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    High Noon on the Friendly Isle

    Reprinted from Island Times, May 5, 1999.

    Lopez Island cell tower opponents get ready for the final showdown with AirTouch Cellular

    By Liam Moriarty

    After three years of rancorous hearings, appeals and lawsuits, telecommunications giant US West/AirTouch has received final permits to construct two 100-foot cell phone towers on Lopez Island. AirTouch officials say they intend to break ground soon.

    Cell tower opponents, rebuffed by the courts, say they’re prepared to physically block construction crews. This would be the first time non-violent civil disobedience has been used in the United States in an attempt to prevent a cell tower from going up.

    Protesters say recent research that suggests cell phone emissions may be more of a health threat than previously thought reinforces their determination to stop the towers from being built on their home soil.

    And exactly what will happen when the corporate irresistible force meets the island-grown immovable object is anybody’s guess …

    “Playing for keeps”

    Jeannie Peterson looks like an unlikely radical. The slender, soft-spoken artist seems out of place as she shows a reporter the fiendishly-clever and elaborately-constructed devices protesters plan to use to prevent AirTouch from gaining access to the cell site adjacent to the property she and her husband Michael own.

    For over a year — since their final legal appeal was shot down in federal court — the Petersons and other Lopez Island cell tower activists have been organizing for a showdown with AirTouch. The group, calling itself Lopez Citizens Against Cell Tower Siting (LCACTS), took training in classic non-violent civil disobedience techniques, such as blocking roads with their bodies. They’ve also have thrown in a few technical innovations they picked up from an Earth First! manual, designed to confound attempts to remove them from the scene.

    Once chained into the system of interlocking steel barrels and pipes, Jeannie Peterson says, only the protesters themselves can safely disengage it. Outside attempts to remove them, she adds, could well dismember the protesters.

    “We’re playing for keeps,” she says grimly.

    Peterson admits she’s not really comfortable in the role of the radical activist.

    “I’m not … I’ve been provoked and I feel like I can do nothing but stand up for myself at this point.”

    The LCACTS folks say the permitted cell tower sites are being constantly monitored. Within minutes of detecting construction activity at the sites, they say, they can mobilize nearly 200 protesters and supporters who will show up with pre-packed CD (civil disobedience) kits loaded with everything from sunscreen to bail money.

    According to the action plan, those who have decided to get arrested will go into lock-down, blocking the roads to the two tower sites. Others will set up a vigil, explaining the action to passers-by and the media, which can be expected to descend en masse once LCACTS puts the word out. Messengers will co-ordinate between the protest sites. Some helpers will make sure the protesters in lock-down remain comfortably fed and watered, while others are assigned to see to it that pets, children and other details of everyday life are dealt with.

    Do they think it’s realistic to believe they can actually stop the towers from being built?

    “Whether it’s realistic or not, we hold on to that,” says LCACTS member Ona Blue.

    “We hold the vision as strongly as we can,” adds activist Cynthia Dilling, “that there will be no towers on this island.”

    Cracks in the fortress

    What drives the Lopezians’ anti-cell-tower zeal?

    Concerns about the impact the towers will have on property values and much-loved island vistas are factors. But it’s the growing body of research evidence indicating that microwave radiation from cell phones causes biological changes that really gets local activists all riled up.

    “I an terrified for the people who live near the towers and for what the radiation could do to them,” says Blue.

    When these folks testified against the tower permits three years ago, they were assured by industry experts that cell tower radiation was totally harmless. The energy coming off the top of a cell transmitter, they were told, is less than that given off by a 20-watt light bulb.

    While that’s still the mainstream scientific consensus, significant cracks are appearing in that fortress. Well-regarded research done in the past few years in Australia, Europe and the U.S. is pointing toward the conclusion that cell phone emissions do, in fact, have health impacts ranging from cancer to neurological damage to DNA degradation.

    In fact, an international symposium of independent researchers held last fall at the university of Vienna concluded that ” biological effects from low-intensity exposures (to cell phone emissions) are scientifically established.”

    Of mice and microwaves …

    Some of the more recent significant research has been …

    • A $1.2 million study at Adelaide Hospital in Australia that indicated mice exposed to low-intensity cell-phone type microwaves were more than twice as likely to develop tumors as the unexposed control group.
    • Scientists at Pontypool, Wales found that cell phone signals disrupted the natural electrical field surrounding the cells of the human body. They found white blood cells suffered significant damage when exposed to cell phones for up to eight hours a day.
    • A research team led by Dr. Henry Lai, a professor of bioengineering at UW in Seattle, found that exposing living cells to microwave radiation at the same low levels as those emitted by cellular phones caused DNA damage. Lai’s team also found that rats exposed to low-level microwaves suffered Alzheimer-like neurological damage and Parkinson’s disease. And while Lai found the radiation from cell phones themselves to be particularly worrisome, he wrote that “People who live close to the masts (cell phone towers) are constantly exposed to the radiation for months or years. Even though the level is low, it would matter if the effects of (radio frequency radiation) turn out to be cumulative. Small doses cumulate over a long period of time will eventually lead to harmful effects.”

    A whole new ballgame?

    For the Lopez folk, research like this just confirms the fears they’ve had from the start.

    “This is a whole new ballgame,” says Cynthia Dilling. “This is a health issue … Nobody can pretend anymore that the power coming off a microwave tower is the equivalent of a 20-watt light bulb. That day is gone.”

    But for Dr. Frank James, the San Juan County Public Health Officer, it’s not quite so cut and dried.

    “There’s some very reputable work that’s being presented,” he says. “There’s an accumulating body of respectable research which needs to be taken seriously and definitely demands a research agenda to see what it means … (But) it would be premature to say we’ve got firm answers.”

    For instance, James says, Henry Lai’s work deals very specifically with particular brain and cellular functions in rats. It’s still too early to extrapolate that directly to humans.

    “I don’t know how to get from what (Lai) is doing to policy in a meaningful way,” James says. “He’s not talking about things that are directly applicable to public policy.”

    Even if human health effects are scientifically established, James says, political realities stand in the way of major reform. When the industry pushed through the mammoth and labyrinthine Telecommunications Act of 1996, local jurisdictions were stripped of the power to deny cell phone installations based on environmental and health concerns. And while there are legislative moves afoot to reshuffle the deck — most notably a bill by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy to repeal the pre-emption of local control — James thinks its “extremely unlikely” the powerful forces behind the law will permit far-reaching change.

    Nonetheless, James says he’s convinced there’s something to the research. While he still uses a cell phone at work, he says, “I quit carrying it in my pocket because I just think it just prudent right now.”

    Convening in the courthouse

    Meanwhile, the San Juan Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) is preparing to convene a workshop to delve further into the possible health effects of microwave radiation, despite the fact that federal law leaves the county no authority to do anything about it.

    Last week, Cynthia Dilling made a presentation before the BOCC, bringing the new research to their attention and asking them, among other things, to publicly acknowledge that cell towers are a public health issue and to advocate for changes in the federal law to allow local control over microwave facilities.

    “We can no longer pretend that we just care about how the towers look or that they will destroy our property values,” she said. “The issue is health. Please take a leadership position on this issue.”

    Commissioner Rhea Miller, whose own home is near the site of one of the planned towers on Lopez, needs little persuading. She and her partner were among those whose legal challenges to the cell tower permits were brushed off by the federal courts. She is frustrated by the county’s lack of jurisdiction over the issue.

    Noting that the BOCC is also the county’s Board of Health, Miller says, “As a legislator responsible for public health, it’s extremely worrisome to me that credible scientific evidence of significant health effects of cell phone emissions has emerged and I have no power to do anything about it.”

    All the commissioners can do, Miller says, is try to get information to the public and to lobby for changes in the federal law. To that end, the BOCC is planning a workshop to get information about the issue. Henry Lai is being invited, as are various other officials and experts, including some from the cell phone industry.

    The workshop has not yet been scheduled, but will likely happen later this summer.

    To AirTouch, with garlic

    With all the permits in hand, AirTouch shows no sign of letting the Lopez opposition stand in its way.

    Media Relations Manager Patti Finley acknowledges the company has received numerous letters from the Lopezians … including one containing garlic, intended to ward off evil.

    “They have a right to proceed with what they feel they need to do,” Finley says, but repeats the company line that they hope the protestors won’t hurt AirTouch employees or contractors. She concedes the Lopez folk have said they have no such intentions.

    Finley says AirTouch is trying to be sensitive to local concerns. She points out that the tower won’t protrude much above the surrounding trees and adds th4 company might paint the tower to further lessen the visual impact.

    But, she says, it’s important to note there are many Lopez residents who say they want the improved cell phone service the two new towers will afford. Finley adds that “cell phones provide a much-needed safety and security function,” by enabling locals and area boaters to summon help from their portable phones.

    Community friction

    Ona Blue and Cynthia Dilling acknowledge there are many on Lopez who don’t support the LCACTS crusade. For instance, people who work in the local fire department and medical service want the new towers built because it would eliminate the “dead spots” in the existing cell phone coverage they use in emergencies.

    Dilling also says they’ve been told some of the teachers at the Lopez school have told students LCACTS isn’t a credible source of information. While there’s no active opposition to their efforts, she says, more than a few locals think they’re getting worked up over nothing. The hard part is educating their skeptical neighbors.

    “The research speaks for itself,” Dilling says. “It’s there. Our job now is to present the information in as responsible a way as we can to our community.”

    Living with the 100-foot cigarette

    But Michael and Jeannie Peterson are already convinced. With their property a mere 400 feet from the tower planned for the top of Lopez Hill, Mike says, the more he finds out about cell towers, more concerned he gets.

    “With these latest research results, it becomes increasingly hard to ignore this,” he says. “I don’t want to over-react and jump up and down, but I have to say our peace of mind and sense of well-being has been taken from us.”

    The sense of having this health risk forced on him is particularly galling to Peterson. He likens it to being forced to breathe second-hand cigarette smoke, something else he notes was considered of no concern for many years.

    “Someone’s lit a 100-foot cigarette next to me, and I will breathe in the smoke as it blows across my property … It’s like having your body invaded and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

    The Petersons, who bought their property in 1994, have postponed building their home until they see how the cell tower melodrama plays out. He wonders about what’s going to become of he and Jeannie, and the dream they shared for building a living as artisans on a beautiful parcel of land in the paradisiacal San Juan Islands.

    “We think about that daily,” Mike says. “We just don’t know …We feel like we’re being driven off our land.”

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