Saugerties, New York - The town hoped an information meeting on the new water meters would put the rumors to rest. That hope ended when company representative Chris Goodrich walked out.
“This is a lynch mob,” he said. “I’m leaving.”
But by that time—nearly two hours in—it was clear the presentation wasn't changing many minds. From the first minutes, as residents jeered Goodrich’s PowerPoint slideshow, the atmosphere at the Glasco Fire Department was raucous and confrontational. Like an embarrassed teacher trying to calm a rowdy class, Supervisor Kelly Myers repeatedly stepped forward to ask the 50 or 60 residents to let Goodrich finish without interrupting. It didn’t work. The people were frustrated, not all of them for the same reasons. There were concerns about radiofrequency [RF] radiation, rumors of workers demanding $75 if homeowners refused installation, the overall price tag of over $800,000 to replace meters that weren’t broken, and the feeling the town didn’t publicize the February public hearing when it made the decision and now it was too late for the taxpayers to have a say.
Goodrich is from EJ Prescott, which contracted with the town to provide the meters. The make is Sensus, the model is iPERL. The meter is more sensitive than the old mechanical models and capable of transmitting usage data remotely to a vehicle passing by, which speeds up the time it takes to read meters, but Goodrich said the term “smart meter” usually refers to electrical meters that provide almost constant usage data to the utility. Still, there is no official definition, so the water meters could be considered “smart meters” because of their ability to be read remotely, though that technology is nearly two decades old.
Prescott said the RF radiation produced by a typical cell phone conversation is several thousand times greater than that produced by one of the company’s meters. He said studies haven’t demonstrated a clear link between RF radiation and cancer.
But opponents, armed with pages of research printed out from the Internet, said precisely the opposite, and urged attendees to do their own research.
Prior to the meeting, those in opposition to the new meters had hung signs that read “SMART METER FREE ZONE.” Barclay Heights resident Donna Greco, author of the letter to the editor of this newspaper that sparked much of the interest in the issue, sat at a table near the entrance collecting signatures for a petition against the new water meters.
After Goodrich concluded his presentation, the question and answer session quickly devolved into a public debate. When called upon to ask a question, several individuals, including some Woodstock residents, instead strode up to the front of the room and addressed the audience from prepared notes.
One Woodstock resident shared her own story about being exposed to an electrical smart meter and feeling immobilized by its effects.
In response to concern that the water meters emit signals continuously, board members Fred Costello and Jimmy Bruno said they’d gone into a home with a new water meter with an RF-reading device, and witnessed that no signal was being transmitted until provoked by a signal sent by a truck outside. The signal lasted for four seconds.
Goodrich, initially mild-mannered, seemed taken aback by the combative atmosphere. When one resident asked, “How many meters have caught on fire?” he replied: “That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Other questions related to choice and consent, with several residents alleging their neighbors had been told they’d be forced to pay a $75 fee if they refused to allow an installer (from a company called National Metering Services, not EJ Prescott/Sensus) to replace their old meters. Kelly Myers looked surprised and quickly responded, “the board did not approve this fee.” Fred Costello added, “No one should give money to these folks at all.”
One resident asked Goodrich point blank, “Are the new meters mandated?” to which Goodrich responded, “No.” The same resident followed his question with another: “If I opt not to put your meter in my house, and my meter breaks down, will the town of Saugerties fix it?” Myers replied, “No, we can’t. Not after Jan. 4 .”
According to Myers, the new meters have already been purchased by the town. The installation, which includes 1,838 meters, began July 31. When old meters break, according to a modification to the Clean Water Act passed in 2011, they cannot be repaired after Jan. 4, 2014 because of lead content. The only option will be to replace them, and the only meters the town will have on hand are the new meters.
According to Bruno, the town took the opportunity to replace the meters in the Glasco water district (which includes Barclay Heights) for $366,632.19, with a grant from the EPA providing nearly $500,000. If the town waits, he says, the costs to replace the new meters could amount to over one million dollars in the long run. The village and the town’s other water districts will also eventually need new meters.
County Legislator Bob Aiello stood up and spoke about his concerns, admitting, “I’m not comfortable with technology. I can barely send an email.” He read aloud from a World Health Organization publication he said was released on August 3, which was more recent than the quote from WHO that Goodrich used in his own presentation. According to the document, Aiello said, “these devices can cause and are suspected of causing cancer.”
Aiello concluded by directing a question to the room: “What is the definition of a smart meter?” Residents Peone and Greco quickly responded that they had the answer to that question. Greco stood up with her laptop, showing the screen to the audience.
Goodrich continued to struggle to respond to questions as audience members yelled in opposition. At one point, Goodrich loudly yelled, “May I finish? May I finish?” as Barclay Heights resident Doreen Peone countered, “You’re lying!” After a Woodstock resident shouted that Goodrich was an “idiot,” he promptly began to pack up his equipment, called the proceedings a lynch mob and left.
Outside the firehouse, one resident apologized to Goodrich for the behavior of her neighbors. When asked if he had ever encountered a negative reaction like this before, Goodrich said no. In fact, he said, he gave a nearly identical presentation in Saugerties roughly a month ago, and no one—except for town officials—attended.
Inside, several residents had asked Goodrich how the meters transmitted information, and what information specifically they transmitted, but Goodrich had previously been unable to respond. Outside, he spoke one-on-one with residents who approached him, explaining that meters would be read twice a year. A water utility truck would drive by, sending out a polling signal. The new meters, or “beige radios” as he called them, would send back a signal to the truck. Goodrich said an entire town can typically be read in just one morning. Goodrich noted that there are “even smarter meters” that read water usage continuously, but that these were different from the ones Saugerties would be implementing.
As far as information transmitted, Goodrich said only each meter’s water reading and serial number would be transmitted.
Meanwhile, inside, sales representative Chad Edwards of EJ Prescott Company stayed to field questions. Frustrations continued to mount as many residents, who had come to learn about the new meters, struggled to make sense of the meeting. When one woman complained that much of the presentation was inaudible because of comments made by Donna Greco throughout the meeting, Greco stood up and responded, while Costello rushed over to try to end the dispute. At that point, things were pretty much over.
Myers said she was disappointed by the outcome of the meeting. She felt that “people could have been more respectful. It was a missed opportunity.”
She also said that she still thought many residents were confusing the electrical smart meters (which transmit continuously) with the new water meters (which transmit for a half-second or four seconds, twice a year).