Even as Central Maine Power has installed more than 600,000 smart meters in Maine, including nearly all in the greater Augusta area, some critics are still raising safety concerns about the wireless power readers.

To buttress their case, they are pointing to a national physicians group that recently came out publicly against smart meters. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine sent a letter on Jan. 19 to the California Public Utilities Commission opposing the installation of wireless smart meters in homes and schools. 

Ed Friedman, of Bowdoinham, the lead plaintiff in a Maine Public Utilities Commission appeal with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said he was thrilled by the group’s position. The academy, in raising concerns about smart meters, said that “chronic exposure to wireless radio frequency radiation is a preventable environmental hazard that is sufficiently well documented to warrant immediate preventative public health action.”

“It’s good for us to see them come out with a very strong letter to the California PUC about this,” Friedman said. “The academy is in the process of developing a full position on smart meters, which will be taken up at their annual meeting sometime in the summer.”

But the academy’s position isn’t expected to have much of an impact in Maine. The Maine Public Utilities Commission in August dismissed the complaint — without an investigation or hearing — that Friedman had filed raising health concerns about the meters.

Friedman’s group has until Tuesday to submit their response to the PUC’s reply brief on the appeal to the Supreme Court.

John Carroll, spokesman for Central Maine Power, said all Maine schools have wireless technology, yet the American Academy of Environmental Medicine chose to focus on smart meters.

“If the concern really is with wireless technology, then smart meters may be the least concern for anyone,” Carroll said. “Why wouldn’t they focus on getting wireless out of schools or create wireless-free work places and hospitals, for instance? I just wonder how thorough they are in their thinking.”

In dismissing the complaint, the Maine PUC stated that all of the issues had been adequately investigated and resolved in its previous proceedings. Last May, the commission required Central Maine Power to allow its customers to opt out of the smart meters program by paying a monthly fee, but it wasn’t based on health or safety concerns.

In one of the orders dated Jan. 7, 2011, the PUC stated: “We make no determination on the merits of health, safety or which federal or state agency has the jurisdiction to make these determinations.”

Health and privacy issues

Friedman said his group opposes fees being charged to customers who want to keep their existing meters and sought an investigation into the adverse effects of smart meters on health, safety, privacy and property rights.
He said PUC’s refusal to investigate the safety of the wireless digital meter violates state law, which requires the regulatory agency to insure utilities follow safe practices when providing services to their customers.

Friedman contends that smart meters create health problems and are an invasion of privacy because they gather information that can be used for personal profiling.

“So suddenly I’m having what may be harmful exposure mandated to me and invasion of my privacy mandated to me,” he said. “If I don’t want to comply, I have to pay them. I call that extortion or blackmail. It’s a paid opt-out and that’s a huge problem, but the Legislature thinks it’s OK.”

Tom Welch, chairman of the PUC, said there are very specific privacy rules utilities operating in Maine must follow, including electronically transmitted information. CMP also developed a policy regarding the release of customer information that says the company will not release customer specific information to third parties, except agents of CMP who agree to maintain the confidentiality of such information, including credit and collection agencies, without the consent of the customer.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there with what these things can do,” said Welch, who abstained from participating in the decision to allow the opt-out program because he worked for a law firm that represented Central Maine Power.

The Maine Center for Disease Control supported CMP in its findings on smart meters, finding that no studies have given consistent or convincing evidence of a clear relation between radio frequency exposure “in the range of frequencies and power used by smart meters and adverse health effects.” In fact, radiation emitted from cellphones is much greater than what is given off by smart meters, the center for disease control found.

Carroll said Central Maine Power didn’t conduct its own research on the wireless technology, but relied on the expertise of public health officials in Maine, nationally and internationally.

The California PUC voted on Feb. 1 to allow utility customers the right to refuse the use of smart meters at their homes for a fee. Pacific Gas & Electric customers can pay $75 up front and then $10 each month to opt out of the smart meter program.

According to PUC commissioner Vendean Vafiades, the opt-out program that was ordered last May was a matter of “sound public policy.” In order for the program to succeed, she said the PUC needed to allow “the small minority to opt out.”

According to CMP’s website, choosing a digital smart meter with the wireless transmitter turned off will carry an initial charge of $20, plus a monthly charge of $10.50. Keeping an existing mechanical meter will cost $40 up front, plus $12 a month.

The cost of relocating an existing meter varies, but is typically expensive.

Friedman contends that the PUC’s mandated installation of smart meters across Maine is “one great big uncontrolled experiment brought to us by an agency working hand-in-glove with the utility industry.”

Welch said the additional fee to opt out covers a portion of expenses incurred by CMP to read meters “the old fashioned way.”

“What the commissioners are saying is this is how the service is being provided,” Welch said. “If you want service, this is how you get it.”

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663
[email protected]