Only the feds can decide how cell towers operate, regardless of local health fears


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By Jack Mayne

If Burien residents fear potential illnesses from electromagnetic waves from new cellular antennas being sought for the city, complain to your U.S. Senator or Congressman – because your Burien City Council is powerless to help you.

Many Burien residents, especially those around the eastern part of Lake Burien, will find it useless to complain because only the Federal Communications Commission has any control over cell towers. Federal law prohibits cities, counties or the state from banning such facilities on any local basis.

In other news, Burien Police Chief Ted Boe also honored three officers for outstanding service and in one case for a brother killed by illegal drugs.

City can’t outlaw new towers
A new wave of small antenna cellular telephone antennas mounted on power poles stirred concerns after a number of Lake Burien residents complained to the city about the potential of illness from electromagnetic waves. The concerns came after Verizon sought city permission to establish small antennas on power poles in the area.

A large number of the complaints were about the potential health impacts from “non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation emission from telecommunication facilities,” said Community Development Director Chip Davis, but the federal Telecommunications Act specifically “preempts local zoning and land use decisions that are premised directly or indirectly on the health effects of radio frequency emissions.”

The FCC says that that potential health hazard is part of its “compliance review” and specifically not the business of local governments. Any matters of health would have to be submitted to the federal government, Davis told the Council.

City can’t interfere
Chip Davis told the council that the city has granted Verizon Wireless authority for small simple wireless systems, “the new wave of cell phone communications.”

State law requires cities to permit the installation of small antennas on power poles and high locations, even in areas where poles have been removed. Since April 2018, three small antenna systems have been granted to Verizon in Burien, he said. Requests by Verizon for the Lake Burien area is in the administrative review public comment period that concluded on Aug. 1.

“The large number of comments received during the comment period have been conveyed to the applicant, Verizon, and will be addressed in the staff report which is being prepared,” said Davis. A decision on the Lake Burien small cell application will be published later in August and copies of the city’s decision will be sent to all those who commented on the application.

Again, federal law specifically denies authority to regulate such communication systems so the city cannot tell Verizon or any other cellular company to change systems or deny their location in the city. Only the Federal Communications Commission has that authority.

New city regulations
Davis said the city will make a recommendation to the Council in October “better defining the review process for all types of wireless facilities that will be the focus of these amendments.”

The three Verizon applications were decided on the current regulations, Davis said, adding that Verizon is “the only carrier that has managed to achieve a franchise agreement with the City of Burien,” he said.

The small cell antennas will often be attached to existing utility poles and have a range from 10 meters to a few kilometers. They are used by mobile cell operators to extend service coverage and increase network capacity as well as the continual demand for increased speed.

What are small cell antennas?
Earlier this year, the City of Des Moines hired an attorney to explain the new system. Scott Snyder of the Seattle law firm Ogden, Murphy, Wallace said because of the vintage of their inception developers “did not anticipate that one of the major tools to allow the effective use of smart phones and other devices is through small cell deployment.”

“Whether in your purse or pocket, that device is no longer a phone, its a computer and entertainment device and the amount of data that is used for video … and a wide variety of functions … has been growing exponentially,” Snyder said. The problem is that the large scale cell sites “are adequate combined with a cable backbone to provide the general infrastructure but there are gaps in the network,” Snyder said at a July (2018) meeting with the Des Moines Council. The same information applies to Burien and all smaller cities where demand is outstripping the infrastructure.

“You can have bars on your phone, but you won’t be able to download a movie for your child to watch when they are in a restaurant,” Snyder said. The “macro sites” have holes in service that are filled by the coming “micro cell sites, to allow the proper use of the devices we are talking about.

Tall towers insufficient
“Macro sites,” the tall towers “that have been the backbone of the cellular industry … “are simply insufficient for a variety of reasons,” he said, so small cells are coming into use.

The size of a new low power antenna on light and utility poles is 20 to 40 feet high, and a giant main antenna now used in various locations are 120 feet high. Snyder said there might be four small antennas affixed to a pole in the public right of way to give 360 degree service or just one or two for line of sight service.

The question comes up time and again around the region about how many different companies will want their own antennas on a pole that is in the public right of way. Some suggested that the move to underground utility facilities could be impeded by the need for small cell antennas located where there used to be disappearing light and phone poles.

Snyder added that the move back to poles to carry antennas is driven by “consumer demand and it enables both the existing and future uses of those devices” that people used to call cell phones used only to call and talk.

Burien Police awards
Burien Police officers Earl Seratt, Austin Peterson and Paul Thompson (pictured above with Chief Boe) were presented the Lifesaver Award for saving a man on June 9 from an opioid overdose. He was unconscious and his breathing was shallow. They gave the victim injections of Naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose. The two shots of the drug saved the person’s life, Boe said.

Boe also gave his first Commander’s Award since becoming police chief in Burien to undercover detective Scott Fitchett (pictured above), who investigated an opioid overdose homicide investigation that resulted in the charging of a supplier, the discovery of eight firearms and additional narcotics. The individual is awaiting federal drug charges, the chief said.

Fitchett worked with the family and “numerous other law enforcement unites and agencies to develop probably cause to charge the person who delivered the opioids” to two brothers, one of whom died.

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