Sunday, February 08, 2004

Power line neighbors fear electromagnetic field

By Matt Crawford
Free Press Staff Writer
FERRISBURGH -- Like most parents, Paul and Lynn Cyr worry about their daughter's health.
The young couple has a new concern for Chelsea, their 4-year old. The Cyrs were recently informed that a high-voltage power line might be built along the railroad track that abuts their Monkton Road property -- about 150 feet from their house.
"When we moved in there was a railroad track, and we knew about that; we dealt with that," said Paul Cyr. "Now, all of sudden, they're talking about 60-foot poles and a huge power line."
The Cyrs are among the hundreds of landowners affected by the Northwest Reliability Project, a proposed power-line upgrade that would install electric lines capable of carrying more power between West Rutland and South Burlington, Barre and Williamstown, and improvements to more than a dozen substations along the route. It would be the largest electric transmission project in Vermont in two decades. The construction has yet to be approved.
Opposition to the project being proposed by the Vermont Electric Power Co. -- commonly known as VELCO -- has developed on a number of fronts. Consumers, neighbors and environmentalists have raised questions about the necessity and cost of the project, the aesthetics of the power lines and the health hazards they might present.
Many, like the Cyrs, are concerned about the effects of the electromagnetic fields -- or EMFs -- associated with power lines.
When VELCO announced its plans for the project, the power lines went through Vergennes, not the Cyrs' property in Ferrisburgh. Friday, VELCO filed a revised route for the project -- a revision that would string a 115,000-volt power line over the railroad bed behind the Cyrs' house.
Eben Markowski of Vergennes, one of the leaders of Vermont Citizens for Safe Energy, says the Cyrs have every right to be upset about the VELCO project.
"Everything you read about EMFs says children are more susceptible," said Markowski, who erected signs along U.S. 7 warning Addison County residents of the possible risks. "Our knowledge of EMFs is reminiscent of our new reality of understanding about cigarette smoke. This is something we need to approach very, very cautiously."
VELCO, the Vermont Health Department and a number of well-respected experts disagree with the groups waving the EMF flag; the state's health department has given the project the green light.
The EMF debate

Scientists say power lines emit electromagnetic fields -- invisible lines of force that surround all electrical devices -- and that prolonged exposure to high EMF levels can affect the health of living things. Some scientists, however, aren't convinced EMFs from power lines pose a significant health risk to humans.
"EMF science is somewhat nebulous," said Lawrence Crist, director of the Vermont Health Department's division of health protection. "There is no conclusive science that says EMF is a problem when people encounter it in a normal range of what we encounter in day-to-day life."
Some Vermonters say VELCO's power-line upgrade will produce EMF levels outside the normal day-to-day range. Plus, VELCO's critics say, study after study implicates power-line EMF with cancer clusters, outbreaks of leukemia in children, and increases in the rate of miscarriage and Lou Gehrig's disease.
"The evidence about EMF risk has piled up and piled up, and more keeps coming our way," said Fred Peyser Jr. of Monkton, a director of Vermont Citizens for Safe Energy, a grassroots organization of mostly Addison County residents. "It seems clear to us this project is a health risk."
Just how detrimental the health effects of the VELCO project would be is one factor Vermont's Public Service Board will consider when it begins to hear detailed technical testimony Wednesday. The testimony is scheduled to last nearly five weeks, with several days centering on the EMF risk of the project. Experts from around the country are expected to testify.
"If the board looks at this with the proper amount of concern," Markowski said, "they should hold this project off."
VELCO officials, on the other hand, seem confident the Public Service Board will see the benefits of a project that promises to provide a more reliable stream of electricity to the burgeoning corner of northwestern Vermont.
"We certainly recognize people are concerned," VELCO attorney Tom Wies said, "but we're persuaded that there's not a major public health hazard here."
Vermonters at risk?

Wies says the company was fully aware the EMF debate was going to be an issue when it brought the Northwest Reliability Project to the public's attention. For that reason, VELCO has offered testimony from an EMF expert, Harvard Ph.D.-holder Peter Alexis Valberg, who has researched and published a number of studies on the topic.
"There is evidence that shows an association between EMF exposure and a risk of a few diseases, but most experts who look at the evidence find it weak and inconsistent," said Wies.
Valberg testimony says the the link between health problems and EMF remains inconclusive.
In addition, said Wies, VELCO's proposed upgrades might reduce EMF emissions along parts of the project.
Expensive battle

Vermont Citizens for Safe Energy has spent $40,000-$50,000 to fight the VELCO project. The group has erected signs along U.S. 7 in Vergennes telling Vermonters that the power line upgrade is bad for public health. The group will bring in two experts to testify that EMF exposure can be directly linked to cancer and blood diseases.
"A lot of communities have compromised their way to get something out of this project," Peyser said. "For us, the compromises are all bad. They leave outstanding the fact which is that there are health risks."
While the Vermont Health department recognizes health risks might be associated with some power lines, it generally agrees with VELCO that the Northwest Reliability Project is safe.
"We don't see the EMF emissions from the project as being a problem," Crist said.
Officially, the Health Department has adopted a policy of "prudent avoidance" when it comes to power lines.
"That means wherever we can avoid people coming into contact with EMF and do so in a reasonable and cost-effective way, that's the strategy we should employ," Crist said.
Cyr contends that when he and his wife moved to the home eight years ago, there was no power line in place.
"We were avoiding them then," he said. "We didn't move in next to power lines."
Contact Matt Crawford at 651-4852 or