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Pittsfield City Council Grapples With Ongoing Cell Tower Health Concerns

A stone building with a colonnade sits below a grey sky amid snowdrifts.
Josh Landes
Pittsfield, Massachusetts City Hall.

The city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts is discussing how to respond to months of complaints from residents claiming health concerns tied to a cell tower.

Tuesday night, Pittsfielders were joined by activists and academics from around the country – and in one case, Canada – in calling into the virtual city council meeting to express health concerns about radiation from the Verizon cell tower at 877 South Street.

“Even under the best circumstances, when the department is not addressing a global pandemic, we have limited expertise in in addressing matters related to FCC regulation," said Pittsfield Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong. “This is not a typical environmental concern or factor that is in a local board of health jurisdiction. So we don't have the training, we don't have the public health system locally that has dealt with this type of health concern.”

She explained why despite months of public outcry, her department has not taken action on the cell tower radiation concerns.

“So up until this point, the health department has not received calls from residents specifically other than Courtney Gilardi back in October," said Armstrong. "We have not received any medical reports, or any conclusive information for the health department to act on. And that is usually what triggers a health department action step.”

Gilardi, who lives near the tower and has been one of the most vocal Pittsfielders on the issue, has expressed interest in running for city council this year.

Armstrong sketched out possible next steps for the city.

“One thing we have to look at doing is exploring what state resources are available and to see if any other board of health in Massachusetts has retained a consultant for this type of work," she told the council. "Obviously, we're going to have to draw upon people with the right expertise. So this is something that will — I will gather information, continue to gather information, for the Board of Health’s review and determination on next steps, which as I mentioned in the response letter, may include a request to Mass DPH to guide us on how the city would pursue this type of investigation or if they would have the resources to do that.”

Ward 5’s Patrick Kavey said he was disappointed in Pittsfield’s response to the long-running situation, which has included residents at public meetings detailing specific symptoms that they attribute to cell tower radiation.

“I expected more follow up and I didn't think that it was going to take a petition seven months later to get any type of response," he told Armstrong. "You also noted that we're not really qualified to look into this, but are we able to do things such as soil testing? So for example, have we looked into any other environmental factors? Are there PCBs in the area? Has there been water quality testing done? Radon testing? Any other environmental health investigation which could potentially find a cause for some of what these people have been telling us?”

Chris Connell, the city councilor for Ward 4, where the cell tower is located, also expressed frustration with the city’s response to his petition on the issue.

“Councilor Kavey and I submitted this in January, specifically said at a future meeting, given what was going on with COVID-19, and your department," he said to Armstrong. "We're trying to be kind as far as, so you didn't have to come back to the following meeting. It still took four meetings later for you to come back. However, the previous petition that was just up [in] regards to snow removal was submitted last month, and you're coming through with a response now. See? That's why, all right, the residents and myself to a degree feel as if we're being ignored.”

“The Communication Act prevents local communities from raising health concerns insofar as FCC ASOS cell towers are concerned," said City solicitor Stephen Pagnotta. "The issue is that the city of Pittsfield does not have the authority to suspend that cell power license based on health concerns at the present time.”

Pagnotta said that even if Pittsfield found an issue with the cell tower’s zoning permit, the zoning board would be prohibited from looking at health concerns as a reason to deny a permit in an appeal.

“You would think that if the state had the ability to regulate and ban cell towers because they are a hazard they would have done so a while ago," he told the council. "The state has taken no action. The federal government has taken no action. You know, Congress could change the Communication Act to give local communities the power to do that. That's been around since the 80s or 90s, and they've not done so. I'm not aware of any successful litigation in the country in which a cell tower was shut down by a local community or estate at this time.”

The Pittsfield Board of Health has a meeting April 7th, and Armstrong said she expects more information about the cell tower situation to emerge after that discussion.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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