Policies fail to curb noise pollution

By Suk Gee-hyun

Environment Ministry guidelines on dispute settlements including noise measurement costs come under fire

  • Published : Mar 5, 2014 - 20:10
  • Updated : Mar 5, 2014 - 20:10
A 73-year-old man was sentenced to 20 years in jail last year for starting a fire in the apartment above his that killed two people. A three-year dispute over noise pollution at the apartment complex ended in tragedy.

Shortly after that incident, a 43-year-old man stabbed two brothers to death, angry over the noise they made in the upstairs apartment during the New Year holiday.

These sad incidents are just a sample of the neighborly clashes ranging from fist fights to horrendous homicides that are hitting many South Korean apartment complexes.

The underlying reason is that Korean apartment complexes or similar housing arrangements have notoriously thin floors that are far too ineffective at minimizing sounds and impact vibrations.

As the noise pollution issue grew more serious in recent years, the Korean government and civil sectors began actively seeking possible solutions. In a bid to contain the escalating noise disputes, authorities have decided to toughen rules against noise pollution and implement a program that compensates victims.

The government, however, has a long way to go to set up a refined and reliable dispute settlement system.

The National Environmental Dispute Resolution Commission, affiliated with the Environment Ministry, has an internal standard for judging whether a noise pollution claim is legitimate. According to the commission, a noise problem can be formally recognized only when the average sound level for a one minute period exceeds 40 decibels in the daytime and 35 decibels at night.

In theory, the alleged victims can get compensation from their noise-making neighbors by following the commission’s procedures. The compensation ranges from 520,000 won ($486) to 884,000 won, based on the extent to which the threshold is exceeded and the duration of the ordeal. 
A Floor Noise Management Center official measures noise levels in an apartment after receiving a complaint from a Seoul resident. (Korea Environment Corporation)

The newly revised compensation levels, announced on Feb. 3, are designed to reduce the frequency of noise-related disputes and offer a relatively inexpensive way to go about legal procedures, according to government officials.

But the government’s new noise policy fails to quiet vocal critics, who slammed the new guidelines as “impractical and unrealistic.”

According to sound engineers, low-frequency sounds ― sensed as vibrations ― were factored out from the ministry’s noise assessment standards, which means that the full impact on the victims may not have been taken into account.

“The role of vibration in sound was underestimated and excluded from the ministry’s measurement,” said Bae Myung-jin, professor of sound engineering at Soongsil University in Seoul.

Lee Yong-ja, a 60-year-old housewife who has been confronting her neighbors upstairs for more than a year, said she measured the noise level herself with an acoustimeter and compared the readings with the ministry’s new standards.

“No matter how loud it was, the figures didn’t even get near the halfway point of what they suggested,” she said.

Adding more confusion to the dispute settlement system is that rules on measurement methods and the application costs remain fuzzy at best.

Last month, the Environment Ministry had said that victims of noise pollution need to pay 500,000 won for a noise measurement, a step required to get government assistance and initiate legal procedures.

But it has since retracted its earlier policy and officials said they have yet to finalize details. “It will take some time before we finish mapping out the details, including application fees and measurement procedures. We apologize for the hasty announcement of the guidelines,” Bok Jin-seung, an official in charge of the noise dispute system at the ministry, told The Korea Herald.

Another tricky problem involves fees for noise measurement. According to ministry officials, victims themselves have to shoulder the costs for getting the noise level recorded in accordance with preset rules, but the procedure is fairly expensive.

According to the Korea Professional Engineer Association’s noise and vibration center, which previously conducted noise research for the Environment Ministry, the measurement costs will range from 400,000 won to 700,000 won.

“We own a noise meter that costs about 30 million won. About one-tenth of the total cost is for the expensive device and the rest is for hiring engineers who will analyze the recordings and write reports,” Park Young-hwan from the KPEA center said.

Whether the ministry will outsource the measurement work to the KPEA has not been decided, and when asked whether it views the service as overpriced, the Environment Ministry declined to answer.

In Korea, where 65 percent of the total population lives in multiplex housing including apartments, many neighborhoods have been turned into battlegrounds over noise pollution. 

According to the FNMC, more than 15,450 noise complaints were reported nationwide last year, doubling from 7,020 cases reported in 2012.

“We’ve been seeing some extreme cases of noise disputes here in recent years,” said Seo Hye-jeong, a public relations official at the Floor Noise Management Center.

The center, launched by the Korea Environment Corporation in March 2012, offers counseling over the phone and free on-the-spot measurement services.

Victims of noise pollution in apartments can call the center to get help with settling disputes between neighbors. Mediating experts will make calls to the victims and their neighbors, helping to reduce noise and prevent friction.

When phone counseling is not enough, a team of two experts make a visit to measure the noise levels in the victim’s home, without informing the neighbors upstairs.

“The purpose of our service is to help people find peaceful ways to solve the problem,” Seo said, adding that measurement results by the center have no legal effect, so they cannot be used for the dispute settlement procedures of the Environment Ministry.

Beyond being a nuisance, noise pollution through walls and floors is a serious problem in terms of mental and physical health as well, according to experts.

Professor Bae Myung-jin of Soongsil University said the exposure to sound vibrations above the normal limit could cause headaches and even motion sickness if it lasts for more than five minutes.

By Suk Gee-hyun (