Staring at the yellow sheet of paper in his hand, Jim Cashman could hardly believe what he saw.
“The water service to this property will be shut off for failure to provide access to the water meter,” the paper read.
The notice came after the Stillwater resident and his wife objected to the mandatory installation of a wireless water meter in their home. If they didn’t comply, they had been warned, the water to their home would be turned off.
But Cashman didn’t want a wireless water meter.
“That didn’t sit well with us for a variety of reasons, the foremost being health and privacy issues,” Jim Cashman said. “And to have these crammed down our throats is wrong.”
The Cashmans aren’t the only ones being required to make the switch. The Stillwater Board of Water Commissioners has mandated that all water meters in its jurisdiction be replaced with a wireless model, which crews can read simply by driving past properties. The $1.4 million project is being funded by bonds (at record-low costs) with no additional charge to customers. About 90 percent of the meters in Stillwater have already been replaced, with the remainder of installations planned to be
completed this month.
The city’s water board, which consists of three commissioners appointed by the city council, says it’s simply trying to be a good steward of financial resources.
“These meters we’re replacing are old,” Commissioner Steve Speedling said. “They’re not catching some of the flow.”
That means some customers pay less than they owe. By updating the system, Speedling said, the city can charge customers more fairly and receive full payment for water used. The new meters will also comply with updated federal standards for lead content, which go into effect in January 2014.
In addition, Water Department Manager of Operations Robert Benson said the department will save an estimated 72 work days per year with the wireless meters. Instead of eating up approximately 20 days (160 man-hours) per quarter reading meters, the wireless system will allow an employee to spend about two days per quarter taking readings. For a staff of six people, that’s significant.
Cashman said he understands the perceived advantages, but it bothered him that he didn’t have a choice in the matter. He attended two water board meetings and asked for more time to study the meters without fear of his water being shut off. Although it threatened to turn off the water, the water board has not done so, instead granting him two extensions.
When Cashman began researching, what he found appalled him.
“There are a lot of issues regarding these wireless water meters,” he said. “And they are not as safe as some people portray them to be. … Dozens of cities around the country … have given their people opt-out provisions.”
Health and privacy concerns
In recent years, wireless “smart” meters for water or electricity have been the subject of controversy across the country and around the world.
Concern has centered around privacy concerns over what type of information smart meters transfer, as well as worries that the meters could cause health problems because they emit low-frequency radiation. The meters work by emitting a digital pulse several times a minute that can be detected by a digital reader in a water department vehicle as it drives by.
St. Paul Regional Water Service began a replacement project similar to Stillwater’s in 2010 and finished earlier this year. In response to citizen concerns, the water service approved a provision allowing residents to select an alternate meter. A $12 charge applied to customers who chose a non-radio device that requires someone to physically read the meter.
Leo Cashman, of St. Paul, (no relation to Jim Cashman) helped lead the charge against mandatory smart meters in St. Paul and is joining the debate in Stillwater. He’s the founder of Safe Technology Minnesota, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the public “about the health and environmental dangers of EMF (Electromagnetic Field) pollution.” He has a bachelor’s degree in physics and feels passionately about the subject of excessive radiation. He even avoids cordless phones and microwaves.
But he starts explaining his concerns with a caveat:
“Nobody is against electromagnetic radiation,” he said. “Your eyes are open, and you’re seeing light. That’s electromagnetic radiation. … It’s kind of like sound. That’s another form of energy that travels around. … Nobody’s against that either, although you don’t want to have a loud sound that blows your eardrums out.”
With cell phones, microwaves, smart meters and more, Leo Cashman says people are exposed to too much radiation today. He claims there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests the levels of radiation to which humans are exposed have harmful effects.
Like many who share his position, one study Leo Cashman cites is a “BioInitiative 2012” report with contributions from scientists around the world, including scientists from Harvard Medical School, Columbia University, the University of Athens and Lund University Hospital in Sweden.
The BioInitiative study calls for stricter government limits and more study of potential health effects of low-frequency radiation. It concludes that “the business-as-usual deployment of new wireless technologies is likely to be risky and harder to change if society does not make some educated decisions about limits soon.”
Leo Cashman said many other studies have also suggested health risks. He said the FCC’s regulations are inadequate to protect against the risks.
“It’s not nearly as protective as what you have in many European countries or elsewhere on earth,” he said.
He says the FDA, which he believes has a responsibility to regulate radiation, has been “negligent in setting any standards.”
Leo Cashman alleges that much public policy is influenced by industry-funded studies and interests, but he says it’s irresponsible to ignore what he sees as strong evidence of health risks.
“When a … unit of local government carefully makes a decision, they ought to be informed by the science and make a decision that protects public health,” Leo Cashman said. “What they’re doing is they’re putting their convenience ahead of our safety.”
Jim Cashman agreed.
“I don’t think there was enough time and research that went into this decision to force these upon us,” Jim Cashman said.
The water board’s perspective
Members of Stillwater’s Board of Water Commissioners say that the decision-making process started about two years ago and that commissioners did their due-diligence.
As for privacy concerns, the board says this model of wireless meter isn’t truly a “smart” meter. It only broadcasts the number of gallons of water used for billing purposes — it doesn’t broadcast information about usage patterns or times. It does collect usage data, which is stored internally for 90 days and can only be retrieved with physical access to the meter. Commissioner Speedling said the department would only access that information as a diagnostic tool if a customer reported a problem.
Commissioners say they have also considered health concerns. The commission hired a consulting firm,TKDA, to research the safety of the wireless meters.
“We had heard there (were) some groups out there that had concerns about using this type of technology, but everything that was coming back to us was stating this was safe,” Speedling said.
“There’s confusion by people because they’re confused by the information that’s available on the Internet and in the newspapers,” Commissioner George Vania said.
Vania — who has a master’s in engineering and recently retired from a 40-year career in the water and wastewater industry — said the board took a science-based approach all along.
Before the commission made its initial decision, Vania said, it reviewed information from the FCC and FDA, as well as Health Canada. None of those organizations found evidence to support the idea that cell phone or similar low-level radiation causes harm to humans.
He also noted that the radiation emitted by one of the water meters is far below that of cell phones and other common devices. In fact, it emits radiation for a total time of less than one minute per day.
After hearing from Cashman and another resident who expressed concern at a water board meeting, Vania did more research, including looking at the BioInitiative 2012 study.
Although he found it to be one of the sources most commonly cited by opponents of smart meters, Vania called the BioInitiative study a “poorly prepared technical document.” He pointed to critiques, such as an article from sciencebasedmedicine.org by Kenneth Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. In his article, Foster calls the BioInitiative report “an egregiously slanted review of health and biological effects of electromagnetic fields.”
Vania said many independent agencies have concluded that there isn’t sufficient evidence to support the claim that wireless smart meters cause health problems.
Some local governments in California have banned wireless smart meters, but the California Council on Science and Technology concluded in 2011 that there wasn’t evidence of known health impacts. In December last year the Public Utility Commission of Texas reached a similar conclusion. The World Health Organization has not been able to rule out the possibility that radiation from cell phones and other devices causes cancer, but it has not found evidence to conclude that exposure to such low frequency electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health.
Vania admitted he can’t rule out the possibility that in 10 years science might demonstrate a health risk associated with wireless water meters, but he doesn’t believe any studies have done so to date. He strongly believes the water board is doing its best to protect the community using a sicence-based approach.
“Look, I got the meter in my house,” he said.
But Leo Cashman disagrees with Vania’s conclusions.
“I think it’s completely wrong to say there’s no science indicating harm,” he said. “Anyone who says that hasn’t looked very hard or has only looked at industry science.”
Regardless of what others conclude, Jim Cashman hopes he’ll get to make up his mind for himself and choose whether or not to allow installation of a wireless meter.
“It is a violation of basic human rights to be forced into having a pulse digital radiation device put into the inside of our home,” he said. “It is only right, at the very least, to give people a choice in the matter.”
For now, Cashman isn’t in danger of having his water shut off. The water board has been gathering information from other cities about options they provide customers, and the board is meeting Thursday, Nov. 14, to discuss how to proceed.
“Right now everything’s on the table,” Speedling said. “We have to make a decision as a board on what we’re going to do to maintain what’s best for the community.”
That includes consideration of the cost for making exceptions to the rule.
Leo Cashman plans to testify at the Nov. 14 meeting, and both sides agree it’s a good opportunity for members of the public to ask questions or make their opinions heard.
The meeting is at 8:30 a.m., Nov. 14, at the water department, 204 Third Street N., Stillwater.
The water board has more information at ci.stillwater.mn.us. Scroll down and click on “Board of Water Commission’s Water Meter Replacement Project.”
Leo Cashman’s organization has more information at safetechmn.org.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]