What’s keeping Windsor awake at night?

They call it “the hum”— a mysterious rumble that’s sparked a cross-border spat

What’s keeping Windsor awake at night?

Photograph by Brent Foster

They say it comes most often in the dead of night: a deep, relentless rumble that rolls in from the west. At the best of times, it’s a low frequency drone—not unlike the sound of idling truck engines, says one resident. At its worst, the mysterious force known as the Windsor Hum is described as an incessant roar. It rattles windows, frightens dogs, wakes up babies, doles out headaches and deprives people of sleep.

“It pulsates all night long,” says Christine Southern, who lives with her husband and two children in LaSalle, a suburb of Windsor, Ont., near the eastern bank of the Detroit River, where the sound is reportedly strongest. “You can feel it in your chest,” she says. “Once you hear it, you can’t not hear it. You listen for it every night.”

For months, no one knew where it was coming from. Far-fetched theories were tossed about. Some people insisted it was alien spaceships, says Southern, a leading voice on the Windsor Hum Facebook group, which has more than 780 members. Others said it came from secret military testing beneath the surface of the Great Lakes. As it turns out, the likely source may be just as difficult to address.

According to data amassed this summer by seismic monitors placed by Natural Resources Canada, the Windsor Hum is coming from a one-square-kilometre area “in the general vicinity” of Zug Island, Mich., a fenced-in, heavy industrial zone dominated by steelmaking operations and patrolled by armed guards. It sits at the intersection of the Detroit River and River Rouge, about 15 km south of Detroit. Authorities in the region—namely, officials from the City of River Rouge, where Zug Island is located—have apparently backed down from initial indications that they would investigate the Hum, while companies operating on and around the island have been silent. And since Zug Island lies a few hundred metres west of the border, any action is now out of Canada’s jurisdictional reach.

The story of the Windsor Hum goes back about two years, when people like Southern started losing sleep due to rumbling vibrations. Last February, city councillor Al Maghneih received his first complaint. Ever since, the 30-year-old has led the charge to determine the source of the sound he likens to Barry White’s bass vocals. “It’s annoying, and it comes to the point where it affects the quality of life of the constituents,” Maghneih told Maclean’s from his office in Windsor. “There’s always been industrial sounds, industrial noises, and this year it’s been much worse.” Maghneih started tracking the location of each complaint on a map. “All indicators were pointing to the vicinity of Zug Island,” he says.

Ontario’s Ministry of Environment has received more than 420 official complaints about the Windsor Hum, according to spokesperson Kate Jordan. After looking at “all possible industrial sources” on the Canadian side of the Detroit River—including the nearby salt mines—scientists set up four seismic monitors to learn more about the vibrations. Cathy Woodgold of Earthquakes Canada, the branch of Natural Resources that specializes in measuring tremors in the ground, says that after a few weeks collecting data, it was determined that the sound was a low frequency vibration travelling through the air. The study also confirmed Maghneih’s suspicion: the sound is coming from an area “on or around Zug Island,” says Woodgold.

U.S. Steel has the heaviest industrial presence on Zug Island. The company’s Great Lakes Works steel manufacturing operation has the capability to produce 3.8 million net tons of raw steel every year. The company also owns the Delray Connecting Rail line, which carries raw materials, waste, and output products along several tracks that criss-cross the 2.4-sq.-km island. If the data collected by Canadian scientists is accurate, the source of the Hum is likely to be somewhere amongst the blast furnaces and metallurgy facilities of U.S. Steel’s operation.

In 2008, as the American economy spiralled into recession, U.S. Steel suspended operations at its Zug Island plant. A year later, manufacturing resumed, and the Hum was first heard. The question now is: what kind of changes, if any, did the company make to its steelmaking process? U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Works operation did not respond to inquiries from Maclean’s. The company has not spoken publicly on the issue, and there is no definitive proof that the Hum is coming from their operation on Zug Island.

In early September, Maghneih drove to Michigan to meet with Michael Bowdler, mayor of River Rouge. The two men decided to check things out for themselves. “We jumped in his SUV, drove over to Zug Island and we parked right onto the gates,” Maghneih recalls. Despite being faced with signs that prohibited trespassing on U.S. Steel property and the taking of photographs, Maghneih pulled out his BlackBerry and began recording a video. The recording, which he later uploaded to YouTube, captured a deep rumble coming from somewhere behind the fence. Maghneih believes it was the Hum, and claims Mayor Bowdler felt similarly. “He was like, ‘Oh wow, it’s true,’ ” says Maghneih, describing Bowdler’s reaction to the sound.

“I’m not laying firm accusations against U.S. Steel, but things coming out of their blast furnace sound awfully similar to the things people are complaining about,” says Maghneih, adding that the manufacturer hasn’t returned his phone calls.

On Sept. 29, officials from Ontario’s Environment Ministry, Natural Resources Canada, Windsor and River Rouge gathered in Windsor to release information about the Hum. At the meeting, representatives from River Rouge announced they had hired Integrated Environmental, Inc. to help determine a more precise source of the Hum. Local lawyer David Robins, who mused about a class action lawsuit over the Hum in the Windsor Star, was among the more than 150 people in attendance. “Most people walked away from this with the message: stay tuned and we’ll have more to tell you,” he says.

For Maghneih, things finally seemed to be coming together. But then, “out of the blue,” he received an email saying the city of River Rouge didn’t have enough money to continue their investigation. He waited a week before notifying the public, calling Mayor Bowdler’s office and sending emails seeking clarification. He received no answers. “What used to be a very warm relationship with an open line is now radio silence,” says Maghneih. “What the hell is that? What happened?”

Bowdler’s office didn’t return calls placed by Maclean’s, but Rick Harding, president and senior principal of the environmental consulting firm hired by River Rouge, acknowledges that the city “doesn’t have the financial wherewithal” to carry out an investigation like the one conducted in Windsor.

As Harding points out, the relative lack of political will in River Rouge to determine a source of the Hum may be for historical and economic reasons. River Rouge is a small community with fewer than 8,000 people. It has existed alongside heavy industry for decades. Residents, therefore, have been less likely to notice—much less to complain about—the Hum. “The community experiences noises, vibrations, on a routine basis,” says Harding. “To discern one from another is not easy.”

Maghneih suspects River Rouge doesn’t want to upset U.S. Steel, a major source of employment for the region, where median household income levels are estimated to be nearly half the Michigan state average.

In early November, Windsor city council passed a resolution acknowledging the Hum, and pledging to pressure all levels of government in Canada and the U.S. to continue working to identify the exact source of the noise. According to the Ministry of Environment, Ottawa has held discussions with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan state government.

As officials jockey for a way around this jurisdictional impasse, those affected by the noise in Windsor are encouraging each other to keep the issue on the table. Southern, for example, has written letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the governor of Michigan. “I’ll fight this right to the end,” she vows. Even still, answers remain elusive, and people keep losing sleep to the nefarious rumble rolling in from the west.

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