Maine PUC Commissioners: 'Smart' Meters Safe

Sep 23, 2014

A so-called "smart meter."
Credit Christian Haugen

AUGUSTA, Maine - The state's Public Utilities Commission has concluded that smart meters are safe. Commissioners were tasked with re-evaluating the health impact of smart meters by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court after health activists filed a lawsuit. But commissioners can't agree on whether to allow consumers to opt of the program without financial penalty. Meanwhile opponents are vowing to continue their fight.

 

Stacked on PUC Commissioner David Littell's desk are three piles of binders that stretch two feet high. That's the amount of evidence he combed through to evaluate smart meter safety. "Oh, thousands of pages," he says.

Littell condensed those thousands of pages of information down to a report detailing his conclusion, which he shared during a 40-minute presentation at a PUC meeting on Tuesday. Smart meters - wireless electronic devices that record electricity consumption, and are installed in hundreds of thousands of houses and businesses by Central Maine Power - are safe, Littell says.

"So they emit at similar powers and frequencies to cell phones," he says, "but they're on the outside of houses, where human exposure is very limited by the walls, by the distances, and by the limited times of day that they transmit."

Opponents of smart meters say the electromagnetic waves emitting from the devices are a carcinogen and can cause milder symptoms, such as headaches and fatigue. But Commissioner Mark Vannoy says the evidence about the harm of smart meters just isn't robust enough. "So, I think they're safe," Vannoy says.

That's a conclusion that's deeply disappointing to Ed Friedman, the lead complainant in the case against the PUC. He says the commission has a legal obligation to ensure safe, reliable utility service. "It doesn't get much better than 'shall ensure safety,' " he says. "They must ensure safety." It's a high standard, he says, one that he thinks the commissioners' conclusions fail to meet.

Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, who has been involved in the fight against smart meters since 2010, is equally dismayed. "We haven't found the causations of these things, but it's very interesting to me, and very ironic, that we spend so much time trying to cure cancer, and so little time trying to prevent it," she says. "When we see the signs of what's happening, we should take precautions immediately."

There is one sticking point in the commissioners' decisions, says Bruce McGlauflin, the attorney representing the complainants in the smart meter case. "One commissioner has proposed mitigation measures, and the other has not," McGlauflin says.

While Commissioner Littell says smart meters are safe, he acknowledges the issue isn't black and white. He wants people to be able to opt out of smart meters, free of charge, if they have a doctor's recommendation. But the way Commissioner Vannoy sees it, if smart meters are deemed safe, anyone who wants to opt out should have to pay for that choice.

That's the way it currently works, at a cost to the customer of $12 a month. This disagreement, says attorney Bruce McGlauflin, is a problem. "The question is, do we have a quorum of two commissioners that agree on enough of the analysis to have a commission conclusion that's binding?" he asks.

Commissioner David Littell says that's a good question. There's no precedent for this situation, complicated by the fact that a third opinion from PUC Chairman Tom Welch is not possible. Welch recused himself from the smart meter case because he did work for Central Maine Power as a private attorney.

Littell says, for now, he and Commissioner Vannoy will finalize their opinions. "We'll see how CMP - how they respond, and how the complainants respond, and then take it from there," he says.

Ed Friedman, the lead complainant, says he will continue the fight against smart meters, whether it be dealing directly with the PUC, filing an appeal, or new a court action altogether.