Maine Public Utilities Commission didn’t address smart meter safety, court says

Posted July 12, 2012, at 8:03 p.m.
A new Central Maine Power smart meter displays electricity usage at a business in Freeport in fall 2010.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
A new Central Maine Power smart meter displays electricity usage at a business in Freeport in fall 2010.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s highest court ruled Thursday that state regulators failed to adequately address safety concerns about Central Maine Power’s smart meters but the ruling had no immediate impact on more than 600,000 smart meters already installed in homes and businesses across the state.

The Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Maine Public Utilities Commission to reconsider a complaint that raised health concerns, and lead plaintiff, Ed Friedman of Bowdoinham, urged the panel to use the opportunity “to hold full evidentiary hearings on this and look at it under the bright lights.”

“We understand that the horse is out of the barn in terms of the meters being in, but they should’ve vetted these smart meters for safety before they were deployed instead of waiting until they’re deployed to see that there’s well-known biological effects,” Friedman said.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission issued a brief statement saying the panel is considering how best to comply with the supreme court’s unanimous ruling.

“The commission is reviewing the order to determine what steps must be taken to comply with the court’s decision. We have not reached a decision on what process will be required to do so. Any decision about process will be determined by commissioners in a public session,” the statement said.

Smart meters transmit information about electricity use to CMP’s headquarters in Augusta using wireless technology similar to cellphones which emits radio frequency radiation. CMP says smart meters are safe, cut energy use and allow utilities to pinpoint problems during power outages more quickly.

At issue is whether the state regulators shirked their legal mandate to ensure the delivery of safe and reasonable utility services in approving CMP’s smart meters.

Critics also contend the smart meter program poses constitutional problems related to privacy and trespass, but the supreme court dismissed those claims.

As for safety, lawyers for the Maine Public Utilities Commission previously said there was no need for the panel to tackle safety concerns that already had been addressed by federal agencies. They also contended an opt-out provision provided an alternative for people with health worries.

Critics say radio frequency radiation emitted by smart meters can cause sleep loss, heart palpitations, dizziness and other problems. They say the PUC had a duty to look into those health concerns and that the opt-out provision doesn’t assure safety of those who keep smart meters. Friedman said the opt-out provision is meaningless for people who live in congested neighborhoods where they’re surrounded by smart meters.

CMP, which contends smart meters are safe, said the supreme court’s ruling has no immediate impact. The utility said it would continue installing the remaining 2,000 smart meters.

Federal stimulus dollars funded roughly half the $200 million cost of the smart meter project.

“The system is in place and it’s operating. We use it every day. This decision isn’t going to change any of our operations in the short term,” said spokesman John Carroll.

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