After court's rebuke, Maine PUC slates hearing on 'smart meter' health questions

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PORTLAND — The Maine Public Utilities Commission will take a fresh look next week at a portion of a consumer complaint about wireless electric meters installed by Central Maine Power Co.

PUC Chairman Thomas Welch and Commissioners David Littell and Mark Vannoy will re-examine the possible health hazards associated radio frequency waves used to transmit consumer data and determine monthly billing for more than 600,000 CMP accounts.

The commission was ordered last Thursday by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to reopen the portion of a complaint the commissioners dismissed without comment last summer.

The complaint, filed by Bowdoinham resident Ed Friedman and 18 other utility customers, sought to eliminate fees charged by the utility to customers who opt out of the so-called “smart meter” program.

Friedman said he wants the meters removed entirely, but was pleased the court found at least partially in his favor.

“The commission should take a fresh look at the safety issue,” Friedman said. He said he is prepared to bring data and reports from the World Health Organization and American Academy of Environmental Medicine to bolster his argument that radio frequency waves emitted at short intervals in all directions are not safe and possibly cause cancer while also harming household appliances.

CMP spokesman Jon Carroll said meter installations are nearly complete, with about 2,000 meters left to install. The company began installing meters in late summer 2010, using economic stimulus funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

Shortly after the installations began, consumers including Friedman and Scarborough residents Elisa Boxer-Cook and Suzanne Foley-Ferguson raised questions about the health and security risks posed by meters transmitting customer information via a wireless grid.

Moratoriums on installations were passed by town councils in Bath, Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough as separate complaints were filed with the commission. The complaints were eventually combined for the commission to hear.

Carroll said about 8,000 customers have opted out of the program. The utility initially balked at allowing customers to choose not to have the meters installed, but was ordered by the PUC in January 2011 to create an opt-out plan.

Customers who want to keep their old meters must pay an initial $40 fee and $12 monthly. Customers who want the wireless transmission capability of a new meter disabled must pay an initial $20 fee and $10.50.

In the opinion written by Justice Jon Levy, the state’s highest court agreed the PUC ignored its legal responsibility to ensure CMP was safely and reasonably delivering power by taking no stance on the safety of the new meters.

Commission lawyers Jordan McColman and Catherine Connors argued during the May 10 court hearing that the PUC was allowed to dismiss Friedman’s complaint because it had already resolved questions about smart meter safety in earlier hearings that created the opt-out plans.

The court disagreed, saying “(the PUC) may have considered, to a limited extent, the health and safety issues Friedman raised, but it did not resolve those issues.”

But the court ruled against the plaintiffs’ claims the PUC violated the Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Article I of the Maine Constitution by allowing CMP to install the meters against the wishes of its customers.

Friedman said he was disappointed the court ruled against the broader questions of property rights, especially because Levy’s opinion said the PUC was not the venue to decide Constitutional questions.

“It was a small step forward in the right direction. I don’t think the court could have done anything less,” Friedman said, adding he is disappointed the court did not require a stay of opt-out fees charged by CMP.

When the commissioners consider the smart meter safety questions, Friedman said he hopes their decision will lead to a total recall of the meters.

“If there is conflicting evidence, how can you possibly ensure safety?,” he said. “There is plenty of precedent in history for recalling unsafe products.”

The PUC meeting will be held Tuesday, July 24, at 10 a.m. at 101 Second St. in Hallowell.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.