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February 26. 2012 11:35PM

8 NHEC customers seek halt to smart meters

HAVERHILL — Should eight of New Hampshire Electric Cooperative's 80,000 members be allowed to say no to having so-called “smart meters” — the latest in use-monitoring equipment — installed at their homes?

That's the question a Grafton County Superior Court judge is considering following Friday's hearing in which three among a group of neighbors from a cul-de-sac in Bristol testified. They argued that their health concerns over exposure to electromagnetic radiation emanating from the meters should outweigh the cooperative's plan to install the devices throughout its system.

“We should have a right to say yes or no, whether we want this or not,” said Dan Arseneau, one of the plaintiffs who appeared in the North Haverhill court to ask Judge Peter H. Bornstein to issue an injunction to halt installation of the smart meters until “the hazards and concerns of NHEC's customers” can be reviewed thoroughly.

His neighbor, Joan Wirth, came to court armed with the results of numerous studies that show the health hazards associated with exposure to even low levels of such radiation.

“How can we, as human beings, disregard that and place our children's health at risk?” she asked the judge. “I believe it's illegal to put people in harm's way with no choice.”

Officials of the Plymouth-based cooperative say, however, that Bornstein must rule in their favor since the petitioners are not claiming the co-op's “smart meter” installations violate any federal, state or local law.

They said that federal law — specifically Federal Communications Commission regulations — take legal precedence. That, they say, pre-empts the neighbors' attempt to have a state court “second guess the FCC's expert regulatory assessment that wireless communications devices, which conform to its standards, are safe,” the co-op's Concord-based attorney, Mark Dean, wrote in response to the injunction petition.

In court, he described the Bristol residents as a “small subset of a very small subset of about 40 members who have expressed concern about this.”

But the neighbors, all of whom live on Hundred Acre Woods Road in Bristol, say the main reason there has not been more opposition among members to the co-op's plan is that the radiation hazards they're claiming are not widely recognized by the public.

“People have no idea,” Wirth said. She told Bornstein the neighbors are not concerned only for the health of their own families, but want the installations stopped for the safety of others in the 115 New Hampshire communities the co-op serves.

“Do the same risks flow from all these devices, wireless technology, cell phones?” Bornstein asked her.

“That is what the science is saying,” Wirth replied. “The standards do us no good. It does not make them safe.”

Dean told Bornstein that NHEC officials had installed some 36,000 of the meters and plan 44,000 more installations.

In court filings and in testimony Friday, Dean said that the new meters digitally record electricity usage at each member home and business, then transmit that information from meter to meter in a system that sends all data back to NHEC offices. There it's used for a number of purposes, notably billing.

The new digital technology, co-op officials say, offers them a more accurate and efficient way to measure the kilowatt hours of electricity members use than the traditional analog system that requires a monthly visit from a meter reader.

The “smart meter” installations are at the center of a $35 million equipment and services upgrade by the co-op, which includes funding from a U.S. Department of Energy grant of nearly $16 million.

A particular bone of contention between the two sides arose Friday when Bornstein asked Dean how much it would cost the co-op to have the eight members opt out, and what would be the cost if he issued a broader injunction.

Dean pointed to an affidavit he filed from Dena DeLucca, NHEC's CFO and vice president of corporate and member services, in which she said the loss of eight of the newer meters would create a gap in the system that would likely mean a one-time cost of $25,000, and $2,220 for each month the eight older meters remain in place.

She said that if the judge issued an injunction that stopped the installation altogether, costs could reach $1.8 million for each month the injunction remained in effect. That delay, she added, could also cause officials to miss their compliance deadlines and place the federal grant money in jeopardy, with costs ranging from $10 million to $17.8 million, not including legal expenses.

Both Arsenault and Erik Nelson, another Hundred Acre Woods Road resident, took exception to the estimates, calling them exaggerated.

At the close of the 90-minute hearing, Bornstein told both sides he would study the matter and render a decision.

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