James Fallows on Leaf Blowers and Activism
Considering the current condition of the EPA, people wanting to regulate leaf blowers could be forgiven for throwing up their hands. But as it happens, there is another legally and scientifically legitimate line of attack: going after gas-powered blowers not because they pollute but because they make so much noise.
Starting in 2013, my wife, Deb, and I traveled around the country to report on local-improvement narratives, which always seemed to begin with “I wondered why my town didn’t do _______, so I decided to get involved.” We’d long been active at our kids’ schools and with their sports teams. But we wondered why our town—Washington, D.C.—wasn’t doing something about the leaf-blower menace, given that an obvious solution was at hand. We joined a small neighborhood group—barely 10 people at its peak—to try to get a regulatory or legislative change, using noise, not pollution, as the rationale.
In November 2015, we had our first success, when our Advisory Neighborhood Commission—the most local governmental unit in the District—voted 8–1 to support phasing out gas-powered leaf blowers. (The one no vote came from a libertarian who didn’t like regulation of anything.) In retrospect, the resulting request was amazingly timid. We simply asked that our city-council member, Mary Cheh, introduce legislation for a ban. She did so; the measure got nowhere by the end of the council’s term in 2016; she introduced a new measure in 2017. Over the next 18 months, we successfully encouraged more than a third of all ANCs in D.C., representing seven of the District’s eight wards, to endorse council action on the bill. Anyone aware of the racial, economic, and other dividing lines within Washington can imagine the level of organizing and explanation necessary to achieve such broad support.
In July 2018, the chair of the city council, Phil Mendelson, convened a hearing to consider the bill. Nearly 20 witnesses spoke in favor. They included members of our group as well as scientists, a former regulator, an acoustic engineer, representatives of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, ordinary citizens and residents, and landscapers who had switched to all-battery operation. On the other side were two industry lobbyists, who said that market innovation and “courteous” leaf-blower use were the answer. Council members listened to them with visible incredulity. In the fall, the full council approved the bill unanimously. In December, Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, signed it into law. On January 1, 2022, the use of gas-powered leaf blowers will be illegal within city limits.
After spending decades writing about national politics, I’ve come away from this experience having learned some lessons about local politics—obvious lessons, maybe, but also vivid ones.