What I want the supervisors to know about telecom

Plumas Residents for Safer Telecommunications (PRST) is a group made up of Plumas County residents (from Chilcoot to Chester) who came together last year to participate in discussions around the development of the County’s first telecommunications ordinance.

Our group advocates for hard-wired copper landlines and fiber optic broadband as the primary robust and reliable communication networks we need every day, but especially in an emergency. The Camp Fire and other recent catastrophic wildfires have revealed the weakness and fallibility of cellular systems in an emergency. There is little doubt that people died because they did not receive timely warnings from a wireless communications network that was already compromised by fire when it was needed most. Let’s learn from this tragedy, and not allow our own community to suffer the same fate.

PRST takes an evidence-based, precautionary approach to wireless development. We advocate for the use of best practices in the regulation of telecommunications facilities, and a strong defense of the zoning and regulatory rights of local government which are currently under threat as a result of overreach by the Federal Communications Commission. Although the state bill SB 649 (that would have eliminated local control over small wireless facilities) was vetoed last year by Gov. Brown, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to force this policy through regardless. These attempts are widely considered unconstitutional and are being challenged in court by a number of local governments and tribes. By passing the Planning Commission’s weak telecommunications ordinance into law, this board is participating — rather than defending against — the industry’s attack on our local government rights.

The changes in the ordinance our group is proposing will not prevent the availability of wireless services in our County, but they will reduce harmful impacts to human health, reduce industrial clutter in our neighborhoods, prevent possible future fires, and make our region more resilient when the next natural disaster strikes. The additional responsibilities placed on the telecommunications industry are widely required by local governments.

The draft ordinance claims that its goal is to “protect and enhance the safety, health, and welfare of the public by minimizing adverse general, visual, and operational impacts from telecommunications facilities.” The reality is that the Planning Commission’s draft ordinance was essentially written by the telecommunications industry, who spent many hours during workshops and editing sessions systematically removing (or filing down) any teeth that may have existed in the first draft of the ordinance. The result is a draft ordinance full of exemptions and loopholes that is about as permissive and ineffective as they come, leaving our county residents and visitors vulnerable.

Microwave radiation emitted by wireless networks is increasingly recognized as an agent of disease. Electromagnetic Sensitivity (EMS) is a disabling characteristic, recognized by the Federal Access Board since 2002. Under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which predates the 1996 Telecommunications Act by six years, people who suffer from exposure to Electromagnetic Fields are part of a protected disabled class. (42 U.S. Code § 12102(2)) Awareness of these problems is increasing around the country. State senator Patrick Colbeck (R-MI) has testified about the serious risks of 5G wireless microwave radiation and co-written a policy paper on the topic with his physician wife.

Dozens of local residents are now on the record as part of the development of Plumas County’s telecommunications ordinance that RF associated with the operation of wireless telecommunications equipment “substantially limits one or more of their major life activities.” County facilities should “go wired” in order to maximize accessibility, reduce the risk of serious disease, and avoid ADA violations. The California Constitution requires that local government officials protect the health and safety of residents within their jurisdictions. It is not optional.

The December construction of the Chilcoot cell tower (in Supervisor Sanchez’s district) is an example of poor telecommunications facility planning, and it is important to note that this site likely would have been approved even with the weak draft ordinance in place. The tower is sited in the middle of Chilcoot at the entrance to Sierra Valley, blighting views and industrializing an important ranching and wildlife area. Important migrations of geese, white pelicans, and cranes take place in the area around Beckwourth Pass, and these are likely to be negatively affected. The Dept. of the Interior advises that: “towers should not be sited in or near….. known migratory bird movement routes, daily movement flyways…” Why isn’t this guidance being followed? A 1500 ft. minimum setback from homes and protection of scenic corridors- easily adoptable by the board- would have prevented this unnecessary harm to our local bird (and human) populations.

We already have a high quality, robust communications network based on our critical copper lines used for landline telephones and able to carry high speed internet. When fiber-optic lines melt and cell towers burn, copper can survive. When the utility grid goes down, cell phones often fail, while wired landline networks have robust battery backups that continue to make reliable communications available even in extended power outages. If we can run power lines and telephone lines to practically every home in the early 1900’s, surely we can do the same for high speed internet a century later. Protests and excuses from telecom companies about cost have more to do with limited scale, and a profitability analysis that typically excludes low-income communities. We need Plumas County policy clearly supporting our landline network and opposing its planned withdrawal.

The risks from over-reliance on wireless technology are real. In 2007, a small cell suspended from a power pole in Malibu collapsed in high winds, sparking a blaze that burned over 4000 acres, costing $14 million. Cell tower fires are more common than you might think. The current draft ordinance does not require any official certification by an engineer that future proposed wireless facilities will not blow down and spark a wildfire. Nor does it include setbacks from dry brush areas. Cell towers under 35’ are exempted from any planning oversight whatsoever.

This isn’t a partisan or geographical issue. We have supporters from all over the political map in our group. Local governments as diverse as Boonville, Arkansas, Petaluma, California, and Mason, Ohio have passed ordinances prohibiting cell towers (including 5G small cells) from residential areas, and requiring setbacks from sensitive locations such as schools, hospitals, etc. The bottom line is we need an ordinance that will protect us from telecom industry excesses, and balance the desire for expanded communications access with the necessity to protect the most vulnerable among us. We need telecommunications that will be there in an emergency when we need it most. The draft pushed forward at the public hearing on January 15th by Supervisors Sanchez, Engel and Thrall fails to meet this most basic standard.

Click here to submit a letter to the editor about this post.