The Penobscot Times

Citing health risks, Orono residents oppose proposal to install cell towers downtown

ORONO, Maine — Citing potential health risks of radiation and fears of 5G technology, dozens of Orono residents are urging the town’s planning board to reject a Verizon Wireless proposal to install cell antennas near downtown. 

Since first submitting the proposal in late April, the telecommunications company has been slowly putting together research to back its proposal — which Verizon said will significantly improve cellular coverage in Orono. 

Verizon’s plan, which includes putting eight new antennas in the steeple of the United Methodist Church at 36 Oak St., has been met with strong opposition by residents — many who worry the cell tower’s radio frequency emissions may cause risks to public health. 

According to town ordinance, wireless telecommunications facilities — such as the cell site Verizon Wireless is proposing — must follow regulations from the Federal Communications Commission.

But in terms of rejecting Verizon’s proposal based on perceived public health concern, the board’s hands are tied. 

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 — which leveled the playing field for communications companies — also bars municipalities from rejecting a proposal based on any perceived health risks, so long as the radiofrequency emissions from the site are within the FCC’s limits, Kyle Drexler, Orono’s town planner said. 

This may be a sticking point for Orono’s residents — many of whom have urged the board to reject the proposal out of public health concerns in recent months. 

In a lengthy planning board meeting earlier this month streamed over Facebook Live, Drexler read statements from at least a dozen residents asking the board to nix the proposal. 

“Frankly, I don’t want my daughter to get brain cancer or my family to for that matter, all because you want a faster cell phone service,” resident Valerie Acheson commented.  

Other residents who live near the United Methodist Church also made comments about not wanting to live by a cell tower site — many out of fear for the site’s radiofrequency emissions. 

“This is a very common concern,” Scott Anderson, of Verill Dana, the firm representing Verizon Wireless in their proposal, said during the June 17 meeting. 

 “We never like hanging our hat on the ‘sorry you can’t regulate this.’ We want people to know that the [radiofrequency] levels are very, very low.” 

According to a radiofrequency emissions report Anderson provided on behalf of Verizon Wireless, the site’s maximum exposure levels will be below 10 percent of the FCC limit. 

The FCC has stated that radiofrequency emissions from cellular antennas and cell phones give off exposure levels on the ground that are “typically thousands of times below safety limits.” 

“Therefore, there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents or students,” the report states.

People have also voiced fears in the past few months that the company will later switch to 5G technology if the project is approved. 

“Right now there are no plans to go with 5G in Orono,” Anderson said. If they later wanted to introduce 5G, they would need to upgrade the antennas and again go through the planning board for approval, he added. 

Dr. Nuri Emanetoglu, an associate professor in the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Maine, added that based on the band frequency, the current antennas Verizon wants to install have 4G capabilities — not 5G. 

Emanetoglu said that if the company wanted to increase the frequencies of the cellular site, they would need to increase the system’s power units — but because they need to be licensed by the FCC according to municipal ordinance, the company can’t do that without oversight. 

He also noted that everyday devices with wifi capabilities — such as cell phones, tablets and laptops — give off non-ionizing radiation, too, but are generally not harmful to humans because like cell signal towers, their frequencies are regulated by the FCC to protect people from overexposure. 

While exposure to ionizing radiation — such as from x-rays — may increase the risk of cancer, there is currently “no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans,” the National Cancer Institute has stated. 

According to Emanetoglu, people should only begin to worry about overexposure if other  telecommunications companies install more of their own cell towers in town that operate on different frequencies. 

Besides the public health concern, the biggest remaining issue for the planning board to discuss, Drexler said, is how to interpret language regarding exemptions for telecommunications facilities according to municipal ordinance

According to town ordinance, antennas can be considered as an accessory use for wireless telecommunications facilities — as long as the equipment is located “entirely within an existing, enclosed structure.”

This poses a problem for Verizon, which wants to install ground equipment outside the church, along with the eight antennas inside the steeple. The task at hand now, is for the board to decide whether or not this equipment is considered a telecommunications facility or if it can meet the exemption, Drexler said.

“The planning board has asked staff to get a legal opinion from the Town Attorney to verify the interpretation of the ordinance language,” he added. 

The board is expected to discuss the topic again during their next meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 15.

Get the Rest of the Story

Thank you for reading your 4 free articles this month. To continue reading, and support local, rural journalism, please subscribe.