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Smart meter foes object to PUC staff recommendation

Staff at the Maine Public Utilities Commission have concluded that Central Maine Power’s use of smart meters is safe and reasonable. The recommendation is a blow to activists who mounted a legal case against the PUC for approving the use of smart meters without ensuring their safety. They plan to file objections in the hopes of swaying PUC commissioners, who will make the final decision on the use of smart meters. Patty Wight reports.

PUC Administrative Director Harry Lanphear says staff spent months combing through scientific reports to reach this conclusion: “The current science on the health impacts of smart meters does not support the finding that their use by CMP is an unsafe utility practice,” Lanphear says.

The PUC first approved CMP’s plan to install the meters back in 2009. But because the commission did so without ensuring the safety of the wireless utility devices, a group of activists filed suit, arguing that the commission hadn’t met a legal oblication to do so. The Maine Supreme Court agreed, and ordered the PUC to revisit the issue.

Ed Friedman is the lead plaintiff in the case. He says he’s disappointed with the PUC staff’s recommendation. “It’s a slap in the face to every Mainer, basically, because these things have never been vetted,” he says, “and I’ve seen evidence from thousands of people and talked to hundreds of people who never had trouble until they got a smart meter on their house.”

Smart meters are installed on the outside of homes to record electricity consumption and send that information via radio frequency transmission back to utility companies. Some have raised concerns about the possible health effects of these transmissions, which are also emitted by cell phones and wi-fi devices.

But the PUC report says no regulatory body has found smart meters to be unsafe, and that scientific evidence on the human health impacts of low frequency radiowaves is inconclusive. In addition, those studies that do show possible health risks associated with radio frequency emissions are based on much higher levels than what smart meters emit.

For all these reasons, and the fact that smart meters are a generally accepted practice across the country, the PUC said CMPs use is safe and reasonable.

But Harry Lanphear says this is not the end of the case. “This is just the commission staff examiner’s report, and the commissioners have yet to make their final decision,” he says.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, Bruce McGlauflin, says he will file objections because the staff report fails to adequately address a critical question: “Whether CMP has satisfied its burden to demonstrate that the smart meters are safe.”

Plaintiff Ed Friedman says the PUC is shifting the burden to plaintiffs to prove that smart meters cause harm. He says even reports that find a low risk from radio frequency transmissions are troubling. “To say that the risk is low is far different from the legal responsibility to ensure or guarantee safety,” he says.

Plaintiffs have until April 11 to file complaints. A spokesman for Central Maine Power declined to comment before the final ruling. PUC Commissioners will likely deliberate the case late April or early May.