Where to Turn?

news_smartThe question arises for protestors as SmartMeters are installed in Santa Cruz County

Some 90 million SmartMeters are already in use around the world, with more on their way. Santa Cruz County, one of the last places in PG&E’s service area to receive the automated metering technology, had become something of a SmartMeter safe haven.

But although Santa Cruz County imposed a SmartMeter moratorium last June, recent events have gotten locals wondering just how effective that dissenting effort will be in the fight to keep SmartMeters at bay.


On Friday, June 1, two protesters associated with local group StopSmartMeters! were arrested for blocking Wellington (sub contractors of PG&E) trucks from leaving a private business yard to execute what they believed was a planned outing to install SmartMeters; violating the county-wide ordinance.

“We were calling the sheriff to have them come and enforce the law and protect the public,” says Heidi Rose, one of those arrested. “Instead they arrested us, enabling PG&E’s illegal installations to proceed.” It has also been noted by protesters that Wellington installers have put blank, white metallic signs over the logos on both doors of their trucks to remain inconspicuous.

Deputy April Skalland, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department, says the arrests were made because the protesters interfered with PG&E business. “Everyone is allowed to peacefully protest, but with their presence at the PG&E station, one of the workers did not feel comfortable leaving,” says Skalland. “The sheriff’s department was called and made sure the worker made it safely to his vehicle. When the protesters blocked off his truck by lying on the ground they were detained for interfering with a business and blocking a sidewalk.”

news_smart2Skalland also notes that with the Sheriff’s Department already short staffed, SmartMeter issues are a very low priority, adding that the department would prefer if the public would submit its complaints regarding SmartMeters online. “The sheriff’s department is here to keep the peace and enforce laws—we do not want anyone from either side of the issue being hurt,” Skalland says.

Protestors say that law enforcement’s reactions leave them wondering who will uphold the decision to ban the meters. PG&E answers to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), not to local governments, and the moratoriums and ordinances around Santa Cruz County are mostly symbolic. Cities are tiptoeing lightly over the issue because of the huge cost to defend it. Last month, the Capitola City Council, which had passed a moratorium last year, voted not to enforce it. The City of Watsonville enacted a moratorium last August, but City Clerk Beatriz Flores says it was meant to be symbolic and no action has been taken to enforce it.

Andrew Kotch, a CPUC information officer, says customers have few options. “PG&E is offering customers the opportunity to be put on a list to delay the installation if they call in,” he says. “But PG&E will be installing the SmartMeters eventually, regardless.”

According to Kotch, CPUC has proceedings for an opt-out plan that PG&E submitted in March. However, the time for proceedings to reach a conclusion can extend to a year or more. It is possible that people who are not interested in having a SmartMeter will have one by the time they are given the option to opt-out.

Chief among the concerns about SmartMeters are potential health problems.

“I entered my house feeling wonderful after just finishing a workout, and all of a sudden I was hit with a very high-pitched frequency ringing in my ears,” says Tammie Donnelly, who has been living in Aptos since 1976. “My hands started to hurt; I was getting heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea, and dizziness. At that point, I didn’t realize that we had received a SmartMeter for the house.”

Donnelly says her symptoms were alleviated when she left her home, but returned when she came back. She did some investigating and found a newly installed SmartMeter on her home. After numerous calls to PG&E she eventually got it removed and continued on with her advocacy of stopping SmartMeters. She has spent 10 to 20 unpaid hours a week for the past two years working with the StopSmartMeters campaign.

“I’m hoping to make history here,” Donnelly says. “I wouldn’t spend all this time on this if I didn’t think we had a chance to make a difference here.”

Protestors from other counties where SmartMeters have been present for a year or longer have reported even worse health problems as a result. “Initially I had no idea my symptoms were being caused by the SmartMeter,” says Winifred (who preferred not to give a last name) of San Mateo County, adding that those health complications left her bedridden for more than a year. Winifred’s symptoms included “weakness, shaking, shriveling of ears, flaking off of skin, insomnia, sunburn without sun exposure, complete cessation of urination, kidney pains, constipation,” and more. “I couldn’t take it anymore and started living in my car,” she says. Winifred says her health has improved since relocating to her car, but that it has severely disturbed the normal patterns her life used to follow.

From PG&E’s perspective, these stories are likely just inevitable outliers. The “customer stories” link on the PG&E website depicts many people who are very excited about their SmartMeters. PG&E Spokesperson Jeff Smith asserts that, “We get positive feedback from many of our customers who are excited about the new technology and being able to access their energy usage through their our new system.”

StopSmartMeters! protestors continue to protest at the corner of 38th Avenue and Portola Drive. Campaign director Joshua Hart reports that the group has received thousands of emails of support, and that their website, stopsmartmeters.org, gets 1,000 hits a day.

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