WOBURN - Local officials and citizens alike recently expressed grave concerns about possible adverse health effects from magnetic fields emitted from Eversource's proposed 345,000 volt transmission line project.

During a recent gathering in City Hall, the City Council caught its first glimpse of the utility company's likely final route for the high-voltage conduit, which the electricity distributor intends to bury under various local roadways around Horn Pond and by Washington Street and Montvale Avenue in East Woburn.

"I know there's a lot of questions about what a typical construction project looks like for an underground transmission line. Safety is a top priority," said Chad Roland, a project manager from Eversource.

Ultimately, with Eversource's public health and electromagnetic field (EMF) expert absent from the introductory hearing, the City Council continued its deliberations until March 20.

The estimated $137.7 million infrastructure upgrade, aimed at improving regional electricity grid reliability and capacity, will stretch 8.5 miles and snake through the four communities of Woburn, Winchester, Stoneham, and Wakefield.

The power company, which is partnering with Eversource on the project, is seeking grant-of-location permits from the City Council so it can begin work in Woburn.

The forecasted 22-month long undertaking will upgrade system connections between the Horn Pond substation by the Winchester line and National Grid's Wakefield Junction Substation off of Salem Street (in Wakefield).

During the recent council meeting, Roland acknowledged construction on roadways in the city will cause significant traffic flow disruptions as crews rely upon pavement saws and excavation equipment to dig approximate four-foot wide trenches at a depth of at least five feet.

Though the council did express some concerns about resulting traffic impacts, many aldermen and members of the public voiced greater apprehension about the safety of having high-voltage lines so close to residential homes, businesses, and public parks.

EMF exposure

Various citizens attending the public hearing challenged Eversource's contention the project will pose no risk to citizens through constant exposure to EMF being emitted from the 345KV lines.

One such resident was Brian Carpenter, a Washington Street resident whose home is situated within 300-feet of the proposed line.

According to Carpenter, he had researched EMF exposure at length during proceedings over the past two years before the Mass. Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), which earlier this week, was expected to finalize a decision that grants state permits approving the project route and exempting the petitioners from having to adhere to some local zoning bylaws within the impacted communities.

As the Washington Street resident explained, EMF levels resulting from the high-voltage line, and especially from the 10 "splicing" vaults spaced across the entire 8.5-mile project route, were a source of contention during the EFSB proceedings.

In particular, community leaders from Stoneham and Winchester urged the state board to mandate the use of a more advanced protective sheath around the lines to create a stronger shield from EMF emissions.

"I've been following this project since the beginning. I share the concerns about health issues, and I know there was other technology that was suggested to reduce the EMF. That was rejected by Eversource," said Carpenter, who was a "limited intervenor" during the EFSB case.

"I think these health concerns are legitimate. I don't think anyone in this room, including those from Eversource, would want this 30 feet from their house. I have my granddaughter at my house every day," he added.

The debate over EMF exposure stems from a number of scientific studies which examine a potential link between electromagnetic fields and childhood leukemia clusters. Some research also indicates close proximity and prolonged exposure to elevated EMF can cause health problems that include nausea, inner-ear balance and vertigo issues, vomitting, and poor cognitive performance.

Though in the United States there is no official government guidelines regarding safe EMF levels, the World Health Organization (WHO) has acknowledged the findings of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiatation Protection (ICNIRP), which concludes acute exposure to static EMF above 400 microTesla (mT) can be harmful for humans.

According to Thomas Gerety, an accountant who lives at 43 Washington St., he has unearthed evidence that EMF levels by a proposed vault at Leland Park will exceed WHO standards.

Gerety, referencing a report from Eversource's EMF consultant, urged the City Council to hit the pause button on the permit request, so city officials can examine the findings for themselves.

"He does admit we'll exceed the World Health Organization thresholds," said the East Woburn resident. "The doctor himself along with the World Health Organization agrees this causes childhood leukemia cancer. Does that sound familiar?"

"We're going to spray Leland Park with higher EMFs. The surrounding communities got together and hired their own EMF experts," he added. "Everyone should just huddle up and say, '[Let's] stop for a breather', just so everyone can get a handle on the science."

EFSB findings

This Wednesday, the state's EFSB was slated to vote on a tentative decision that approves the scope of the work and settles a final route for the high-voltage cable.

In that tentative decision, which is 173-pages long, presiding case officer Robert Shea conceded a growing volume of scientific research on health effects from EMF exposure has contributed to an ongoing debate about the construction of high-voltage power lines.

However, Shea, citing the fact the WHO remains unconvinced about the link between EMF and childhood cancer, explains the EFSB tries to balance public demands for uniform safety standards against mitigation that would create extreme financial hardships for utility companies.

"A number of historical studies appeared to show a statistical association between residential distances from transmission lines and human health effects," wrote Shea, whose proposed decision was released on Feb. 14. "However, the WHO has stated the evidence for a casual relationship between magnetic field exposure and childhood leukemia is limited."

During the EFSB proceedings, which began in Sept. of 2015, Woburn's leaders did not lodge any objections to the Eversource proposal.

However, Winchester and Stoneham did fight for several EMF-related concessions, including a requirement that Eversource use a high-tech, liquid-cooled sheathing system on the equipment to reduce heat radiation and magnetic field emissions.

Eversource and its partner National Grid objected to those demands on the grounds the technology would dramatically increase the cost of the project. The electricity distributors also insisted both neighboring communities had failed produce evidence demonstrating EMF levels from the installation would pose a public health risk.

"'[T]he companies note that, even at the highest levels posited by Winchester and Stoneham, neither town made any assertion that projected magnetic fields associated with the project would produce [exposure levels] that would adversely effect the health and safety of residents and abutters," said Shea, summarizing the petitioner's response.

The case officer subsequently agreed the two municipalities had failed to meet their evidentiary burden.

He further dismissed Stoneham and Winchester's insistence that even if EMF levels are within the range of WHO-recommended safety thresholds, Eversource would likely boost those emissions in the future as it increased the load running through the high-voltage lines in order to meet growing customer supply demands.

"[T]he Town of Stoneham argues that although the companies did not predict peak currents to increase during the forcast period of 2018 to 2023, there is no guarantee that power flows on the line will not increase significantly over the next 40 years, producing corresponding increases in magnetic fields," Shea acknowledged.

"However, both Winchester and Stoneham agree with the companies that neither the U.S. government nor the Commonwealth regulates magnetic field intensities associated with power transmission," he added.

Work plans

Using a production-line model for the project, contractors will line-up excavation crews, conduit layers, and concrete-pouring teams along the route to systematically tackle the work, which will also in Woburn include the installation of four, eight-by-30-foot concrete structures known as "splicing" vaults on Lake Avenue, Pickering Street, Montvale Avenue, Washington Street by Leland Park.

With the exception of construction on Montvale Avenue, where the excavation and cable installation will take place overnight using "low-noise emitting equipment", Eversource plans on doing all work between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

"Our crews will be working on local streets for each phase, when we dig a trench, install the conduit, pull the cable, and then do restoration of the streets," said Roland. "The key is steel plates will be placed over any excavated trench at the end of the work day [so roads can process commuter traffic again]."

"Our traffic management plans call out where police details will be located, how to access streets, the hours of construction, and how to route pedestrians and motorists safety around the work zone," added the project manager, who assured the city officials his employer will coordinate a significant public outreach effort.

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