Sparking a public outcry as the approval process moves to the municipal level, a state energy board recently sanctioned a proposal from two utility companies to bury a 345,000 volt transmission line under local roadways in four area communities.
More than three years ago now, electricity distributors Eversource and National Grid jointly unveiled preliminary plans to pursue an estimated $137.7 million infrastructure improvement project in which a high-voltage conduit would be installed through portions of Woburn, Winchester, Stoneham, and Wakefield.
The forecasted 22-month long undertaking will upgrade system connections between the Horn Pond substation in Woburn by the Winchester line and National Grid's Wakefield Junction substation off of Salem Street.
Immediately stirring controversy in all four impacted communities, the proposed 8.5-mile long construction route would snake through both residential neighborhoods and major commuter thoroughfares. Citizen commentary had been somewhat subdued over the plans over the past few years.
But in January, when citizens discovered state regulators from the Mass. Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) were slated to approve the scope of the work and the proposed construction route in a 173-page decision, that silence was shattered by a reenergized opposition.
At the forefront of the debate is the concern around whether area abutters' health will be threatened from electromagnetic fields (EMF) being emitted from the 345Kv electricity cable, which Eversource and National Grid say is needed to both meet growing electricity demands and improve the regional power grid's overall reliability.
"Agencies and authorities involved with assessing, communicating or managing the risks associated with electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from transmission lines have been entrusted to ensure a balanced discussion of the health hazards, potential consequences, risks and uncertainties be provided to the public," said Wakefield resident Dr. Christine Rioux in a letter posted on the website of The Wakefield Civic League in January.
"For the proposed…Woburn to Wakefield transmission line, these obligations have not been met," insisted Rioux, who describes herself as an environmental scientist. "National Grid and its consultant Gradient Corporation have repeatedly misrepresented the uncertainties associated with exposure to electromagnetic fields."
Meanwhile, city and town officials continue to press Eversource for additional construction details for the project, which will last approximately 22-months and include the excavation of four-foot wide trenches at depths of up to five feet. Also proposed is the installation of 10 underground concrete "splicing" vaults, each with dimensions of eight-by-30 feet, which will be spaced across the route.
In fact, just before the EFSB last month adopted its 173-page decision authorizing the joint undertaking, members of Woburn's City Council, asked by Eversource to approve grant-of-location permits for the eight-months of activity planned in the community, expressed frustration with the lack of details surrounding the major construction project.
Ultimately, the aldermen, who continued the public hearing until this week (March 20), instructed the electricity distributor's representatives to return with documentation on road closures and traffic detours, a concrete public outreach plan, and details about EMF exposure levels and how work crews will limit damage to city utilities like water, gas, and sewer lines.
"I'm looking at these plans, and I'm amazed at what you think you can do with this line," said Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately, who is a retired department of public works manager. "It's going to take a lot of convincing to get me to okay this line."
"It's my position this should not go to committee until we hear from the EMF expert. There's no way this is right for committee. This needs to be on television," said Woburn Alderman Mike Anderson. "I have concerns as well about the ability of the voltage to jump to water mains or cast-iron pipes in the area."
Beginning at an electrical substation in Woburn by Horn Pond, by far the most popular recreational asset in the city, the underground installation heads through residential neighborhoods in Winchester by Cross, Border, and Pickering Street, before crossing back into Woburn via Washington Street.
It then travels past Leland Park in East Woburn and turns towards Stoneham at Montvale Avenue, where the conduit will be installed along the entire length of the busy commuter corridor to Main Street near Stoneham Square.
It will then head from Main Street to Elm Street, before crossing over into Wakefield at Albion Street, where it will connect to Broadway Street and turn onto Salem Street. The Wakefield substation is situated off of Salem Street by Montrose Avenue and the Lynnfield line.
Continuing the fight?
In Woburn, where Mayor Scott Galvin decided against fighting the 345Kv transmission line route at the start of the EFSB process, local officials have recently been warned against lodging questions about public health risks.
Specifically, City Solicitor Ellen Callahan Doucette last week advised the City Council to reconsider the current trajectory of its deliberations, as she believes the elected officials are about to overstep their authority in soliciting that expert testimony from Eversource's EMF expert.
The debate over EMF safety stems from a number of scientific studies which examine a potential link between electromagnetic fields and childhood leukemia clusters. Some research also indicates the combination of close proximity and prolonged exposure to elevated EMF can cause health problems such as nausea, inner-ear imbalance and vertigo issues, and poor cognitive performance.
During an initial City Council gathering on the Eversource permits last month, abutters like Washington Street's Brian Carpenter suggested EMF exposure levels will exceed thresholds established by the World Health Organization (WHO).
However, according to Callahan-Doucette, environmental and public health hazards from utility company installations can only be addressed by state regulators like the EFSB.
"[Some members of the council] raised the prospect of adverse health issues that might be caused by the increased capacity of Eversource's line. That discussion raises issues as to the limitations of the City Council's authority to grant or deny a request for a grant-of-location," she wrote.
As in Woburn, town officials in Wakefield, who have apparently secured a separate agreement with National Grid regarding the project, also limited their opposition to the project to questions about the transmission line route.
Satisfied Eversource and National Grid proved they will mitigate that potential hazard, Wakefield's Board of Selectmen in late February declined to oppose the EFSB decision.
"I'm not seeing a groundswell of concern," Wakefield Selectman Ann Santos reportedly remarked, according to local media accounts.
However, authorities in Winchester and Stoneham have long objected to the petition on public safety grounds.
Last Thursday, the Stoneham Board of Selectmen convened a meeting in executive session to discuss whether to further litigate the EFSB decision. Already, leaders in neighboring Winchester, which spent upwards of $250,000 to hire independent consultants for the years-long EFSB proceedings, have indicated they will launch an appeal.
Since the 345,000 KV transmission line was first proposed, town officials in Stoneham have consistently tried to alter the route, which heads down Montvale Avenue from Woburn and travels by the town's economic hub on Main Street.
Over the past two-plus years, several selectmen have tried to negotiate changes to the project during direct talks with Eversource, but those town officials have repeatedly complained that the utility company was not taking local concerns seriously.
“They seem dead set on that route, and they appear pretty unsympathetic to [the plight of our businesses],” complained retired Selectman Ann Marie O’Neill during a Town Hall meeting in the winter of 2016. “We have other suggestions and ideas, and they say, ‘Nope, that will cost us billions more.’”
In the EFSB's recent ruling, the board did acknowledge Stoneham's objections, particularly as they related to the digging of trenches along Elm Street, where the electrical conduit will eventually connect to the Town of Wakefield. However, no changes were made to the route in the final decision.
Stoneham and Winchester also joined forces in an attempt to convince state regulators to order the electricity distributors to utilize a different technology around the cables to reduce EMF exposure levels.
Specifically, experts retained on behalf of the neighboring communities contended health concerns could be mitigated through the use of a high-tech, liquid-cooled sheathing system on the equipment to reduce heat radiation and magnetic field emissions.
However, Eversource and its partner National Grid objected to those demands on the grounds that 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 any legitimate public health risk.
Ultimately, presiding case officer Robert Shea, who drafted the EFSB's 173-page decision, concluded the technology would render the entire undertaking cost-prohibitive.
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 spiked the load running through the high-voltage lines in order to meet growing customer supply demands.
"'[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 affect the health and safety of residents and abutters," Shea concluded.