GREAT BARRINGTON — There was a water meter fight in Housatonic last week.
A plan already underway by the Housatonic Water Works Co. to replace analog water meters with a new wireless model has customers worried about bursts of radiation from its transmitter, which sends water use data to the company using cellular networks.
The private water company and meter manufacturer say the level of radiation is less than that emitted by a text message, and is equivalent to “a brief cell phone call.” But ratepayers are still wary.
“You’re trying to force these meters on people when in fact they’re dangerous,” said Christopher Rowland, a resident, speaking to James Mercer, the water company’s co-owner and treasurer.
The new models, made by Badger Meter, boost accuracy and last 20 to 25 years, said Badger representatives and Mercer, all speaking at an informational meeting Thursday at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South Berkshire in Housatonic.
Mercer said his company, which provides water to Housatonic and some surrounding homes, has already installed the new meters for 537 out of 850 customers, and that the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the company’s water operation at Long Pond, required the replacements for accuracy in identifying unaccounted-for water.
“Now we can tell the flow per day,” Mercer said.
Last year the state Department of Public Utilities approved the company’s phased-in 30.3 percent rate hike over two years for system upgrades like the new meters and new mains.
Mercer told residents that the new meters will save the company and customers time and money, since water use can be read remotely, without the need for a visit by a company technician.
The new meters can also detect leaks, and customers will be notified by text or email, he said.
But around 10 customers said they were worried about electromagnetic and radio frequency emissions from a twice-per-day transmission of data.
Radiation questions and confusion all around
“I don’t want to be a guinea pig,” said Corinne Rowland.
“It’s not a smart meter,” said Badger representative Scott Fitzgerald, of the general term for wireless meters that have raised health concerns nationwide. “It doesn’t have radio frequency waves. It’s less [radiation] than a text message of info.”
Radio frequency wave devices will, however, be installed in one area of town that has poor cellular service, Mercer said, adding that the water departments of Great Barrington, Lee and Stockbridge use this type of meter.
But the product description for the Badger E-Series Ultrasonic Plus meters says it does use radio frequency.
Badger representatives did not respond to requests for clarification. Mercer said they were still gathering information about radiation levels for him to pass to customers.
To address concerns about radio frequency waves, a Badger marketing specialist told Mercer in a letter he passed out at the meeting that the meter’s ORION Cellular endpoint transmitter emits radio frequency signals “well below the levels most people come into contact with on a typical day in their home” from TV sets, wireless and cellular phones.
And distance also decreases exposure, the letter said, especially since the transmitter is typically in the basement or outside.
Badger representative Tom Watts said he isn’t a physician or a scientist, and so couldn’t answer health-related questions. He said the transponder emits a signal twice per day at a 900-megahertz frequency as it connects to cellular networks, and said he would talk to company engineers to get more exact information about the device’s electromagnetic emissions.
He did say that the meters meet Federal Communications Commission guidelines for human exposure to radio frequency waves and electromagnetic fields.
But some residents were unconvinced, and unimpressed by adherence to FCC rules.
“I’ve studied this,” said Susan Lord, a Housatonic resident who is also a physician. “[American] standards for toxicity are much more lenient that anywhere else in the developed world. We’re being bombarded by all those things.”
Several people at the meeting expressed fears about health effects from the emissions of the meters.
The American Cancer Society’s website points to some research indicating health threats from radio frequency waves, but says, all told, the impact is unclear. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization, has classified RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
SUNY Albany’s David Carpenter, a physician who is director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, has said there is no evidence that radio frequency waves are safe, and that there haven’t been any studies conducted on people living in homes that have wireless meters pulsing out such waves.
And the World Health Organization is concerned enough that it is currently preparing a report on the health risks of exposure to radio frequency and electromagnetic fields.
Opt-out fees and attempts to vanquish them
Accusations were hurled through the Unitarian meeting room. One customer said Mercer had threatened to shut off her water if she refused the new meter. And Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, told The Eagle two customers had called him on different days saying Mercer had made this threat.
Mercer denied it, and said he would offer a new mechanical meter if people want it, though cautioned that it might come at a cost. He said he would have to petition the DPU to make the opt-out possible, and told The Eagle that he has no inkling of cost, which would be set by the agency.
But this might all depend on what happens with a bill moving through the Legislature that would allow a free opt-out of wireless meter installations, and would protect ratepayers in other ways. It’s a bill Pignatelli says he supports.
Fitzgerald mentioned the bill, and said he’s knows what’s holding it up.
“It’s the no-charge part of that,” he said.
One provision of the rate increase was that Mercer hold regular informational meetings about various water company issues.
As the meeting wound down on a more peaceful note, with a fraction of the attendees left, Mercer acknowledged that this issue is “sensitive and emotions are running high.”
Lord suggested that the reason for the tension is that there wasn’t an opportunity early on for input from what is a small, close-knit community.
“That’s why this has gotten out of hand,” she said.
Reach Heather Bellow at email@example.com or @BE_hbellow or 413-329-6871