Passions run high as Housie residents decry ‘smart’ water meters

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By Wednesday, Dec 6 News  8 Comments
Long Pond is the source of water for Housatonic Water Works, which is seeking to install so-called "smart meters" in its 850 customers' homes and businesses. Photo courtesy Housatonic Water Works

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.

A National Grid smart meter. Photo courtesy National Grid

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.

Sheffield activist Nina Anderson brought a petition before the annual town meeting there calling for a temporary moratorium on allowing the National Grid meters in Sheffield. It passed.

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.”

James Mercer, treasurer of Housatonic Water Works, left, at an event at the Great Barrington Historical Society’s Wheeler House, where he sits on the board of directors. At right are Historical Society archivist Gary Leveille and state Rep. Smitty Pignatelli. Photo: Terry Cowgill

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.

A National Grid smart meter being removed.

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.

Offices of the Housatonic Water Works Company on Maple Avenue in Great Barrington.

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.”

Housatonic Water Works President James Mercer, holding papers at left, listens as Housatonic resident Jane Wright adresses Department of Public Utilities commissioners at a public hearing at the Housie Dome in January 2016. Photo: Heather Bellow.

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.


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8 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Patricia Burke says:

    The Worcester National Grid smart meter pilot is $15M over budget, behind schedule, misrepresented the results, and overran the process of community consent. It has been characterized as outcome-oriented research, or decision-based evidence making. Interested parties can learn more about the ongoing investigation by reading about MA MA DPU 17-53 on the Department’s website. There was no informed consent or health or environmental monitoring.

  2. Nina Anderson, The Scientific Alliance for Education says:

    In Sheffield we passed the moratorium, but the town later deemed that and advisory vote only so it didn’t stick. The health statistics claimed by the utilities are very skewed and don’t factor in the effect non-ionizing radiation and how it affects the normal frequency the human body operates under. Cell phone, WiFi and smart electric meters all put out non-ionizing radiation which can be measured. Our group measured the AMR meter and the smart water meter as well as a WiFi modum in a home in Housatonic and found potentially toxic levels of emissions which can also cause dirty electricity that can disrupt the human body. National Grid used a tobacco scientist to make its case for safe smart meters. This same scientist defended the tobacco industry to say smoking was not harmful. Need I say more… For studies and facts go to our blog http:// NoMassSmartMeters.wordpress.com

    1. John says:

      The power output of a GSM cell phone right next to a persons head is +33dbm…. what is the field strength intensity of the meter 30 feet from you?

  3. Joseph Method says:

    This is a very one-sided article. You could read this and assume that the scientific evidence is firmly in favor of this being a significant risk. In the flyer they even try to suggest that the American Cancer Society has a strong opinion on this because say it could be a “possible” risk. But the actual page if you go to it concludes with: “Because the low levels of energy from RF radiation have not been clearly shown to cause problems even at close range, it isn’t clear that lowering exposure to RF radiation has health benefits.” The anti-smart meter people will also say that this technology hasn’t been studied enough. That’s because nobody has thought to study radiation from smart meters separately from radiation from cell phones (since the frequency bands are so similar). The risks will be similar, except that a cell phone is generally closer to your body, especially if you put it up to your head, and it will be transmitting almost continuously.

    I think I support people being allowed to opt-out at no cost, just as an accommodation for their concerns (but let’s all be clear that this could increase our collective water rate). But anyone who is up in arms about this technology better not own a cell phone, or have a wireless router in their home. Otherwise it’s like worrying about a dripping faucet while you’re running the shower at full blast all the time.

    Something else that isn’t clearly explained here or elsewhere is that there are different kinds of radiation. Cell phones and smart meters emit “non-ionizing radiation”. The radiation from x-rays and in monster movies is ionizing radiation that definitely increases your chance of cancer (you get a fair amount when you’re flying in an airplane). Ionizing radiation damages cells by modifying molecules. Non-ionizing radiation reacts with matter by heating it up (think microwaves). This heating effect is governed by the inverse square law, which means that if the effect is a certain strength at 1 inch away, it will be 1/100 the effect at 10 inches away, and 1/10,000 the effect at 100 inches away. In other words it falls away very quickly with distance. I have read a study on mice that seems to show that non-ionizing radiation caused tumors in 2% of a group of 90 mice, when exposed all the time at close quarters to a much higher dose of radiation than modern cell phones produce. This is all to put the risk in perspective.

    1. John says:

      Correct Joseph. We are all bombarded by random radiated signals every microsecond…. am radio stations fm, tv, cell phone, tv remotes garage door openers, Bluetooth headsets(right next to your brain….)…. and yes if you have a look at your outlets they radiate too…
      The field strength intensity of these meters is nothing compared to other aggressors.
      The water company is simply trying to keep your bill down.

    2. Steve Farina says:

      Nicely done, Joseph. It is good to see a well thought out, factual response. I appreciate you explaining the different types of ionizing radiation.

  4. Steve Farina says:

    So without the “smart meter” there is still a need for someone to drive around to read the meters. There is probably a good chance this is not done in an electric vehicle, thus increasing the carbon footprint. Or, in this case, not decreasing it. There always seems to be some trade off.
    I would be more concerned with the health effects of the water treatment on the water delivered at the tap.

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