Housatonic — Tensions flared at a meeting last week to educate ratepayers on the ongoing installation of so-called smart meters by Housatonic Water Works, the private water company that supplies water to about 850 customers, with the vast majority in the Housatonic section of Great Barrington, as well as a smattering of customers in bordering portions of Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.
But little was resolved Thursday night (November 30) at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South Berkshire as residents held nothing back in voicing their concerns about the environmental risks associated with the devices.
In interviews and emails to The Edge, those in attendance described the meeting as “adversarial” and “raucus,” with one woman screaming “I am being violated!” before leaving.
But beneath the histrionics, there were important issues to be examined. Smart water meters use attached transponders to transmit usage and other data to water companies via the same cellular data networks used by smartphones.
Smart meters are also in use by other public utilities such as Eversource and National Grid, which has started pilot programs in select cities throughout its service area.
The smart water meter program has set off alarms in the health-conscious community and among privacy advocates who fret over the radiation emitted in twice-a-day pulses as the meters report data back to the utility.
About 80 people attended the meeting. Turnout was likely increased by Kathy Regan, who founded the Housatonic-based Our Berkshire Times magazine and published an article in the magazine’s holiday edition by Patricia Burke, the research and education director at S.A.F.E.(Scientific Alliance for Education).
“At the meeting, people were very concerned about not having choices and being exposed to radiation,” Regan said in an interview. “Residents are frustrated, feeling they’re not getting the full story.”
In addition, Regan had distributed a flyer in Housatonic warning of the dangers of the meters and insisting that Housatonic Water Works treasurer James Mercer had “threatened to shut off residents’ water if they do not agree to have radiation-emitting water meters and transmitters installed in/on their homes.”
“There were no threats to anyone about shutting off service,” Mercer said in an interview. “We’re are a regulated utility. We have no intent to turn anyone’s water off.”
Mercer said that, after the public outcry, he plans to institute an opt-out program for those who do not wish to have the devices. But it’s not as simple as just letting people opt out.
Two years ago, Housatonic Water Works applied to the state Department of Public Utilities for a rate increase. As part of the settlement with DPU for a 30 percent increase over two years for infrastructure improvements, Housatonic Water Works agreed to the installation of newer, more efficient meters.
The new meters, which will last longer – about 20 to 25 years – will not only do a more accurate job of recording usage, but they can also detect leaks, customers can receive text and email updates, go online to check their consumption, and the meters do not require a technician to visit the home to take a reading, thereby saving money for ratepayers, Mercer said.
But in order to institute an opt-out program, he will need to ask the DPU for permission – a process he has already started. And if the opt-out program becomes a reality, those who keep the analog meters will be charged an extra fee, though Mercer does not yet know how much that would be.
Meanwhile, 537 of Housatonic Water Works’ 850 customers have switched to the new E-Series meters made by Badger Meter Inc. In the absence of an opt-out program, those who have not yet had the new meters installed have the option of having what Mercer calls a “radio-read system” installed.
“We physically drive by and pick up the readings that way,” Mercer explained.
The Great Barrington Fire District, which provides water to much of the rest of the town, had a radio-read system installed about 11 years ago. Lee, Stockbridge and Lenox have such systems as well, Mercer said.
As for the health concerns expressed at Thursday’s meeting, Mercer deferred to health experts on that question, as did the Badger representatives at the meeting.
But in the announcement on the company website, Mercer said, “the American Cancer Society and other scientific groups have deemed the technology totally safe.” He cited a 2011 study on the health impacts of radio frequency meters by the California Council on Science and Technology, which was created by the California Legislature to report on public policy issues related to science and technology.
Au contraire, said Regan. In the flyer she distributed and in the magazine article by Burke, Regan cited several sources who are very concerned about the health and environmental impacts of the smart meters. She listed studies by the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization, among others.
“This has been forced on the community with really no disclosure of the potential risks,” Housatonic Water Works customer Christopher Rowland told The Edge.
Kathy Regan’s husband Kevin told The Edge there may be problems even with the opt-out program because the transponders emit radiation for 200 feet away from your home.
“You could be bombarded with these signals even if you don’t live in the house,” Kevin Regan said.
Kathy Regan said she was also concerned about the vulnerability of the system to hackers and the loss of privacy that might entail, while Rowland had concerns about data mining.
“There is a big push for this kind of thing across the country,” Rowland said. “Ultimately, this is about collecting data and selling it. There is a huge push to digitize this information about utility consumption.”
Mercer said Badger has told him the transponder on the new meters emit no more radiation than electronic devices that typically lie around people’s homes, including television sets, radios and cell phones.
Kathy Regan pointed to legislation introduced by Sen. Michael O. Moore, D-Millbury, that would establish as a consumer right the free opting out of the installation of smart meters. Moore’s district includes portions of Worcester, where in 2013, National Grid established a smart meter pilot program serving 15,000 customers, which the utility said in its first year, “saved customers $1.25 million and a total of 2,300 megawatt-hours, which is enough to power a local library in Worcester for nearly a year.”
Mercer said the next step is for his company to successfully complete the petition process to the DPU to allow the opt-out for customers who do not want the new meters. He did not yet know how long that would take.