Resolve on smart meters eludes South Portland council

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SOUTH PORTLAND — In what may be a preview of next week’s public hearing in Scarborough, more than 20 people attended a City Council workshop on Monday to protest the installation of “smart” electric meters in the city.

The workshop was intended to provide more information about the meters so councilors could consider adopting a resolution, similar to those passed in Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth, calling for a 90-day moratorium on the project.

Much of the discussion was taken up by a presentation by Central Maine Power Co. and Dr. Linda Erdreich of Exponent, a consulting firm hired by the utility.

But most of the people in attendance came prepared to make lengthy and detailed comments about their concerns about the new meters, including potential health effects and the lack of choice to participate in the program.

Mayor Tom Coward struggled to maintain order in the meeting. On several occasions, Coward cut off speakers who had gone past their allotted two-minute comment period and threatened to eject those who spoke out of turn.

“I will not allow this to devolve into chaos,” he said.

CMP began installing smart meters last month. The meters allow the company to collect electricity usage without sending readers to each home, which saves the company money.

Instead, energy usage is transmitted via a non-ionized radio wave frequency, similar to a cell phone or wireless Internet router. The information is sent up to six times per hour.

CMP Public Affairs Director John Carroll said the company has already installed nearly 11,000 of the 13,000 smart meters earmarked for South Portland. A total of 620,000 meters will be installed in CMP’s service area, he said.

Although Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth and Sanford have passed resolutions urging moratoriums on the installations, Carroll said the company is only honoring the temporary ban in Scarborough, since it was passed before the company provided testimony about the technology’s safety from, among others, state Public Health Director Dr. Dora Mills.

The Public Utilities Commission is currently considering two formal complaints about the meters. CMP has agreed to remove or not install the smart meters at customers’ request, but only until the PUC rules on the matter. There is no permanent opt-out provision.

Councilor Rosemarie De Angelis, a breast cancer survivor who had her smart meter removed, said CMP is patronizing its customers, since the company intends to install the meters without listening to feedback.

“In the end, what it sounds like, is (the forum) doesn’t really matter,” she said.

In the end, De Angelis was the only councilor to support a moratorium. Councilor Maxine Beecher said a resolution “was just a piece of paper,” while other councilors said they needed more information before making a decision.

“It was not as well-balanced as it could have been tonight,” Councilor Patti Smith said.

During his presentation, Carroll described smart meters as a “green technology” that will save the company labor costs and reduce vehicle miles.

The system will also allow the company to create comprehensive energy profiles of its customers, who may eventually be offered “dynamic pricing” by paying lower rates during off peak hours, he said.

“(This concern) has overtaken what is a great story for Maine,” Carroll said. “We’re going from the telegraph to the iPhone.”

Erdreich, who is an epidemiologist, said the technology is safe, emitting radio frequencies well-below the standard set by the Federal Communications Commission. She said homeowners are subject to greater exposure from wireless routers, cell phones and cordless phones.

“This is not a health issue for the population,” she said.

But residents asked the council to consider that Erdreich is a paid consultant to the utility company.

Resident Paul Cunningham said he uses a low-radiation cell phone and has removed wireless routers from his home. He said there is no conclusive evidence that cell phones are not harmful.

He called on the council to seek an independent source for information.

“It’s reasonable to suspect that (Erdeich’s) testimony is going to lead toward her client,” he said. “What we need are independent scientists.”

Julie Tupper of South Portland and Donna Giroux of Old Orchard Beach said they both have acute sensitivity to radiation. Neither one uses cell phones or wireless routers, because they cause portions of their bodies to go numb and tingle, they said.

Tupper said her body told her when CMP was installing the meters in her neighborhood.

“I could feel the effects washing over me,” said Tupper, noting headaches, dizziness and heart palpitations, among other symptoms.

“As far as I’m concerned, this has gone from a concern to a crisis,” Scarborough resident Elisa Boxer-Cook said. “One of your residents is getting sick.

Boxer-Cook is one of several Scarborough residents who have complained to the PUC.

South Portland resident Teresa Swinbourne said after the meeting she also plans to file a complaint with the PUC, specifically calling for an opt-out clause for concerned customers.

Meanwhile, Coward encouraged residents to take advantage of the 7 p.m. forum on Nov. 29 at Scarborough Town Hall, where they will have more time to express their opinions about the meters.

But Coward said it will be the PUC that will ultimately decide the matter.

“Your time could have been more properly spent addressing the PUC,” Coward said. “We’re not in a position to tell CMP anything about this.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or