PORTLAND — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday affirmed a state agency’s finding that advanced metering infrastructure, commonly known as “smart meters,” are not harmful to human health and safety.
The decision ends a public dispute of more than five years over alleged health risks associated with the meters.
Central Maine Power Co., the utility that serves most of the western half of the state, began installing smart meters in 2009 with the aid of $96 million in federal stimulus money.
The new meters differ from traditional electrical meters in that they transmit information wirelessly back to the company.
But some customers complained to the Public Utilities Commission about the potential health effects associated with the radio frequency signals emitted by the meters. Pointing to studies supported by the World Health Organization, they argued RF radiation causes problems ranging from nausea, to chronic pain, to cancer.
In response, the PUC in 2011 required the utility to allow customers to opt out of the new metering system. CMP complied, but began charging an opt-out fee for the service.
The commission did not make any finding regarding the safety of smart meters.
Lawsuit complainants, led by Bowdoinham resident Ed Friedman of the Maine Coalition to Stop Smart Meters, appealed the dismissal to the Supreme Judicial Court in 2012. The court sided with Friedman and voided that dismissal, effectively ordering the PUC to make a determination on the threat to health and safety posed by smart meters.
The PUC then spent 2 1/2 years investigating the safety of smart meters. In the end, the panel ruled that “the use of smart meters, as implemented by CMP, does not present a credible threat of harm to the health and safety of CMP’s customers, and based on the record of this proceeding is, therefore, safe.”
Friedman and the coalition appealed that ruling to the high court and, in oral arguments last November, argued that the PUC improperly shifted the burden of proof to the complainants. They also argued that the decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record, and that the two commissioners serving on the panel varied greatly in their individual opinions.
But this week the court ruled in favor of the PUC on all counts.
In a ruling written by Justice Andrew M. Mead, the justices agreed that Friedman’s argument – that any credible evidence of health risks precluded a decision of safety – would set “an impractically high threshold for ensuring safety, and as a result would render nearly all utilities unsafe.”
Furthermore, “the record is replete with evidence supporting the Commission’s 82-page order finding that smart meters do not pose a credible threat to the health and safety of CMP’s customers,” the justices said.
The opinion also noted that over the course of the investigation, the PUC admitted over 100 peer-reviewed studies into the record, and also conducted multiple technical proceedings involving expert witnesses and cross-examination.
In the end, both commissioners “unequivocally concurred in their determination,” the court said.
“We’re very pleased that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has affirmed the commission’s decision that smart meters are safe,” CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said Wednesday.
Rice said CMP has 7,000 customers who have opted out of the smart meter program, down from a peak of 8,600 in 2012.
“I think people are realizing these meters are not a threat to health or safety,” she said.
In an email Tuesday evening, Friedman said “today’s Supreme Court decision in our smart meter case is not unexpected, but of course a great disappointment to any who care about this issue, the health and safety of all citizens, and to any who still have some lingering faith in the law.”
“It’s a long and convoluted road” from the PUC’s mission to “ensure safe, reasonable and adequate service,” and the ruling they made in their investigation, he said.
“Explain this to the many thousands injured by smart meters and to all those who refuse to pay what amounts to extortion fees to avoid the actual or credible threat of harm from RF exposure,” Friedman added.
Drawing a parallel between the public health dispute over the safety of tobacco and the smart meter debate, he said the court “instead chose to believe the ‘Marlboro Man,’ that smoking is good for us.”
Friedman noted that earlier in the month, a presentation on electrohypersensitive individuals – those who claim to be critically impaired by RF radiation – was given at a world conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
The doctor who presented the material, Dr. Yael Stein of Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, referred to those affected as “environmental refugees.”