HALLOWELL — The Maine Public Utilities Commission today declined to reconsider its earlier decisions on Central Maine Power Co.'s "smart" electric meter program, despite new scientific information on the possible health impacts of wireless radiation.
The PUC also ruled that CMP must tell all its customers during the next billing cycle about the benefits of the smart meter program and their ability to opt out of the program.
Meanwhile, a group of CMP customers has filed a new complaint with the PUC, despite the panel's previous ruling requiring the company to allow its customers to opt out of the program it rolled out last year.
The opt-out program, which came after six groups filed complaints with the PUC over health, privacy and safety concerns, requires customers who do not want the wireless meters to pay monthly fees for alternative devices.
The new complaint, filed Aug. 1, asks the PUC to review alleged health impacts of the meters, citing data from the recently released World Health Organization's study of non-ionizing radio frequency, or RF, radiation.
"After the PUC came out with their earlier orders (to allow opt-outs), the World Health Organization changed their tune about non-ionizing radiation. We wanted to get that information to the PUC," lead complainant Ed Friedman said.
However, in what may be an indicator of how the PUC will receive Friedman's complaint, the commissioners on Tuesday declined to reconsider the smart meter program in light of the WHO findings.
Commissioner Vendean Vafiades said the WHO found impacts of RF radiation to be "limited among users of wireless telephones only," and that the information was inconclusive about technology like the smart meters.
"The exposure from cell phones are much higher," Commissioner David Littell said. "It clearly should be dealt with by the federal agency that has jurisdiction over the largest (RF radiation) emitter, cellular telephones."
Friedman, who lives in Bowdoinham, said his group considers it "extortion" for the PUC to require customers to pay for opting out of the smart meter program.
"For the PUC to say I have to pay to avoid risks to my health, or perceived risks to my health or privacy, that's the definition of extortion," he said. "These are bad things. Neither CMP nor the PUC has brought forward any compelling evidence that smart meters are safe."
The complaint accuses the PUC of "collusion with the utility," "willful negligence," and "arbitrary and uninformed" decisions. It cites the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ensures a person's right to safety from the government's intrusion into private citizens' homes.
"While it is CMP who is electronically entering the home (also in excess of their terms and conditions of service – thus trespassing)," the complaint states, "they are acting as an agent of the government (PUC or State) who has decided to endorse, promote, solicit and award bids to implement the smart meter program as part of the smart grid."
"It's really a complaint to the commission about the the commission," CMP spokesman John Carroll. "That's an interesting way to ask for help."
During Tuesday's deliberations, the commission appeared to agree.
"Extortion is a serious accusation," Vafiades said. "I don't believe that concept is appropriate in this context."
The complaint, and the request to reconsider a previously filed complaint, both cite new data made available in May when the World Health Organization listed RF radiation as a possible carcinogen, adding it to the same category as lead, DDT, coffee, diesel fuel, chloroform and potassium bromate (typically added to baking flour).
"We're not public health experts," Carroll said, when asked if the WHO findings would affect the smart meter roll-out.
He said the WHO ruling was "reason for more study," but that it was not CMP's job to decide whether smart meters are a health risk.
"We're not qualified to do that," he said.
But Carroll stopped short of saying the company believed the meters are safe, and reiterated a that the meters use the same technology as cell phones and other wireless devices.
"They meet FCC regulations for this application," he said. "We submitted all the detailed information to the Maine CDC and the PUC, who have been looking at this since October."
The Maine Center for Disease Control previously stated that it did not find "any consistent or convincing evidence to support a concern for health effects related to the use of radiofrequency in the range of frequencies and power used by smart meters."
However, that finding came before the WHO added RF radiation as a possible carcinogen.
Representatives from the Maine CDC could not be reached for comment.
Two lead complainants from previous PUC complaints asked the commission reconsider its earlier decision to allow opt-outs with a fee and have also called into question CMP's communication program, in which the PUC required the company to inform customers of the option to opt out.
CMP was not required to notify the 270,000 customers whose meters were installed before the PUC's decision in April to require the opt-outs.
"There's mass confusion," lead complainant Elisa Boxer-Cook said. "They really should notify everyone equally that they have the option to opt out."
Boxer-Cook, a Scarborough resident, said people who previously opted out, before the April decision, are coming home to smart meters on their houses because they didn't call the company a second time to opt out again.
Even CMP has some confusion around the issue of who has opted out and who has not.
Carroll said approximately 8,000 people signed on to the temporary opt-out list, but that the company did not know how many would continue to opt out with a cost associated with the decision.
"We're now in the process of determining which (customers) were serious," Carroll said. "We need to get these people to be clear about their choice."
He said fewer than 1 percent of customers have responded that they want to continue to opt out of the meters under the monthly fee system.
Customers have 30 days to respond once they are notified of the opt-out option. After that, removing the meters will cost an additional $25.
Customers can opt to keep their old meters for an initial charge of $40, and a monthly charge of $12, or have a smart meter with its wireless capability disabled, which would cost the customer $20 initially and $10.50 per month.
Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.