(Oyster Bay, N.Y.), February 2, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Residents who spoke out at last night's meeting, however, don't want to wait for any "if." They would rather operate according to the precautionary principle that is now the rule in several countries and a few American municipalities regarding environmental issues. The principle states -- very roughly -- that where an activity raises concerns about public or environmental health, the burden of proof is on those carrying out the activity, rather than the public.]

By Brian Brennan

The third public meeting was held last night on a subject that has polarized a substantial portion of the Bayville population.

Village Mayor Victoria Siegel and the Village trustees last night allowed representatives of the Nassau County police and fire departments to present their argument that the Village must allow the County to install a new, T-band, digital turnkey radio system on its water tower.

The system would be composed of multiple antennas and electromagnetic microwave dishes, as well as a substantial shed at the base of the tower.

The audience, assembled in the auditorium of the Bayville Intermediate School, heard from a panel of the proposal's supporters before the floor was opened to questions and comments.

The reasons why

Proponents of the system insist that it would greatly enhance the communication capabilities of the County's first responders throughout Long Island. It would allow Nassau to have its own unique frequency, they say, an improvement over the current system of sharing a UHF band with municipalities in New Jersey. This, the County claims, has forced its emergency personnel to transmit at levels that do not interfere with co-users but that limit radio traffic capacity.

The County also insists that coverage itself would be far more comprehensive and reliable, allowing solid interoperability with all of Nassau and Suffolk counties, New York City, and three miles out into Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.

Early last month, County Executive Tom Suozzi held a press conference and hit out at local Long Island governments that he claimed were compromising public safety by refusing to allow antennas to be placed on their water towers.

Opposition to the antennas stems from fears of the radiation generated by the microwave dishes, especially as the water tower is cattycorner to the Bayville Primary School.

First to take the podium was County Police Deputy Inspector Ed Horace. Mr. Horace said that three key points would be illustrated throughout the night: that putting the antennas up will benefit Bayville and all of Nassau County, that Bayville's water tower is critical to the plan to improve coverage throughout Long Island, and that there are absolutely no health risks whatsoever.

Also speaking were County Police Commissioner James H. Lawrence, Assistant County Chief Fire Marshall Peter Meade, independent consultant Ron Petersen, and Stephanie Walsh, a project site reviewer for Motorola, which has been awarded the contract to install and operate the system.

The Bayville Fire Department submitted a letter read by Mayor Siegel urging support for the proposal. Regardless of whether this particular proposal was judged to be safe or not, the letter said, it was imperative that communications be improved.

"After 9/11, those of us in law enforcement took a step back and examined the way we do public security," Commissioner Lawrence told the audience. "I am aware that a lot of you are here because of the things that you have heard. I ask you to just look at the facts."

The Commissioner said that the current system, erected in 1982, is inadequate and "partially unsafe" because of its spotty coverage. He called it "disheartening" that it was necessary to invoke memories of 9/11 to underscore the need for improved communications. Many first responders lost their lives that day due to inadequate radio communications, he said.

Ron Petersen and Motorola's Stephanie Walsh were there to offer more in-depth analyses of the safety issues. Mr. Petersen has a consulting firm and is also a former chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Initial Committee on Electromagnetic Safety. He is currently secretary of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Study (EMBS) Committee on Man and Radiation (COMAR).

The panel took pains to convey that there was nothing arbitrary in the selection of Bayville as a necessary site. A team of engineers scouted the island for locations, Ms. Walsh said, and a refusal by Bayville to take part in the project would affect the entire communication chain.

She said the sites on which the engineers settled are "absolutely the sites we need", and that, "We simply can't meet the required coverage needs without Bayville."

Individuals on both sides of the debate came armed with studies, reports and statistics about the system's safety.

Ron Petersen quoted the World Health Organization (WHO), the IEEE and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radio Protection to back up his assurance that the level of radiation generated is less than one-tenth of the maximum allowed by the US Federal Communications Commission and other national agencies.

His argument is also supported by the report summarizing an independent study commissioned by the Village and available on the Village website that reads, "The expected increases of electromagnetic radiation levels are small in Bayville, because the energy radiated by the proposed antennas would go far overhead. It would be very weak when it reaches a few people in Mill Neck. There should be no fear of microwave or other Radio Frequency exposure to adults or small children living in Bayville or attending either Bayville school."

Mr. Petersen said that it is easy to Google the topic and access a multitude of articles and reports purporting to be from experts that paint a frightening picture of electromagnetic radiation. But documents that withstand the scientific process and peer review, he said, support his argument.

Every resident who spoke expressed some degree of disapprobation for the proposal. Some cited studies and documents, the validity of each Mr. Petersen dismissed. Most, however, cited a lack of solid documentation either way.

The precautionary principle

The EPA and WHO continue to study the possibility of links between electromagnetic radiation and health problems such as developmental difficulties in children and cancer. "These are living documents. If anything is found....then the standard will be changed," Mr. Petersen said.

Residents who spoke out at last night's meeting, however, don't want to wait for any if. They would rather operate according to the precautionary principle that is now the rule in several countries and a few American municipalities regarding environmental issues. The principle states -- very roughly -- that where an activity raises concerns about public or environmental health, the burden of proof is on those carrying out the activity, rather than the public.

Those who raised their hands to speak at last night's meetings indicated that, to them, the proponents of this plan have not satisfactorily discharged that burden. One resident seemed to sum up the sentiments of the majority when she told the panel, "The bottom line is: you don't know."

Several referred to the once-imagined safety of asbestos, tobacco, hormone replacement therapy and the air quality at Ground Zero.

One resident presented Mayor Siegel and the Village trustees with a petition containing over 250 signatures urging them to block the proposal. After she had given it to them, the resident said it was "an insult to hide behind the cloak of 9/11 and homeland security."

Several expressed concern and support for firefighters and the police, but said that any communications benefits offered by the system did not outweigh the uncertainty. "We have to ask ourselves: is the tradeoff worth it?" said Joseph DiGennaro.

Resident Beverly Pacifico took the podium and spoke of taking her school-aged son to a chemo treatment that very day as part of his battle against leukemia. She was one of many who said that no risk to the health of the Village's children was acceptable.

Also at issue was the fact that Bayville already had 52 antennas on its water tower, largely belonging to cell phone carriers who pay the village for the space.

"I wouldn't be that concerned if there wasn't already so much equipment there. I know from the outside, it looks like we're resisting something that's helping us, but that's really not the case," said Chris Zino, a Bayville resident and volunteer firefighter for Oyster Bay.

Mr. Zino questioned the legality of this arrangement, in lieu of a deed dating back to the 1950's that prohibited commercial use of the water tower. Mayor Siegel replied that the Village barred cell phone companies from using the tower for years until being advised by their counsel in 2003 that the clause to which Mr. Zino referred had expired.

In answer to a question from resident Mary Pell, the Mayor said that the Village could only legally remove the antennas of companies with which it had contract if it relocated the antennas to another location within the Village.

Ms. Pell asked when those contracts expired, and was told by Mayor Siegel that that issue would be looked into.

The meeting began at 7:30 and ended promptly at 9:00. When several in the audience called out questions as to whether there would be any more meetings on the subject, Mayor Siegel replied that the vote would be carried out publicly.

No date for the vote has been released.

Copyright 2006