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Pittsfield board of health issues conditional cease and desist order to Verizon over cell tower

A stone building with a colonnade lit by lights sits in front of a brick churck and a street lamp
Josh Landes

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts board of health has voted unanimously to issue a cease and desist order to telecommunications giant Verizon over a controversial cell tower.

For almost two years, the residents of the Shack Town neighborhood have been a ubiquitous presence at city meetings, decrying the cell tower at 877 South Street. Courtney Gilardi has been among the most outspoken.

She says her family has been forced to leave the area due to adverse health effects of the tower’s radiation, and continued her campaign against the tower at the first Pittsfield city council meeting of the year last month.

“In this new year, those displaced, including myself and my children, ask your assistance in getting us home," said told the council. "In order to do so, we are asking both for your help in dealing with this tower and for expanded notification and improved wireless zoning ordinances to prevent what happened to us from happening in another Pittsfield neighborhood.”

Residents have ascribed a wide array of health issues to the tower, erected in 2020, ranging from headaches and dizziness to beyond. William Coe lives on Elmer Avenue directly behind the structure.

“Over a year ago, my ears started to ring really loud. After a few days of it, [I] went to the doctor and [they] basically said, you know, you have tinnitus and [we] don't know how it's caused," he said. "I asked about the cell tower. They didn't have any idea of the effects.”

Amid ongoing litigation around the tower as well as a city council request for a state investigation into the situation, Pittsfield’s board of health waded into the fray with an official cease and desist order at its Wednesday meeting.

“We have one documented patient with a positive diagnosis for electromagnetic hypersensitivity," said Chair Bobbi Orsi. "Some people will call that microwave syndrome. It's basically a constellation of symptoms that are often reported in people who live in close proximity or have exposure to non-ionizing radiation. I've learned an awful lot in my four months on the board from lots of scientists and physicians and people who are living in the community. There is a growing body of evidence out there, good evidence, that cell towers are not harmless.”

Acknowledging it would be a challenge to legally pressure the titanic corporation, currently valued at over $220 billion, Orsi said that city solicitor Stephen Pagnotta confirmed that the board had the authority to make the move.

“He said that once we decide to do a cease and desist, the proof of harm will be on the board," she explained. "So we would need to have confidence that we can prove that some neighbors have been harmed as a result of the cell tower.”

Orsi said after the order, Verizon has two options.

“They could appeal it or they could ignore it," she said. "And then we would be challenged with enforcement. If they chose to ignore that, that would likely end up at the state level.”

There was little illusion among board members about the odds of the order making an impact.

“There is a very good chance that we will not win this," said Orsi. "You know, and in some ways, we know that Verizon is following the FCC guidelines in some way, which right now we know are not protective of enough of public health.”

Board member Brad Gordon expressed skepticism.

“I don't think, based on our conversations, that that's going to magically change Verizon’s position, and I think it will end up in court, and I think then, they'll- I mean, I don't see how they don't prevail in court," he said. "And in some ways, that strengthens them. So, but, you know, if people feel like there needs at least to be some action, that's a way to show some action. But again, I feel like I want it on the record that I think it's going to be extraordinarily unlikely that that will change anything.”

Gordon questioned whether federal preemptions around cell towers would allow for a legal challenge from Pittsfield.

“I spoke with the attorney about the preemption, and he said that only pertains to siting and permitting," said Orsi. "He said a situation like this is not, it's not applicable.”

After months of outcry from residents and pressure from the city council to act, the board of health chair said the move represented one last expression of faith in humanity.

“In some ways, that is a Hail Mary," admitted Orsi. "But you know what, I think, I think I believe they're going to want to do the right thing at some level, naïve as that may be. I think it gives them one more chance. It is something that is under our authority to do, we do it with our eyes wide open and know it might be a long shot.”

After debating the terms of the cease and desist, Orsi made a motion to the board.

“I'll put a motion on the floor that we issue a cease and desist order to Verizon," said the chair. "Whereby they would, which would become effective in seven calendar days if they fail to notify us that they are willing to come to a discussion and demonstrate significant commitment that they will- Significant commitment, and to do something to resolve the issue to the board’s satisfaction.”

It was unanimously accepted by the body.

In a statement to WAMC, Verizon responded, saying its “telecommunications equipment and networks comply with all health and safety standards established by the FCC. We have met on multiple occasions with the Pittsfield Health Department and members of the community to address their concerns with this site. All of Verizon’s equipment at the Pittsfield tower operates well under the FCC’s conservative limits, as confirmed by the city’s own RF study from last summer.”

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