Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Green in New Zealand

Will this ray of intelligence spread to other countries?

Cell phone Tower Protest

Sue Kedgley MP, Green Party

Nelson, 20th May 2008

I want to congratulate you on the amazing work you have done in your community to build opposition to Telecom’s decision to build a 22m tower right next to a local playcentre and an early childhood centre.

I hope your activism will inspire other communities to take similar action, because I am sure we are about to see a proliferation of intrusive telecommunications masts and other equipment rolled out around New Zealand, including right next to educational facilities and early childhood centres, as the telecommunications industry undergoes massive expansion and moves into new technologies such as 3G.

A few months ago a woman wrote to me in despair. She had awoken one morning to discover that a 22m telecommunications mast base was being built right next to her house.

There had been no community consultation about this, and so she literally, woke up one morning and found there was a 22m mast outside her kitchen window. ?I feel empty and powerless? she wrote. The value of their house had plummeted and she was worried about the health effects.

There are numerous other examples. A few months ago the local community in Timaru was outraged when Vodafone erected a 10m pole and equipment cabinet next to several schools, once again without any consultation.

So what we are discussing today is the tip of the iceberg, the first of what will no doubt be many battles.

How did this happen, people are asking? When we need to get a Resource Consent to alter the veranda on our house, how can it be that telecommunications companies don’t need a resource consent to build 22m cell towers wherever they want?

So, first a bit of background. In 1980 our radio frequency standard was developed, based on guidelines developed by an international NGO called the International Commission for Non Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNRP). The Ministry says the ICNRP is an independent scientific organisation responsible for providing international advice on health hazards?but it is in fact a private organisation.

For reasons that I have yet to establish, we set our standards at levels that are far more permissive than Russia, East European and many other standards ?100 and in some cases thousands of times more permissive. And having set this very permissive standard we then declared that any activity which is within the standard is acceptable.

Then in 1991 the government devolved all decision making power for telecommunications infrastructure to local authorities when the Resource Management Act came into effect. This means its up to local authorities to decide whether a 22m high cell mast is built next to your play centre or not.

Most Councils have responded to lobbying by telecommunications industries and agreed to allow the installation of telecommunications facilities --- even 22m cell masts ? as a permitted activity under their district plans ? meaning they can be built as of right, without having to consult first with a local community.

Then last year, under pressure from Telecommunications companies who wanted to roll out their new technologies more rapidly, without interference from annoying community groups, the government announced a new Telecommunications National Environmental Standard. Cabinet papers show that the standard was drawn up by the telecommunications companies themselves, and then rubber stamped by government.

The new so-called environmental standard will allow any antenna, masts, or cellular and wireless phone equipment to be installed as of right, without consultation, on virtually any telephone pole any that is sited on road reserve all around New Zealand, even if it is right next to someone’s house, or playcentre, or school.

There will be no need for the telecommunications companies to obtain planning permission or Resource Consent to do this, or even bother to let people know what new equipment they have installed on a pole near their house.

If local residents are concerned there might be too much radiation coming from equipment, they will have to prove it in court, at their own expense. There will be no monitoring system to ensure that the standard is not breached.

There are no restrictions either on how many antennae or masts can be added to a single pole so each company could add their own equipment. Nor is there any obligation of companies to remove outdated and rusting equipment from power poles, even if they are no longer using it.

There is growing international concern about the long term effects of some new technologies coming onto the market ?such as Wi Fi technology?but there is no requirement for telecommunications companies to take health effects into account when they install any new technology near to where you live or work. Actually there is no requirement to have a new technology safety tested before it enters the market.

The Green Party launched a major campaign against this new standard, and encouraged the community to put in submissions against it. But the government ignored the submissions and campaign against it, railroaded the new standard through, and the new regulations are about to be released.

We can see the same thing happening overseas, as telecommunications companies seek to roll out their new technologies. Mobile phone and masts are springing up all over Europe and so are groups like yourselves. Mast Sanity in the UK, for example, supports communities like yours who are opposing local installation.

Parents of children at a school in Coulsdon near Croydon, recently blockaded contractors from phone operator T mobile who were trying to erect a mobile mast just yards from the Chipstead Valley primary school. The parents formed the Radio Action group, and used their cars to stop a crane reaching the proposed site. They discovered there were already 15 masts within a single mile of their school, as well as clear scientific evidence that mobile phone radiation can have a damaging effect on the health of young children.

In New Zealand the Ministry of Health claims ?there are no clearly established adverse health effects arising from the emissions of radio waves from cell sites.’ Yet even while confidently dismissing community health concerns, it uses careful language to qualify its assertion. ?Some studies have been interpreted as suggesting the possibility of health effects at levels below those sited in the guidelines, it acknowledges.? And because of the ?residual scientific uncertainty,? it recommends alternative low cost solutions in order to avoid or reduce these exposures. ?If there are different options available when siting a radio transmitter those resulting in the lowest incidental exposure around a site should be chosen, all other things being equal,? it says.

The Ministry of Health also has a whole section in its advice to local government on how to deal with the concerned residents who don’t accept the party line that all radiofrequency exposures are safe.

Risk communication is an important element of risk management and should form part of their strategies to address radio frequency issues,? it says. They then go on to advise industry to nominate one contact person who is honest, trustworthy and who will treat community members with respect. ?While not conceding there are health effects below international standards, the industry contact will still recognise that it is legitimate for communities to express concern.?

What this means is that consultation with the community (should it occur) will be a meaningless public relations exercise rather than genuine consultation.

The Green Party will be releasing policy on these issues in the coming months. But it is imperative, in our view, that residents have a say over their local environment, including where intrusive telecommunications equipments are installed. In our view, our local environment ?the commons if you like?should not be able to be unilaterally appropriated by corporations for corporate gain.

Corporations should be required to consult and negotiate with their community over where they site intrusive installations like telecommunications masts, and to minimise the impact of any installations on the local community, and no telecommunications facilities should be permitted within 100m of an educational facility.

We also believe it is imperative that we put the interests of children ahead of corporate profits. We hear a lot about ?children first’ policies in election year, and political parties are eager to talk about their child-friendly policies. Yet when it comes to protecting our children from new and unproven communications technologies with potentially significant risks, they are silent and refuse to take a precautionary approach.

But this is no gambling matter. It is the health of our children that is at risk.