Pittsfield councilors are right: We need better cell tower info


In Pittsfield and Lenox, heated disputes over where and how to site cell towers signal a need for authoritative answers that our communities, including local health and planning boards, simply don’t have. We echo the Pittsfield City Council’s call for state and federal representatives to provide a desperately needed update on healthy and safety guidance for wireless communication facilities.

This is not an issue that’s going away. Like it or not, wireless tech use is ubiquitous— including by many of those who adamantly oppose towers anywhere near their backyards and property sight lines — and federal law prohibits state or local governments from regulations that essentially block personal wireless service. Radio frequency emissions — as in the radiation that emanates from cell towers and other wireless equipment — are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, not by town planners or boards of health.

All this puts local government officials in a tight bind if and when they face fierce grassroots opposition to a specific tower’s location or a necessary update to cell tower bylaws, and officials in Pittsfield and Lenox are finding out this out the hard way.

In Pittsfield, residents from the Shacktown neighborhood claim a tower sited off of South Street is causing them myriad health problems. The dispute, which has grabbed some attention outside of Berkshire County with a lengthy investigate piece by ProPublica, has been the cause of legal headaches for the city. While an expensive and ill-advised suit with Verizon was narrowly avoided, a case in Berkshire Superior Court filed by six of the anti-tower residents targets city officials including the mayor, the city solicitor and the Board of Health.

Meanwhile in Lenox, opponents sunk a new wireless facilities bylaw even after the Planning Board twice retooled the bylaw to make concessions to its detractors, who still vociferously opposed it based on similar health concerns to the ones voices by their counterparts in Pittsfield.

The main problem here is that both “sides” of the cell tower issue claim absolute certitude on the issue. The FCC and the telecom companies putting up the towers say it’s settled science that there’s no demonstrable causal link between facilities like cell towers and health effects, though much of the data cited and emission regulations employed by federal regulators originates from the last century, namely the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Cell tower opponents, though, say the science is actually on their side, pointing to reams of research they say validates claims that too-close or too-intense exposure to radio-frequency radiation leads to a rash of health concerns, from headaches and tinnitus to higher likelihood of cancer or miscarriage. Anti-cell tower arguments also can appear motivated, though, with concerns about neighborhood character or property values clearly playing a part.

When all of this comes to a head at a town meeting or city hall, local planners and health board members are left to resolve these contradictory claims with neither the expertise nor the authority to do so while impassioned constituents beg them to do something that risks legal jeopardy for their community. Municipal officials shouldn’t be put in this position, and it’s time to provide guidance that’s updated for this millennium.

We have expressed skepticism about the more extreme claims of health defects caused by proximity to cell towers, and we see no unmotivated consensus on indisputable evidence that specific health maladies are not just correlative but causally linked to cell towers specifically. Nevertheless, just like the average health board member, we are no experts. What we do know is that we desperately need some neutral expertise to guide local officials on an issue that looms large in Lenox and Pittsfield as well as communities across the country.

If that neutral expertise is provided, moving forward also would require objectivity in onboarding it. If the Pittsfield City Council is successful in requesting renewed guidance — and we hope they are — all parties must acknowledge the results, confine their criticism to the methodology used and update their positions based on the facts. We need a clear-eyed and transparent look at the truth, whether it militates toward overhauling radio-frequency emission and cell tower siting rules or vocal cell tower detractors ceding their farther-reaching claims.

It’s entirely possible that the most adamant cell-tower opponents are correct and that regulatory capture has led us down a path where the telecom industry is clandestinely causing widespread harm just as the tobacco industry did in the 20th century. It’s also possible that cell tower opponents are erroneously finding causation in correlation and using their own motivated reasoning to platform dubious or ambiguous research that validates their prior position. Like all things in life, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those extreme poles.

But we can’t settle for probably, especially when it comes to the important decisions that local officials are currently forced to make with eyes covered and hands tied. When Pittsfield officials send out their letters to Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, we sincerely hope our representatives and relevant regulators do their job to help the constituents and fellow officials who need some answers here. Absent that, communities and officials are left with mixed signals that will continue to spark uncertainty, hard feelings and municipal dysfunction.