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Pittsfield councilors want answers on whether a cell tower could be making people ill

Petitions OK'd by the council call for the FCC to update its 1996 radiofrequency emissions rules

A cell tower in South Pittsfield

It has been a little more than two years since a new Verizon cell tower in south Pittsfield, off of Holmes Road, went into service. Residents of the area claim they have been made ill by its operation. The tower can be seen at the upper left on the hilltop. 

PITTSFIELD — After months of silence — and the launch of a lawsuit with several city defendants — the Pittsfield City Council is wading back into the longstanding dispute between Verizon Wireless and Shacktown residents who say a cell tower makes them sick.

This week, the majority of city councilors voted to support petitions that ask either Mayor Linda Tyer or Council President Peter Marchetti to send letters to state and federal representatives asking them to advocate that the Federal Communications Commission reevaluate its radiofrequency exposure limits.

As of Friday, those letters had not yet been sent.

Like many people, Bobbie Orsi had never paid close attention to questions about the health effects of cellphone technology. She mostly viewed it as an issue that had long ago been put to rest. But after becoming the chair of Pittsfield’s Board of Health as the complaints emerged, Orsi, a 66-year-old registered nurse who had spent much of her career in public health, decided to educate herself. She combed through a stack of research studies. She watched webinars. She grilled a dozen scientists and doctors. Over several months, Orsi went from curious, to concerned, to convinced, first, that radio-frequency emissions from Verizon’s 115-foot 4G tower were to blame for the problems in Pittsfield, and second, that growing evidence of harm from cellphones — everything from effects on fertility and fetal development to associations with cancer — has been downplayed in the United States.

The petitions come after ProPublica, an investigative nonprofit newsroom, published an extensive look at how radiofrequency limits established by the FCC in 1996 have long shielded wireless communications companies from health impact claims.

The investigation took a close look at how the city’s Board of Health attempted to take a stand against FCC. A cease-and-desist letter sent to Verizon Wireless in April claimed that while the FCC had the authority to rule on cell tower sites, the board had the authority to rule on health claims regarding towers — even those that met FCC guidelines.

Much past council action on the cell tower issue has come at the request of residents or following conversations with them. Tower opponents said this week that petitions filed by councilors Ken Warren and Jim Conant were developed without talking with residents.

Letters drafted by Warren that will be sent to Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal acknowledge the board has found legitimacy to the residents’ health claims.

“Our community has constituents who have become ill with symptoms that our Board of Health has determined to be likely caused by the cell tower radiofrequency radiation emissions,” the letter states.

The letter, and statements by Conant Tuesday night, clarify that the council is looking for updated guidance on potential health and safety related to today's cell tower technology.

“We all know this has been a sinuous issue here for quite a while and we don't have any answers,” Conant said. “We don't know what the health implications are.”

Conant said the intent of the letters is to show that “we're looking for information.”

“I’ll make this very clear: I do not support any litigation or lawsuit of any type,” Conant said. “This is just an effort to communicate and get information from the state and federal level because our hands are tied by the FCC. They really run the show [and] we’d just like some information from them.”

Courtney Gilardi, one of the residents involved in the ongoing lawsuit against the city, said that while she feels “incredibly supported” by recent council actions, she believes these letters will not get the cell tower removed from her neighborhood, known by some as Shacktown.

Gilardi and Scott McCollough, one of the attorneys representing residents, say they turned to a lawsuit because other options came up short.

“If people don’t want litigation, that’s fine,” Gilardi said. “But get everybody into a room and work this out.”

The lawsuit

Meantime, a case in Berkshire Superior Court filed by six residents of the tower area continues. The lawsuit names Mayor Tyer, city Solicitor Stephen Pagnotta, the Board of Health, Verizon Wireless and a South Street property owner as defendants.

Cell tower protest signs

Signs opposing the Verizon Wireless cell tower in south Pittsfield can be found, two years after the tower began operating. 

Over the last month, lawyers from Donovan O’Connor and Dodig LLP, representing the city defendants, have used filings to push back against claims that actions by Pagnotta and Tyer “coerced” the board into dropping its cease-and-desist order against Verizon Wireless.

The plaintiffs submitted a motion in early November asking a judge to disqualify Donovan O’Conner and Dodig — of which Pagnotta is a partner — from representing the city in the lawsuit, on the grounds the firm had conflicts of interest.

The plaintiffs argued that the firm’s conflicts came from previous work on suits involving local cell towers — including one involving the issue of abutter notifications for the same Pittsfield cell tower — and their role as “potential witnesses.”

The law firm has termed allegations of conflicts of interest “at best disingenuous, misleading, and irrelevant to the relief sought.”

“The Complaint and the Motion contain inflammatory rhetoric and appear to have been crafted largely, if not solely, for publicity rather than to set forth any reasonable or competent legal argument or cognizable claim at law,” attorney Gregory Howard wrote in a filing.

Two weeks ago, Superior Court Judge Michael Callan denied the residents’ request to bar the law firm from the case. He also turned away the firm’s request that residents be compelled to pay their fees.

On Nov. 25, the defendants asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit against them. Speaking Friday with The Eagle, McCollough said he plans to submit the residents’ opposition to that request in the coming weeks.

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

Pittsfield Reporter

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is the Pittsfield reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she previously worked at the Prior Lake American and its sister publications under the Southwest News Media umbrella in Savage, Minnesota.

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