PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Frustrated with a lack of response, the City Council has given the Health Department a deadline to provide answers on a Verizon cell tower that has sparked an abundance of public comment.
The Health Department says it does not have expertise to deal with the situation.
The council on Tuesday unanimously requested an update by April 13 on the investigation of health concerns from residents that neighbor the 877 South St. cell tower.
"This is really disturbing tonight, it really is, I'm not blaming anybody and I understand the Health Department had their hands full but with being a ward councilor, this could have happened in any neighborhood of any ward in the city of Pittsfield, and we all would have felt this way," Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi said.
"This has been here every council meeting, and I understand the health director hasn't been here, I get that, but [Mayor Linda Tyer] has been here at every meeting, and she's been addressed by the public comment period to address these things, and we haven't had any response from the mayor at all."
Since the cell tower was erected in August 2020, the council has been hearing of negative symptoms primarily from Alma Street resident Courtney Gilardi and her family every two weeks during public comment.
Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey and Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell have been advocating for the residents and believe that there was not sufficient public input in the permitting process for the cell tower.
In response to a January petition from Connell and Kavey requesting an investigation, Director of Public Health Gina Armstrong notified the panel that the city "does not have the scope of expertise to determine if there is a direct correlation between identified symptoms and radiation levels in that neighborhood" and that they need more time to investigate the situation.
"Even under the best circumstances, when the department is not addressing the global pandemic, we have limited expertise in addressing matters related to FCC regulation," Armstrong said. "This is not a typical environmental concern or factor that is in a local foreign 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, but this certainly does not mean that we are not interested and that we don't care about the concerns that the residents are bringing forward."
City Solicitor Stephen Pagnotta also confirmed that the city and the Board of Health do not have the authority to suspend the cell tower's permit that was issued in the fall of 2019 based on health concerns.
"I'm not aware of any successful litigation in the country in which a cell tower was shut down by local community or a state at this time," he said. "If there's a flaw with the permit, depending on what the court would do with that, it may remand it back to the board for a permit hearing ... if that's a successful appeal is the likely outcome. Again, the board is specifically prohibited from looking at health concerns from cell towers as a basis for denying a permit."
Armstrong said the Health Department at this point has not received complaints from residents other than Gilardi, who last contacted them back in October, and has not received any medical report or conclusive information that usually triggers an action from the department.
Even if they were to attain that level of information, she said, the Health Department does not have the expertise to analyze it.
"I do want to emphasize that part of the delay I think it's associated with the lack of communication directly to the Health Department about this issue," Armstrong said.
"I've learned tonight from the public comments that there is possibly up to 12 households or individuals that are experiencing some health condition. We do not have specific information on that, those residents have not contacted the Health Department directly to my knowledge, to ask for followup on that concern."
Kavey responded that he would assume the residents' consistent phone calls to City Council's open microphone for the last eight months would be sufficient enough to trigger a followup from the department.
"Director Armstrong just made a statement that she was notified in October well, that is not true," Connell added. "Your office was notified in the summer, and your department said they were going to be sending somebody out to Miss Gilardi's residence, never happened. I sent you an email. In August of last year, I never got a response."
Ward 6 Councilor Dina Guiel Lampiasi thanked Armstrong and her team for their hard work during the pandemic. She also highlighted the amount of information that was shared at Tuesday's council meeting and said she wished the conversation was had at an earlier date.
"I understand that some want to make a connection between the date of the tower going up and symptoms, but we do have a community that has a certain history with health concerns and environmental factors," Guiel Lampiasi said. "And I really hope that at your next meeting, you will think of and talk about a broader way to tackle this and make sure that there isn't something else happening in this neighborhood that is incredibly important to those families, and to all of us in the city."
Councilor at Large Peter White suggested that Armstrong begin reaching out to experts that can provide insight on the situation in preparation for the April 7 Board of Health meeting where it will be discussed.
"The residents have been frustrated," he said. "The mayor, city councilors, everyone has been frustrated with this situation."
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