Canadians Make a Racket Over Mysterious 'Windsor Hum'
Unexplained Noise Spurs Diplomatic Fracas At Detroit Border; Americans Can't Hear It
WINDSOR, Ontario—Last month, Bob Dechert, a senior aide to Canada's foreign minister, was dispatched to Detroit with an important diplomatic mission: To stop a highly annoying noise.
The so-called Windsor hum, described as a low-frequency rumbling sound, has rattled windows and knocked objects off shelves in this border community just across the Detroit River from the Motor City. Locals have said it sounds like a large diesel truck idling, a loud boom box or the bass vocals of Barry White.
Windsor residents have blamed the hum for causing illness, whipping dogs into frenzies, keeping cats housebound and sending goldfish to the surface in backyard ponds. Many have resorted to switching on their furnace fan all season to drown out the noise.
Even weirder, Americans can't seem to hear it. Canadians find that suspicious—especially since their research suggests the hum is coming from the Yankees' side—and accuse U.S. officials of staying silent over the noise.
"The government of Canada takes this issue seriously," Mr. Dechert said after his recent fact-finding trip, which included a visit to a heavily industrialized area on the American side of the river that some Canadian scientists believe is to blame for the hum.
Unexplained noises have tormented city dwellers for centuries. Residents west of Green Bay, Wis., have been trying to identify an occasional loud boom that they say sounds like a cannon blast—geologists have said earthquakes made the noise. Locals in upstate New York and other places have described similar episodes.
But few such cases have become international diplomatic incidents.
After three months of seismic studies conducted by Canada's natural resources department, scientists said the noise was likely coming from Zug Island, a nearly 600-acre man-made island on the Michigan side of the Detroit River. The coal-blackened industrial zone is dominated by steel mills, including facilities operated by U.S. Steel Corp. and others whose blast furnaces belch out steam and flames.
The area is off-limits to the general public and surrounded by wire fences, with the only access via a guarded gate. A spokeswoman for U.S. Steel didn't respond to requests for comment.
The sound has been plaguing Windsor residents on and off for two years. Last May, a particularly loud eruption shook Windsor resident David Robins as he watched the National Basketball Association playoffs. The room began to vibrate with a loud throbbing noise.
Mr. Robins hit mute, fearing he had gone overboard on volume. But the noise persisted. Stepping outside, Mr. Robins said he found the "entire neighborhood pulsating."
"To be honest, I was scared," he said.
Hundreds of other sleep-deprived locals have demanded action from politicians in Windsor and Ottawa.
Locals blamed earthquakes, local salt mines, an underground river and wind turbines in the past. But Canada's seismic study last summer narrowed the likely source down to approximately 250 acres in the vicinity of Zug Island.
American officials say they aren't so sure.
"It may not be actually emanating from Michigan," said Hansen Clarke, the U.S. Representative for the East Detroit congressional district that includes Zug.
Michael D. Bowdler, the mayor of River Rouge, Michigan, the municipality with authority over Zug, said his cash-strapped government doesn't have funds to investigate further. Mr. Bowdler suggests the city of Windsor pay for a survey that could isolate the noise to its exact location.
American officials contend there haven't been complaints on the U.S. side of the border. Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality looked last year at whether the companies at Zug started up any new machinery in the past two years that might be causing the noise and found nothing.
"The only place I am hearing noise from is Canada—from politicians complaining," Mr. Bowdler said.
Mr. Dechert, Canada's parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs, concedes the source may not be Zug Island, given there are a "number of operations" in the vicinity that could be responsible. But he wants his U.S. counterparts to investigate further to help quiet down the border ruckus.
"There is definitely something going on that's affecting people on the Canadian side of the river," he said.
Canadian diplomats formally raised the issue with the U.S. Department of State last September. They took up the cause again at a meeting on Thursday. A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the meeting.
"We do sympathize with the plight of those affected but, unfortunately, the federal government doesn't have regulatory authority over noise pollution," the spokesman said.
Canadian authorities have also hoped the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would investigate. But a spokesman for the EPA said it doesn't have the authority to assist.
If U.S. officials don't help find a solution, "there will be a lot of upset people," said Brian Masse, a Canadian New Democratic Party member of parliament, whose Windsor constituency sits across the river from Zug Island.
Studying the hum, much less its origin, is challenging. It is difficult to capture the mainly nocturnal sound on tape, since it doesn't hum all the time.
During a recent visit to Windsor by a Wall Street Journal reporter, Windsor resident Gary Grosse played several recordings he said came from the noise, which modulated from metallic grating to a pulsing beat.
On a visit to the area around Zug Island, a fainter version of similar sounds was audible. But Americans nearby said they still can't hear it.
Fishing under the shadow of some of the large mounds of coal that fringe Zug Island, Samson Jenkins says that in 20 trips here he has never heard a noise like that described in Windsor.
"And they say they can hear it all the way in Canada?" said the 45-year-old maintenance worker. "No way."
Nearby, an industrial chimney belched out a twist of sulfurous-smelling smoke. Mr. Jenkins joked the only noise pollution he has heard of late is Canadian singer Celine Dion.
In Windsor, nobody's laughing.
In January 2011, Sonya Skillings's nocturnal baby-feeding sessions were disturbed by what she said sounded like an underground subway beneath the house. Over a year on, it has become so loud sometimes she worries the windows will blow out.
"I just want to be in my rocking chair with my baby asleep on top of me," she said. But "all I can hear is 'vrump, vrump, vrump.' "
A version of this article appeared May 1, 2012, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Canadians Make a Racket Over Mysterious 'Windsor Hum'.