Growing concerns about EMF?

Tom Watson and Curtis Renner, Watson & Renner

Electric and magnetic fields (EMF) health claims are once again being raised by opponents of new lines and substations. In the last 12 months, there has been opposition to new facilities on EMF health grounds in Georgia, Florida, New York, Illinois, California, New Jersey, Minnesota, New Mexico, Canada, the U.K., and Australia, among others. As a result of new developments, opponents and their EMF experts believe they have better EMF grounds than ever to stop new facilities.

Recent studies have reported statistically significant increased risk of childhood leukemia associated with exposures to magnetic fields in the range of 3—4 milliGauss (mG). Two science reviews, one from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the other from the California Department of Health Sciences Services (Cal DHS) also conclude that EMF is a “possible” cause of childhood leukemia. This is the first time that classification has been made of EMF.

These studies and reports do not establish that magnetic fields in fact cause childhood leukemia, or any other disease. Nevertheless, the findings of the studies and reports are being relied upon to oppose new electric power facilities, in some cases successfully.

Following the IARC classification, the World Health Organization (WHO) International EMF Project will be updating WHO’s 1987 Environmental Health Criteria (EHC) for EMF. The new EHC will evaluate all potential EMF health risks and will include policy recommendations. The update is underway and the results are expected later this year or next.

Hitting the industry

Following the IARC and California reports, there has been an upswing in public challenges to new power facilities. While most of these challenges have not been successful, EMF has re-emerged as an important issue for power facility opponents and one that utilities should not underestimate in preparing for siting.

In New York City, local residents used EMF health risks and the IARC findings as part of their argument to defeat a proposed substation. When the utility then selected a different neighborhood for the much needed substation, residents and business owners there sued in court to block the project on various grounds, including EMF.

The utility filed rebuttal statements from scientific and medical experts and extensive legal briefs. The utility emphasized that as a result of the design of the substation, magnetic field levels at the edge of its property would not exceed 4 mG. The court subsequently dismissed the case and the dismissal was affirmed on appeal.

In Edmonton, Canada, parents who opposed construction of a proposed elementary school within 350 feet of an existing transmission line used both the IARC and Cal DHS reports to raise EMF health claims. As a result of this opposition, the Edmonton Zoning Board revoked the school’s building permit and concluded that the proposed school would not be a “safe environment” for children exposed to EMF from the transmission line.

Earlier this year, a Georgia state court denied a utility’s condemnation of a property for construction of a 115 kV transmission line based in significant part on EMF health claims. The court’s decision by a special master appointed by the court found that “there is a higher incidence of childhood leukemia in relation to proximity of children to high power transmission lines.” The ruling also concluded that, due to the risk of childhood leukemia, the proposed transmission line would constitute a legal “nuisance” to a school across the street from the proposed line. The utility is now appealing.

Be prepared

As the EMF issue is now being raised again in opposition to new facilities, utilities need to be ready to address public concerns about EMF. Some questions for utilities to consider are:

“- Have you developed a plan for addressing EMF in siting new facilities? (e.g., What will you say about the science today? What is your rationale for addressing the 3 or 4 mG level issue?)

“- Does your company have a policy, position or informational statement about EMF, and when was it last updated?

“- Does it address new scientific developments such as the IARC and Cal DHS reports?

“- Does your company Web site include information about EMF?

“- Do you have handouts on EMF issues prepared for public forums?

“- Have you identified the various questions local residents may ask about EMF in the siting arena and how you will answer those questions?

“- Do you have a media plan for siting new facilities?

“- Have you considered what your PUC will think if and when it reviews your present handling of the EMF issue?

Watson and Renner are principals in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Watson & Renner. In 25 years they have assisted over 70 electric utilities in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and Japan on EMF issues in siting proceedings. For additional information contact or

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