WOOLWICH — A Richmond-based nonprofit is suing Central Maine Power over the company’s plans to install a radar system on two towers near Chops Point, arguing the radar could cause adverse health effects and harm local wildlife.

Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, a nonprofit focused on the ecosystem in the area, filed suit Tuesday. Also suing are Ed Friedman, Bowdoinham resident and chair of the nonprofit, Kathleen McGee of Bowdoinham and Colleen Moore of Topsham.

The suit cites concerns that radiation emitted by radar could cause health problems and that the towers’ lights will harm local wildlife.

“[CMP has] destroyed Merrymeeting Bay’s previously dark sky,” Moore wrote in a statement. “Neither lights or in-process microwave transmitter are required by the FAA and given the nearly absolute lack of air traffic, both are needless. They are a ‘solution’ looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Red flashing lights on new Central Maine Power transmission towers in Woolwich and Bath are seen from Brown’s Point Road in Bowdoinham. Neighbors hope the disruptive flashing can be mitigated, perhaps by radar that will turn the lights on only when a plane is flying in the area. Darcie Moore / The Times Record

The tower lights, which flash white during the day and turn red at night, were installed near the mouth of the Kennebec River last summer. One transmission tower sits in Bath and the other on Chop Point School property, carrying lines across Chops Point in Woolwich. The point forms a peninsula in Merrymeeting Bay between Woolwich and Bowdoinham. The lights can be seen from Merrymeeting Bay, as far away as Pleasant Point in Topsham and Brown’s Point Road in Bowdoinham.

According to CMP spokesperson Catharine Hartnett, the two previous transmission towers on either side of the river were more than 80 years old and needed to be replaced “to ensure reliability and consistent power delivery.” Those original 195-foot towers were permitted decades ago when the Federal Aviation Administration didn’t require lights to warn passing aircraft.

“The new towers meet current federal, state and local requirements and of necessity, are 244 feet high to support the weight of the conductor (wire) across the bay,” she said. “Because they are over 200 feet high, the FAA would not have approved them without lighting.”

The lights on the towers have a history of controversy. In January, CMP officials apologized to Woolwich residents and unveiled its plan to install a radar system. The radar system will sit on top of the towers and trigger the lights only when an aircraft is within 1,000 feet of the towers.

Friedman, who said he has an incurable form of lymphoma, said he doesn’t want to be exposed to the radiation the radar would give off. He cited a study conducted by the National Toxicology Program that found high exposure to radiofrequency radiation used by cell phones resulted in evidence of tumors in the hearts of male rats, some evidence of tumors in the brains of male rats and some evidence of tumors in the adrenal glands of male rats.

The World Health Organization found that radars, such as air traffic control radars and weather radars, that are generally located at elevated positions where the beam is inaccessible to people on the ground pose no hazard to the general public under normal conditions.

Hartnett said the radar the company will use operates at radio frequencies between 9.2 and 9.5 GHz, comparable to radar equipment found on pleasure boats.

Aside from the radar equipment, Friedman said the lights on the towers are “totally unnecessary.”

“The towers are marked, charted and nobody is going to be flying 250 feet above the ground,” he said.

The plaintiffs offered two solutions to the lights on the towers that eliminate the need for radar: installing pilot-controlled lighting and using passive aircraft detection lighting.

According to court documents, passive aircraft detection lighting “exploits existing radio emissions, such as FM, TV and cellular telephone signals, trying to detect echoes which would indicate the potential presence of a flying target.”

In a July 16 letter to William Most, the attorney representing Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, James Walker, FAA airspace specialist and Clyde Pittman, FAA director of engineering denied both suggestions because they’re “not FAA approved solutions under the FAA’s Obstruction Lighting Advisory … and are not feasible for the project.”

Walker and Pittman wrote that using pilot-controlled lighting isn’t viable: “Pilots are not required to memorize the locations of the hundreds of thousands of obstructions that are contained in the National Flight Data Center Digital Obstacle File.”

Passive aircraft detection lighting isn’t an option either because it hasn’t been approved by the FAA for use within the U.S., according to Walker and Pittman.

However, the plaintiffs want to stop CMP from using the radar and have the lights removed from the towers altogether.

The Friends of Merrymeeting Bay also argued the lights from the tower negatively impact local wildlife, especially nocturnal animals.

According to the National Park Service, nocturnal animals such as raccoons, red and gray foxes and coyotes have dark-adapted vision and “need the night to hunt, mate or avoid predators.”

Hartnett said CMP was “especially mindful that the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act could prevent any work from moving forward in the area during eagle nesting season which can go into August.”

“We observed the area for several weeks this Spring with certified wildlife biologists to finally determine there were no eagles nesting and we could develop a construction schedule,” Hartnett said.

Hartnett declined to comment on whether the company investigated how the towers would impact other local wildlife.

CMP plans to begin installing the radar equipment on July 29, according to Hartnett.

The company gained FAA approval for the radar, but is still waiting on a permit from the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC permit will allow the radar to transmit a radio signal to detect aircraft, Hartnett said.

“This permit is in process but has been challenged by the Friends of Merrymeeting Bay, so we cannot predict when it will come through,” Hartnett wrote in an email to The Times Record.

Jenny Burch told The Times Record she can see both towers from her Woolwich home and the lights make it difficult for her and her family to sleep.

“They light up every wall in the house … you just can’t get away from it” said Burch. “The lack of sleep really makes people agitated at home and it got worse during the pandemic when everyone is stuck at home.”

Woolwich Selectwoman Allison Hepler said she would have preferred that CMP approached local municipalities prior to replacing the towers.

“No one is pleased that CMP just rolled this project out without consulting the towns and they could easily be hung out to dry over that,” said Woolwich resident Curt Fish.

“I hope the judge or jury will understand that, given the balance between any need to warn aircrafts and the impact to the community and wildlife, this rises to the level of a nuisance,” Friedman said.

Friedman filed a separate lawsuit against CMP earlier this month over its smart meter opt-out fees, which he argued are discriminatory to disabled customers whose conditions may be exacerbated by low-level radiation emitted by the smart meters.

Friedman asked CMP to waive its opt-out fees in 2016 to accommodate his disability but said CMP declined. He refused to pay the fee “for the same access to safe electricity his neighbors without disabilities received without any surcharge,” resulting in CMP shutting off his power, according to a press release issued by Friedman earlier this month.

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