Environmental myths part 1 — EMF

By Kennedy Maize

A few environmental myths about electric power just won’t die. I’ll begin to discuss some of them in this blog.

The first is that exposure to electrical and magnetic fields from high-voltage power lines causes cancer. This long-shot-down claim resurfaces repeatedly. It is simply wrong, and multiple scientific studies – including a massive, multi-year analysis by the National Institutes of Health in the 1990s – have established that there is no credible link between power lines and cancer. The health claim is not only a dog that won’t hunt, but a dead dog.

Yet, whenever a new, major power line project is proposed, opponents trot out the cancer scare. Yawn. They would do better to focus on real issues – property values, destruction of homes, farms, and forests, and the economics (that is, the windfalls that accrue to the power companies, but not to the locals) – than the bogus health issue.

I recently attended a session at Shepherd State University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., where the West Virginia Public Service Commission was getting public input on the plan by American Electric Power and Allegheny Energy to build a 765-KV line from AEP’s Amos coal-fired plant near Charleston, W.Va., to a substation in Maryland, and hence into the PJM system to supply energy-short New Jersey with electric power, a total of over 200 miles and three states. It is known as the PATH (Potomac Appalachian Transmission Highline) project.

The project is one of the Department of Energy designated “national interest” transmission projects under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which could (but likely won’t) end up with a federal eminent domain regime.

There are lots of solid reasons to oppose this project, as well as to support it (I don’t have a position on it). The opponents at the meeting raised significant issues. The most powerful objection is that the line will take (legally) large swaths land in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, and deliver no benefits to the locals who will see homes gobbled up by eminent domain, along with forest land, and land that could be developed for profit.

The project likely will crush the property values of the current owners, and recompense them inadequately. The state, which has approved the project,determines what the “fair market value” of the land taken, as is characteristic of these projects.

But opponents, in throwing the policy kitchen sink at the plan, could not eschew raising the health effects argument. The argument has been demolished repeatedly, including the NIH review. I refer careful readers to the National Cancer Institute’s fact sheet on EMF.

Several opponents cited the “health threat” of EMF. One of the opponents speaking at the meeting Sept. 22 claimed that power companies had conspired to  subvert the science and suborn the scientists.

That’s conspiratorial garbage.  I’ve followed the EMF issue closely for 30 years, including playing a role in getting the review of the science done by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, and not an industry-backed organization, when I worked at the American Public Power Association. No court has ever found that power lines have caused human health effects, despite numerous suits over the years.

Nonetheless, the EMF scare persists. Oponents of power line projects are, either through ignorance or willfullness, unable to resist playing the health card joker. The problem for them is that the Public Service Commission staff are smart and well-read. They know that EMF claims are bogus. Asserting the health claim undermines the credibility of the opponents.

My advice to opponents of power line projects is to duck the health claims and focus on economic and environmental issues. If I were advising opponents, I would tell them, look at the state statutes and consult with experienced legal practitioners before the commission. Find out what criteria the law and precedent establish for approving or denying such projects. Focus your arguments on those lines of argument, giving the regulators realistic reasons why they can disapprove a project.

In my next blog, I will take up another persistent environmental myth: the human health effects of PCBs.