office in the past. Use of the power equipment will be limited to after 7 a.m. at the lower parking lot next to the state Transportation Building and after 8 a.m. along Maple Park Avenue, which is near Goldmark’s residence.

Goldmark brought up the issue in March at a State Capitol Committee meeting, saying the power tools disrupted the tranquility of the campus and residential areas bordering the campus. He said electric car technology is seeing tremendous transformation and he is hopeful similar strides can be made with power tools, allowing the state to go to battery powered equipment in the future.

Mark Neary, deputy secretary of state, said the racket makes it hard to heard phone conversations, and Lt. Gov. Brad Owen also backed the trial period.

“Obviously we’ve got to do something,’’ Owen said.

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