October 30, 2013

Debate on health and smart meters on view at Maine hearing

Some 620,000 digital meters have been installed in Maine, but that doesn’t mean the critics have quit.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It has been 16 months since all Central Maine Power Co. customers have had digital smart meters installed at their homes and businesses, but a court-ordered investigation into whether they are harmful to human health is continuing.

A hearing set for Wednesday at the Maine Public Utilities Commission will feature cross-examination of a Swedish doctor who has studied the risk of brain tumors and the use of cellphones.

The hearing, open to the public to observe but not participate in, is the latest step in a process that stretches back to 2010, when state regulators approved plans for CMP to replace old-style analog electric meters for its 620,000 customers. The $200 million project got half its funding from federal stimulus funding.

Today, the utility is using the technology to remotely read meters and speed service restoration after storms, among other things. Roughly 10,000 customers are using a smart-meter-enabled website to help manage home energy use.

“We’re moving on,” said John Carroll, a CMP spokesman.

But activists and residents who associate the meters with a range of health problems aren’t moving on. They have submitted written testimony, chiefly from scientists and epidemiologists in other states and other countries, detailing medical issues that they have linked to the radio frequency emissions associated with wireless networks like those used by the smart meters.

The commission thought it had addressed health and safety questions when the issue was first raised in 2010. But in 2012, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court sided with opponents of the meters, who argued that regulators ignored their legal mandate to ensure the delivery of “safe, reasonable and adequate” utility service.

That led to the formal investigation of health effects and the wireless devices.

CMP argued that the scope of the review should be narrow and focused on the legal requirement. But opponents succeeded in pushing for a fully litigated case. The case log at the PUC has grown to include more than 600 separate filings. They involve reams of written and oral testimony from expert witnesses and aggrieved residents who link the meters with symptoms that include headaches and fatigue.

Wednesday’s hearing will be followed by legal briefs from the parties in late November. At some point this winter, two of the three commissioners will decide the case. The PUC chairman, Tom Welch, has recused himself from the proceeding because he had done legal work on CMP issues while in private practice.

Overall, critics of smart meters are trying to make the argument that “horror stories” from people in Maine and elsewhere who complain of health issues that they link to the meters are real, and are supported by evidence being gathered around the world.

Ed Friedman, the Bowdoinham man who led the lawsuit at the state Supreme Court, said an international survey that opponents conducted into the health effects of smart meters found 42 percent of more than 200 respondents began suffering symptoms before they knew a smart meter had been installed.

This survey is part of the extensive written testimony. Wednesday is being set aside for parties in the case who want to ask further questions of experts.

CMP has declined to cross-examine anyone.

“We read their testimony,” Carroll said. “We don’t need to ask them any questions about their positions.”

The PUC staff sought to question two experts. One, Girish Kumar, is a professor of electrical engineering in Mumbai, India. He has studied cell-tower radiation hazards, but isn’t available by phone for the hearing. The other, Dr. Lennart Hardell, a professor in oncology and cancer epidemiology at the University Hospital in Orebro, Sweden, is set to call the PUC for questioning on Wednesday morning.

The case relies heavily on outside experts because very little research into the issue has been done locally.

Last winter, the Maine public advocate commissioned an independent study of radio-frequency emissions from the smart meters. It found maximum exposure levels that were far below what the Federal Communications Commission considers safe. The FCC regulates equipment that broadcasts radio frequency signals.

The results, however, were dismissed by smart-meter opponents. They said the findings were expected and are meaningless, because harm is being done at emission levels lower than the FCC guidelines.

Maine is not alone in trying to sort out the emotional and conflicting claims.

At least a dozen agencies, in places ranging from California, Michigan and Nevada to Canada and the United Kingdom, have looked into the issue of smart meters and public health. None have concluded that radio frequency energy from smart meters is responsible for medical issues.

“CMP isn’t qualified to do a scientific analysis,” Carroll said. “We just need to show what the consensus is, and every place it has been looked at, smart meters are considered a safe technology.”

In Maine, the PUC allows people who don’t want smart meters at their homes or businesses to opt out and go back to analog meters. But they need to pay $12 a month to cover the cost of the optional equipment and meter reading. Opt-outs peaked at 8,622 in May 2012, according to CMP. The number is now just above 8,000, the company estimates.

Based on the track record in other states, it seems unlikely that the Maine PUC will find that smart meters are a health hazard. But if it does, the remedy isn’t clear.

Bruce McGlauflin, a lawyer representing smart meter opponents, said actions could range from having all the smart meters removed and replaced, to finding an alternative solution to reading the meters without a wireless network. He also suggested that people who don’t want the meters could opt out without paying the $12 monthly fee.

But if the PUC decides the meters don’t pose a health risk, CMP said it would oppose any remedy that makes all customers pay to placate a vocal minority.

“If there’s no health risk, why allow people to opt out?” he said. “What’s the logic in not having these people pay?”

 

Tux Turkel can be contacted 791-6462 or

tturkel@pressherald.com

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