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Inconclusive, Very Weak Correlations Have Parents on the Run


No. The public comment portion of Asheville City Council’s last meeting was chock full of parents and children opposed to Duke Energy’s recent purchase of property next to the new Isaac Dickson Elementary School. Although concerns were raised that an errant child might dare to hop the fence and get electrocuted, or that the substation could bring property values down; the bulk of concerns pertained to a study by the World Health Organization that indicated substations “output EMF’s,” which are “potential carcinogens.”

Anybody studying physics from 1980-2000 wouldn’t know where to begin with that statement. For one thing, in the modern parlance, EMF’s are electromagnetic fields, rather than electromotive forces. For another, the concept of outputting a field conjures visions of technologies not yet extant. And yet a crowd gathered outside city hall, and four elementary-school children were among those prepared to address council.

What is known is that Duke Energy purchased the seventeen-acre parcel separating the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Isaac Dickson Elementary. On it, Duke intends to build one of three new substations. Duke’s local district manager, Jason Walls, explained the last substation in the city was built in 1975. Since then, demand in the three locations has more than doubled. When asked if the utility couldn’t simply upgrade the substation behind the US Cellular Center, Mayor Esther Manheimer said she had been told by engineers that technology had changed a lot since 1975.

Manheimer prefaced the public comments with answers to questions she was anticipating. For starters, the city did not sell the property to Duke; the seller was a private party. Now that Duke owns the property, there is not much the city can do to zone the substation out of existence. About the only thing the city can do is work with the county to find an alternative site, and Manheimer said she had searched exhaustively for one. She is continuing to meet with Duke leadership, Duke engineers, and leadership from the county and Asheville Schools.

Angi Everett, co-president of the Isaac Dickson PTO, explained the school was going to be certified LEED Platinum. Furthermore, it would be the first North Carolina school to achieve Net Zero Energy Building Certification, and one of the first in the Southeast. To be Net Zero certified, a building should more or less put more energy, including credits, on the grid than it uses. The design must also, “curb a building’s contribution to the effects of sprawled development,” and “underscore the notion that renewable energy systems can be incorporated into a building in ways that are attractive, informative, and inspiring.” Everett thought the substation would trivialize the $23 million the city was investing in the school.

Everett and a couple others described a chain of events in which parents with economic resources would take their children out of the school. That would leave low-income and minority children behind to contract cancer. It was, she said, “another slap in the face of the African-American community.” Values the substation would compromise included history, architecture, the environment, and social justice. Everett said in less than one week, 200 parents had signed a letter of protest for members of council. The parents were concerned about greater cancer risks from electromagnetic fields. Studies had proven inconclusive, and Everett was among many in the room that feared the inconclusive.

Pediatrician Calvin Tomkins, MD, was the first to reference research by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the American Cancer Society. Tomkins said hundreds of inconclusive studies had been conducted through the years, so another study would not add anything. The WHO, an arm of the United Nations, which he did not mention has always been a body politic with interests vested in reducing the United States’ carbon footprint, has classified EMF’s as potential carcinogens and recommended as the path of prudence avoiding exposure. After stating substations were, “a known source of electromagnetic fields,” he relayed compromises suggested by other PTO members, such as putting the substation underground, splitting it into sub-substations, or building a big fence.

Rustan Adcock, MD, concurred about 200 studies going this way and that. He, too, opined, “Any risk is too great a risk for children.” Although epidemiological conclusions are out of reach, he at least was interested in measuring the EMF’s. He said the WHO concluded exposure to 4 mG (milliGauss) could double the incidence of childhood leukemia. He and others had arranged to get an electrical engineer to traipse around a substation and measure levels. Councilman Marc Hunt, too, was interested in determining if thresholds warranted concern.

After comments were taken, Manheimer commented again on the extensive negotiations underway with Duke. The city opposes the coal ash ponds, and council was about to authorize the mayor to sign a resolution challenging the concentration of sulfur dioxide emissions from the Lake Julian plant. It requested a cap of “61.7 lb/hr of SO2 for each coal-burning unit, or a plant-wide average of 0.029 lb/MMBtu.” As for the matter at hand, she said, “Obviously it is not ideal to site a substation next to a school when you have a community ready to pull their kids out of that school.”

Councilman Cecil Bothwell offered, “I would observe that if Duke were looking to blacken their own eyes in any way in the public view, they couldn’t do worse than to put a new substation next to a LEED-certified, Net Zero school that’s being built. It almost looks to me like it’s an intentional slap in the face.”

He continued, “Probably the biggest weapon you have to help get them to stop is publicity.” Bringing up the Dan River coal ash spill, he added, “They have a very, very bad environmental image, and the stories you’ve been telling tonight will not play well in the news.” He encouraged members of the audience to use every form of media available to tell their stories and, “remind people that Duke has been an absolutely awful neighbor environmentally.”

See Leslee Kulba’s continuation “The Other Side of the Story”

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